There’s a fine line between healthy self-esteem and an inflated ego. What happens when someone with a grand sense of self takes on parenting? They become a ‘narcissistic parent’, who keeps falling into the trap of ignoring their ward.
The focus is on advantage. Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center in Abu Dhabi, explains: “A narcissistic parent engages with a person primarily in a way that benefits them.”
However, what such behaviour does is deflate the child’s self-worth, causing them to look at the parents for answers and in doing so, reinforcing the adult’s sense of self.
A narcissistic parent engages with a person primarily in a way that benefits them
What are some common traits of a narcissistic parent?
Dr Ateeq Qureshi, Senior Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, lists some trademark qualities:
- A lack of empathy
- Refusal to validate their child’s thoughts and feelings
- A desire to actively prevent the growing independence of their child
- Continually putting them and their accomplishments down
- Setting unrealistic expectations, which is for the fulfilment of their own needs as opposed to their child’s
- They tend to deny a child their independence and a sense of their own real worth
A Reddit user @brunchandhappyhour wrote on the social media platform: “I’m sitting here alone feeling sorry for myself. Feeling that the cards are always stacked against me. Feeling that he always wins the manipulation games. Feeling that he pins the kids against me and the kids favour him.”
That drive to control is a major characteristic of the disorder. “The need for control is closely related to rigidity. One of the most common complaints which can be heard from the partner of a very controlling person [even after separation] is, ‘He/she’s still trying to manage my life as if we were still married’. When an attempt to establish control over the ex-partner encounters resistance, this can further intensify the need to control a situation in which one person wants independence, the other wants control,” explains Maida Kajevic, Clinical Psychologist at German Neuroscience Center.
The need for control is closely related to rigidity. One of the most common complaints which can be heard from the partner of a very controlling person [even after separation] is, ‘He/she’s still trying to manage my life as if we were still married’.
But are narcissist born that way or built over time?
Kirstan P. Lloyd, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Reverse Psychology, who works with parents and children on the daily, explains: “As with many psychological maladjustments, narcissistic traits are often due to childhood traumas. In my practice, parents often parent the way they were parented and do not know better. In many ways, their parents or caregivers were poor role models and failed in many regards to allow a good enough environment (i.e. a space where the child was loved, valued, validated and supported).
“As a result, many adults who present with narcissistic traits did not learn how to self-regulate and/or manage their impulses. They may also struggle with their own vulnerabilities or feelings, which makes it difficult to be compassionate to the feelings or needs of others.”
As with many psychological maladjustments, narcissistic traits are often due to childhood traumas.
They may also need adoration – and this is where things get messy. “One of the traits of narcissism is a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy - paradoxically, despite their often inflated opinion of self, they are never really narcissistic enough to achieve real goals, aims and ambitions. Therefore, they may need others to adore them to help them feel important. This can also make them incredibly vulnerable to the reactions and responses of others, which they can feel to be persecutory or attacking. When this happens, the narcissist lacks enough genuine self-esteem to process their feelings and will then retaliate by lashing or acting out.”
When it comes to parenting, things tend to work well for the first few years of a child’s life, but the moment they start to ‘rebel’ or be individualistic, it triggers the narcissist's underlying insecurities resulting in conflict and disconnection. The worst part – they may not even understand the child’s need to be unique; they may just think of them as being difficult. “When someone who presents with narcissistic traits feels injured or when the adoration they need wanes, they can become withdrawn or even become incredibly angry. These patterns of relating are sadly detrimental to a child's development,” says Lloyd.
So you’ve found a way to exit a relationship with the narcissist, but are having to co-parent. Here’s what you can do to make things just a bit easier.
1. Set boundaries: Dr Qureshi says: “Be clear about expectations from the outset, accept that it will be challenging and try to not impulsively react to the situation. You need to develop tools to help you step back and not be provoked.”
2. Be consistent in your behaviour: “While your partner may not be consistent in their behaviour, make sure you are. This will help provide some stability and a ‘role model’ for your child,” he adds.
Be clear about expectations from the outset, accept that it will be challenging and try to not impulsively react to the situation. You need to develop tools to help you step back and not be provoked.
3. Don’t slam your partner: Make a conscious effort not to criticise or belittle your partner in front of your child, he suggests.
4. Don’t attack: Parents with narcissistic traits respond best to empathy and compassion. Criticism or ‘attacks’ often result in withdrawal or aggression, which can quickly escalate, explains Lloyd.
5. Empathy works: Instead of correcting the parent with narcissistic traits, we can let them know that we have a sense of their feelings or where they are coming from. We can possibly let them know that we might share some of their experience. “Bearing in mind that someone with narcissistic traits views their own feelings and sense of vulnerability as weakness, we can try to normalise feelings and let them know that we see them and practice being non-judgemental,” she adds. Similarly, we can ask them what we can do to help them.
6. Practice mindfulness to break patterns: “It is valuable to be able to externalise how someone with narcissism makes you feel and to side step any projections or ‘counter-attacks’. In other words, to be mindful over what are your thoughts, feelings and experiences and what the other person is trying to project onto you. When we can keep a clear mind and hold onto our truth, we are less likely to fall into a toxic pattern of relating which ultimately hurts all those involved,” she adds.
7. Don’t get the kids involved: Avoid using your child (ren) as a way to get back at them, says Katabua.
8. Minimise contact and limit communication where possible, she adds.
9. Document all communication between yourself and your co-parent. In case of a legal tussle, this will come to your aid.
10. Choose your battles and avoid trying to control too much, she suggests.
11. Accept them and the fact they will not change, suggests Dr May Mazen Hasan, Specialist Paediatrics at Medcare.
12. Plan your answers and responses: Do not indulge your anger through social networks, messages, emails, etc., which could be interpreted as harassment or humiliation, especially if the topic is children. “Restraining language is key. Know how risky any communication with a former narcissist is because he or she will probably edit your texts and email. Keep in mind that the narcissist must control the story because of his/her low self-esteem and the need to look at him/her as a ‘good person’,” says Kajevic.
Accept them and the fact they will not change.
13. Avoid the blame game: This scenario is not your fault, and most times it is not their fault either, it is a personality disorder that you have to deal with, says Hasan.
14. Focus on you: Being in a relationship with a narcissist can chip away at your self-confidence. “Find your personal space, boost your positive qualities, build up your self-esteem,” says Hasan.
15. Join a support group: “A support group is particularly useful in obtaining positive feedback, information, understanding and acceptance of parents who are in a divorce situation, and who feel worthless and humiliated,” explains Kajevic.
A narcissist may endeavour to control the narrative, but conversation can unspool that web of deceit. Reddit user @safetyteam explained in a post a few years ago that dealing with both a ‘calm’ and a ‘narcissist’ parent allowed their child a unique perspective into human behavior. They wrote: “My kid grew up in a split household, and used the experiences with a controlling interrupting manipulator in the other household to compare and contrast, and to learn skills in dealing with dysfunctional people.”
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