A narcissist’s lack of empathy and insight when it comes to the well-being of their own children is disturbing. The relationship that they have with their children is just as superficial and transactional as the relationships they have with other people in their lives. It leaves many non-narcissistic parents who are co-parenting with a narcissist wondering if the narcissist in their life can pass their narcissism down to their children.

Narcissism can be passed down because the children of narcissists don’t get the support that they need for a healthy cognitive development because narcissists are so emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent that they’re incapable of mirroring the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs of their children.

Without the guidance of a qualified professional the children of narcissists develop many different emotional inadequacies like low self-esteem, difficulties managing their emotions, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), maladaptive coping mechanisms, cognitive distortions, and in some cases, a narcissistic personality.

This article is going to guide you through a narcissistic family structure so that you can understand how a narcissist can pass their narcissistic personality down to their children. We’ve also created a short video below that outlines one of the many theories qualified professionals have of the different ways that narcissism can be passed down to children. For the rest, visit our article How Are Narcissists Made.

A Short Video That Covers Psychiatrist Alexander Lowen’s Theory About How Narcissism Can Be Passed Down

How Does Narcissism Get Passed Down to Children?

The brilliant work of a psychiatrist named John Bowlby and a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth in the Attachment Theory defined a healthy parent as someone who is emotionally available, responsive, and consistent for their child. It also revealed that children only need one available, responsive, and consistent parent to develop a realistic sense of self and have a healthy cognitive development.

What this suggests is that in the broad scope of things, narcissism can be passed down to children when they have two parents with a narcissistic personality or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or when they have a parent with NPD and another parent who doesn’t have a narcissistic personality or NPD but is still emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent.

You must understand the structure of a narcissistic family if you want to understand the consequences of growing up in one. In the coming sections we are going to dive into the roles that the children of narcissists are forced into.

How Do Narcissists Treat the Child Who Is the Family Scapegoat?

We spoke about this in our article What Causes Scapegoating In Families but the family scapegoat is the person who is blamed, ridiculed, mocked, and punished for the shortcomings of the other family members. In a narcissistic family structure the narcissist will single out the child that they view as a threat and devalue, invalidate, manipulate, dehumanize, and isolate them on a daily basis. 

We unpacked a narcissist’s need for a scapegoat in our article Why Do Narcissists Need a Scapegoat more thoroughly but the reason that scapegoating occurs in a narcissistic family structure is because something about their identity, something about who they are as a person, triggers deeply rooted vulnerabilities and insecurities within the narcissist. 

This is a huge problem because narcissists spend their entire lives hiding behind a falsified identity that is designed to suppress all of their negative emotions while simultaneously attracting the validation, admiration, and reassurance of others. 

A narcissist getting their photo taken

When they experience something that contradicts their falsified identity, like the existence of the scapegoat, it reminds them that they aren’t the person that their falsified identity portrays them as, they are just an insecure, vulnerable, emotionally inadequate, and self-loathing abuser. 

They do not take this well and are too emotionally inadequate to handle the intensity of their negative emotions so they project them onto others. This means that a narcissist treats a scapegoat like a repository for all of their negative emotions. They devalue, invalidate, manipulate, dehumanize, and isolate them on a daily basis because they are a reminder of how insecure, vulnerable, inadequate, and hateful they really are.  

How Do Narcissists Treat the Golden Child? 

The golden child is the complete opposite of the scapegoat. From the outside looking in, it looks like the narcissist treats the golden child very well and in comparison to the other family members, they do, but the reality is that the golden child is experiencing a traumatizing amount of abuse behind the scenes that make them most likely to become narcissistic themselves.

In our article What Are the Signs of a Narcissistic Father we covered this very well but the golden child is the child that the narcissist sees as a positive extension of themselves which is an incredibly important aspect of narcissism that you need to understand because it has a very strong correlation with a core personality trait of NPD: a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

A narcissist’s preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love is often thought about in the future. For example, it is common to see a narcissist fantasize about how successful, famous, or rich they will be in the future. But this tendency also applies to the past, specifically fantasies of going back in time to prove their superiority over others.

A simple example of this would be a narcissistic mother who wanted to be an actress, model, and global icon for her entire life but never got the opportunity because the people in positions to make her dreams come true thought that she didn’t have what it takes to be those things.

If this narcissistic mother were to have a daughter who wanted to be a model and was actually getting a lot of the offers that the narcissistic mother didn’t get as a kid, the mother could live vicariously through her daughter to fulfill her own fantasy of becoming a global icon.

