In our very first article, How to Destroy a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist, we mentioned that growing up in an unhealthy environment corrupts a child’s perception of the characteristics of a healthy relationship, which makes them very vulnerable to narcissistic abuse in their adult life. In this article we are going to unpack the effect a narcissistic parent has on a child.
Growing up in a narcissistic environment can have a devastatingly negative impact on a child’s psychological development. A child growing up in a narcissistic environment needs someone to guide them through the manipulative and abusive cycle they are experiencing, to ensure that they don’t blame themselves. Unfortunately, most children who have experienced narcissistic abuse didn’t have the luxury of proper guidance from any of the adults in their life at the time.
There are five different personas a child can embody during a narcissistic upbringing.
This article is going to define each of these personas and provide detailed answers on just how having a narcissistic parent affects a child.
The Five Personas Children of Narcissists Embody:
Scapegoating is when a narcissist targets a specific person and treats them far worse than they do anyone else. A scapegoat is a narcissist’s fall guy, they’re someone a narcissist will blame for everything without any reasoning behind their accusations.
Scapegoats exist because narcissists are the most self-loathing, vulnerable, and insecure people on the planet, yet they’re incapable of acknowledging it. Their inability to look within themselves forces them to regulate their emotions through others.
What does this mean?
Every single manipulative tactic that narcissists use, are designed to neglect their own emotional instability, and protect their shockingly fragile egos. Take gaslighting for an example, gaslighting is when a narcissist will deny their victims emotions, reality, and ability so frequently that the victim becomes consumed with self-doubt.
An example of a narcissistic parent gaslighting their child would be if a father slapped his son around every day after work because he hates his job and hates that he doesn’t have the skillset to find a better one. When the son told his mother that his father was hurting him, his mother told him that he was being dramatic, and that his father loves him very much.
This is gaslighting because the son is going to his mother about the abuse, and his mother is denying it is happening. Overtime, it’s very likely that the son may begin to rationalize the abuse just like his mother had.
What Does Gaslighting Have to Do With Scapegoating?
It would be impractical to think scapegoating could occur without other manipulative tactics, especially gaslighting. In the example of gaslighting that I provided above, the father hit his son every time he was angry, which makes his son his scapegoat. When the son confided in his mother about the abuse, she told him that he was exaggerating because his father loves him very much, which is gaslighting.
Scapegoats are people narcissists use to create a narrative where they’re the charming, emotionally stable, and charismatic leader they’d like to be instead of the self-loathing, emotionally unstable, and undesirable person that they really are.
Effects of a Child Being a Scapegoat
People who grew up as the family scapegoat are likely to have significant mental health impacts resulting from having to survive an entire childhood filled with manipulation, rage, devaluation and so on. Having to endure this level of manipulation as a child has been known to cause the following:
The two examples below are separated because they offer a very valuable perspective that allows us to look deeper into what effect a narcissistic parent has on a child.
- Extremely low self-esteem
- Difficulty in adult relationships
People who grew up as the scapegoat in their family will naturally have an extremely low self-esteem. This could manifest in things along the lines of them not going after their dream job, dream college, or new experiences because they still hear their abusers voice telling them that they’re not good enough. They’re also very likely to have difficulties in adult relationships because many victims of narcissistic abuse, especially from a primary caregiver, have an extremely hard time unpacking the abuse they’ve endured, so naturally they blame it on themselves.
So, if you combine a corrupt image of a healthy relationship, low self-esteem, self-blame, and the rest of the struggles I listed above, it’s very likely that without the proper guidance, the scapegoated child will fall into a cycle of abusive relationships in adulthood.
It’s understandable that they gravitate towards abusive relationships because throughout their entire childhood they were led to believe they were undesirable human beings that were lucky to receive the “love” their abuser gave them. If you truly believed that you weren’t worth anything more than abuse, what would entice you to search for love?
Researching the role a golden child has in a narcissistic environment was quite peculiar because it offers a different perspective when trying to understand how having a narcissistic parent affects a child.
The golden child is the crown jewel of the family because they excel in an activity that brings glory onto the family. They get certain privileges that other members of their family couldn’t even dream of getting like validation, resources, some level of empathy and so on. It is very important that you understand that the title of the golden child is conditional.
We spoke about this in How to Co-Parent With a Grandiose Narcissist however, even though the golden child is the golden child because they bare a resemblance to the narcissist or they excel in activities the narcissist approves of, the golden child isn’t necessarily liked by the narcissist. Because the golden child brings glory to the family, specifically the narcissistic parent, they’re really just another source of narcissistic supply. The moment that the golden child loses whichever talent they had that created narcissistic supply, they could quickly become the scapegoat or any of the other personas listed below.
Effects of Being a Golden Child
An important part of the dynamic between a golden child and their narcissistic parent, is that oftentimes the narcissist will choose a golden child because they feel like the child is a reflection of themselves.
So, during the golden child’s childhood, it’s very common for them to be spoiled, favored, and having things always go their way. This level of entitlement has the potential to groom them into becoming a narcissist themselves in adulthood.
