Parent-child relationships are often fraught with drama—particularly in the teenage years. But for some, like those raised by narcissistic parents, the implications can be more serious and lasting.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) will have at least 55% of the most common narcissistic traits, including entitlement and superiority, an exaggerated need for attention and control, a lack of empathy, and more. If these traits sound all too familiar from what you experienced from your parents in childhood, it's possible you were raised by narcissists. Here's how to tell, how to heal, and how to break the cycle, according to experts.
15 signs you were raised by narcissists.
These are some common red-flag behaviors a narcissistic parent might display, according to licensed psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, L.P.:
- They do not acknowledge if they handled something inappropriately or made a mistake.
- They avoid talking about issues that you've raised concerns about.
- They are not open or honest communicators.
- They tend to gaslight you. (If you're not sure about this one, here are signs your parents are gaslighting you.)
- Their love feels conditional, meaning they expect perfection at most times and become disappointed when you fail a test, make a mistake, or somehow fall short of their unrealistic expectations.
- They are quick to blame you when something goes wrong.
- They exude emotionally manipulative behavior by making you feel guilty or irrational when you try to set healthy boundaries.
- They need excessive attention but rarely give you the attention you want or need.
- They are often more concerned about what others around them think rather than considering your feelings or subjective experience.
- They dominate the conversation and don't allow others space to talk.
- They undermine their children's choices (especially their adult children).
- They act like a martyr or play the victim.
- They mock or dismiss your emotional responses.
- They are jealous of the life you've made for yourself. This is more common in female narcissists, especially mothers toward their daughters or daughters-in-law.
- They tend to be overbearing and try to impose their way of doing things onto you.
How being raised by narcissistic parents can affect you as an adult:
It affects your partner selection.
According to therapist Wendy Behary, LCSW, being raised by narcissists can affect the partners you choose later in life. For example, some will try to mirror the dynamic they had growing up, simply because they're familiar with it. This could lead to a controlling or toxic relationship, especially if people find themselves constantly dating narcissists.
On the flip side, those who mirror their parent's narcissistic traits in adulthood might choose a partner who's mild-mannered or passive in an attempt to be in control themselves, Behary says.
You may demonstrate narcissistic behaviors yourself.
When parents are narcissists, it can lead to what Behary calls "a legacy of narcissism," in which the child grows up and mimics what was modeled to them. "Meaning, they behave in ways that are very entitled, controlling, and demanding." They can also be highly critical and, at the same time, very sensitive to criticism, she adds.
You sacrifice your own sense of self.
Some adults grow up but remain stuck in the role they had to take on as children. "They continue to be extremely self-sacrificing in their relationships. Their voices, preferences, opinions, desires, dreams, etc., all get inhibited," Behary says, "because that's what was expected of them by their narcissistic parents."
(The counterpart or opposite of a narcissist is sometimes referred to as an echoist, which tends to attract narcissists.)
Your inner critic is loud.
"A narcissistic parent is often judgmental and critical," Spinelli says. "This attaches to one's own internal messaging." This inner critic may manifest itself as perfectionism and lead to self-doubt and lack of confidence.
You develop an avoidant-attachment style.
While some people will choose unhealthy partners in response to being raised by narcissists, others might steer clear of romantic relationships altogether—a hallmark of the avoidant-attachment style. This can be displayed through "attachment issues, such as avoiding connection or an inability to be vulnerable in relationships," Spinelli says.
You people-please and have trouble setting boundaries.
People who grew up with narcissistic parents might feel the need to accommodate others to an extreme in adulthood. Generally, this occurs at times they should be upholding boundaries. "This is a result of there being no room for your own subjectivity growing up," Spinelli says. "Or you were made to feel guilty by the narcissistic parent."
You struggle to identify your emotions.
"Coping with a narcissistic parent often creates the need to dissociate for self-preservation," Spinelli tells mbg. "As a result, identifying emotions and being able to connect with your own feelings is more of a challenge."
Additionally, Spinelli says being raised by a narcissist can also lead to:
- Low self-worth
- A tendency to be codependent in relationships.
Tips for finding ways to heal:
Behary recommends educating yourself on narcissism and its effects. The more you do this, the better you'll be able to recognize that whatever blame or shame was inflicted on you by your narcissistic parents was not your fault. "The more we get it, the more we can heal," she says.
Get professional support.
Seek help from a licensed therapist or counselor to work through the trauma. A therapist who specializes in narcissism can also help with the first tip, Spinelli says. Professionals can help you recognize your triggers, provide tools to work through them, and set healthy boundaries.
Finding a trusted support group of friends and loved ones can also go a long way in rebuilding your ability to be vulnerable and regain a sense of self.
Set healthy boundaries.
With the help of your therapist, you can assess the type of boundaries that would be beneficial to you, then begin to implement them with your narcissistic parent, Spinelli says. "It may take one step at a time and resistance from those who raised you, but continue to maintain your stance on your feelings and your nonnegotiables," she adds.
Grieve the loss.
It can be helpful to grieve the parents you had hoped for. "It is a loss, and it's important to give yourself permission to understand and process this as a loss," Spinelli says.
It may also be helpful to learn how to reparent yourself and heal your inner child through what's known as inner child work.
How to break the cycle when you become a parent.
After gaining a better understanding of narcissism and doing the work to heal from your own wounds, it's important to keep a few things in mind to break the cycle and avoid that legacy of narcissism, which Behary mentioned. That means doing everything in your power to keep your children from having the same experience and growing up to be narcissists themselves.
One of the most important factors is allowing your child to experience some separation from you, according to psychoanalyst Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
"There is a stage of child development called separation-individuation during the first three years of life," Hollman writes in her book Are You Living With a Narcissist? "This is when the child must work out his need to feel close to an admiring mother while also developing a healthy separation where he can tolerate that he is not omnipotent and grandiose." In other words, allow your child to develop their own identity apart from you, and to feel safe doing so.
At the same time, it's important for parents to set limits--especially if they're worried about raising a future narcissist. Some parents struggle to discipline, especially those who are people-pleasers as a result of themselves being raised with narcissistic parents. But children require healthy limitations.
"The child needs [his mother] to set limits so that he knows how to relate to others in a way that is acceptable," Hollman writes. "If he is too powerful, he expects that he is entitled to more than a child should have."
Being raised by one or two narcissistic parents can have long-term effects on a child's mental health and self-esteem into adulthood. However, understanding the effects of their parents' actions and seeking professional help can lead to healing so that the cycle does not repeat itself.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.