Her daughter would become her golden child and they would appear to have a very tight bond with one another but the truth is that the mother is just using her daughter to fulfill her own fantasies. 

What this means is that if the daughter was rejected for a modeling gig, instead of being available, responsive, and consistent for her daughter so that she could mirror her thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs after her first rejection, the narcissistic mother would take the rejection personally because in her mind she is actually the one being rejected again.

The children of narcissists have their sense of self, ability to conceptualize their own reality, self-esteem, and perception of love and healthy relationships destroyed by the narcissistic abuse but the golden child is at a greater risk of becoming narcissistic themselves because their narcissistic parent views them as a positive extensions of themselves and treats them as such.  

a narcissist passing narcissist down to her children

How Do Narcissists Treat the Invisible Child?

One of the strangest things about narcissistic parents is that they often expect their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs to be prioritized above everyone else in the family structure. It’s one of the clearest manifestations of their egocentricity, grandiosity, lack of insight, emotional immaturity, and sense of entitlement. 

It is for this reason that it is very common for narcissistic parents to condemn their children to the “invisible child” role for the eternity of their lives. The invisible child is overlooked by the narcissist at every single turn. Their interests, emotions, needs, thoughts, and feelings are often invalidated, devalued, and discarded by the unavailability, unresponsiveness, and inconsistency of their neglectful narcissistic parent. 

The invisibility that the child is condemned to often bleeds into other aspects of their life so much that they develop a crippling fear of being seen and are often labeled as pathologically shy or socially anxious/awkward.

This is also a very dangerous position to be in because spending an entire childhood invisible in a narcissistic environment will likely manipulate the child into believing that the only way that they can be loved is by being invisible. 

The reason being that they likely witnessed how abusive the narcissistic parent was to the other family members who “were not invisible” which scared them into believing that being invisible is the only way to stay safe. With this misguided belief the child will be much less likely to achieve anything substantial in their lives because they’re fixated on the idea of remaining invisible to stay safe.

How Do Narcissists Treat the Child Who Is the Truth Teller?

In some narcissistic family structures there is a child who sees straight through the narcissist’s falsified identity and doesn’t get caught up in the narcissistic parent’s manipulative games because of it. 

From the outside looking in, being the truth teller seems like the best role that a child could have in a narcissistic family, but that isn’t necessarily true. Being the truth teller is an incredibly isolating and confusing position for children to be in.

The reason being that they are going to feel responsible for helping the other members of the narcissistic family structure to see the truth. They are going to want to help others stop exhausting themselves trying to get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that the narcissistic parent will never give. 

Much like the scapegoat or invisible child role, the truth teller is a very outcasted position within a narcissistic family structure. It is very common for the narcissist, or even other non-narcissistic family members, to paint the truth teller as unruly or disrespectful simply because they aren’t buying into the narcissistic parent’s games.  

It is very common for the truth teller to doubt themselves on a daily basis because they are the only ones who sees through the dark cloud of manipulation that the narcissistic parent casts over the family structure. 

A truth teller arguing with the narcissist

How Do Narcissists Treat the Helper Child?

The helper child, also known as the handmaiden child, is the child that has an unhealthy fawn response to the trauma embedded within the narcissistic family structure. An unhealthy fawn response is when someone escapes their trauma by using a variety of different people pleasing behaviors. 

What a helper child does is they neglect their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs to make sure that the narcissist in their life gets enough validation, admiration, and reassurance. This could look like catering to the narcissists every need, cleaning up after the other family members, cooking meals so the narcissistic parent doesn’t have to, and so on. 

The point is that the helper child takes on a lot more responsibility that what is expected of someone their age in an attempt to get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they desperately need from their narcissistic parent. 

Without guidance, the helper child could be stuck in their role for their entire lives because they’ve built their identity off of their ability to support the narcissistic parent’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.  

If the helper child manages to escape their narcissistic family of origin but doesn’t seek out the proper guidance, they keep their misguided belief that they have to do things for other people in order to be treated with even the slightest amount of respect as they move from childhood, to adolescenthood, to adulthood, which would make them extremely vulnerable to abusive relationships in the future.  

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Narcissism can be passed down to children. It doesn’t happen one-hundred percent of the time but without the guidance of a qualified professional, there’s a chance that the children of a narcissist adopt some of their narcissistic parent’s personality traits and characteristics because of the intensity of the abuse they experienced on a daily basis.


This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

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References:

Leggio, John Nicholas. Mental health outcomes for adult children of narcissistic parents. Diss. Adler School of Professional Psychology, 2018.

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