Another possibility that could direct the golden child into becoming a narcissist as well, is triangulation. It’s very common for narcissistic parents to manipulate the golden child into bullying other members of the family.
These two dynamics that a golden child usually experiences, has a high probability of creating an entitled, arrogant, mean spirited, and manipulative human being who expects to be coddled their entire life.
That’s not all…
If the golden child naturally has a significant amount of empathy, they’ll be able to recognize that they’re being treated significantly better than the other family members and see the impact that narcissistic abuse has on them, especially on the scapegoat. This often creates high levels of guilt and/or shame within the golden child.
They may try to include their siblings and some of the privileges that they get by attempting to convince the narcissist to be more compassionate to the other family members.
This is a very unfair position to put a child in because it can leave them feeling estranged and isolated from their own family members.
The golden child could also attempt to distance themselves from the narcissist in adulthood. As we mentioned in How Can a Narcissist Move On So Quickly, narcissists have a crippling fear of abandonment, which is part of the reason they use the various manipulative tactics that they do. If the golden child tries to distance themselves, they could very well trigger this fear within the narcissist and experience the same narcissistic rage that everyone else experiences.
This reaction narcissists have when even their crown jewel distances themselves, reinforces the harsh reality of the golden child being nothing more than a source of narcissistic supply.
And finally, the golden child could be trapped within their narcissistic parents’ abusive cycle indefinitely. Because of their upbringing, they are often very sheltered from the world. So, for a golden child who has an abundance of resources, it would be very difficult for a golden child to break free and make their own path as an adult. The other children never got those resources so it’s far easier to cut ties and move on.
While being the golden child has its perks, it’s quite a misleading name. As they get older and realize how horrifying their narcissistic parents’ behavior was towards everyone else it’s very common for them to feel guilty, ashamed, and even devalue their own worth.
The Truth Teller
The truth teller is quite a unique individual because from a very young age they’re able to see through the narcissist’s manipulative nature, they don’t fall for gaslighting, and they are able to explain to their siblings that what is happening isn’t their fault.
Even though being the truth teller makes a child extremely less vulnerable to the psychological trauma that comes with narcissism, there is a significant downside to their development as a child. You see, being the truth teller means that they aren’t going to jump at the opportunity to have the slightest amount of validation or acknowledgement from the narcissistic parent.
This can be quite isolating because while the other children that the narcissist is abusive towards may feel horrible, they still seek their abuser’s validation and approval.
Effects of Being the Truth Teller
Going into adulthood, the truth teller could forgo the same struggles that the scapegoat child will experience but they’re far less likely to blame themselves for the abuse. Being able to see straight through narcissistic behavior has the potential to make the truth teller cynical in their adulthood, but at least they have the luxury of being able to spot a narcissist a mile away, which prevents them from falling into another narcissistic cycle.
A truth teller’s kryptonite is their own self-doubt. As wise as they may be, children don’t have the skill set necessary to handle their entire family telling them that they’re wrong.
Living in an environment where everyone is telling them that they’re the problem, can be extremely isolating and will lead to self-doubt and make the truth teller extremely vulnerable to gaslighting.
The Helper Child
The helper child is a persona a child of a narcissist may embody to cope with the chaos that accompanies narcissistic environments. The helper child, also known as the handmaid child, is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a child who believes that if they do enough stuff for their narcissistic parent, they’ll be able to keep the peace in the household.
It’s extremely difficult for a child to be parentified by a narcissist because the narcissists will disproportionately rely on the helper child. However, the helper child title isn’t limited to a child, they could be adolescents or even adults as well. The helper child may embrace their role as a way to regain a sense of control, but for a narcissist, they’re nothing more than a tool to fit their selfish needs.
Effects of Being the Helper Child
The hardest part about being a helper child is how it affects their perception of healthy relationships. Growing up with abusive primary caregivers will corrupt a child’s perception of a healthy relationship because most children aren’t able to understand that while yes, they are your parents, they can still be abusive.
So, after what must feel like a lifetime of abuse, it’s very common for them to confuse it with love. This is the reason that children who grew up in an abusive environment are susceptible to trauma bonds.
As far as the helper child, they may believe that they have to continue to be the helper child in adulthood to find meaningful relationships and keep people close. Similar to the scapegoated child, the willingness of the helper child to put everyone else’s needs before their own could push them into a narcissistic relationship in adulthood.
For a helper child, the narcissistic abuse cycle is created by the belief that the only way they can be loved is by doing things for others. Without an understanding of narcissism and the proper guidance, they could very well become stuck in the abuse cycle their entire life.
“…growing up was extremely hard because my parents pushed too much of their responsibilities onto me. I wasn’t really able to have a life outside of my parents’ needs so being the helper child became an identity for me. It wasn’t until my 34th birthday that I realized how much of my life I’ve forfeited over the years. We were celebrating at my parents’ house and my siblings told me to make a wish while I was blowing out my candles. I burst into tears because all I wanted was for it to be over, but I had no idea what “it” was until I sought out a therapist…” Robbin
The Invisible Child
The invisible child is the child that is overlooked in the narcissistic family dynamic, more often than not, because they aren’t a suitable source of narcissistic supply. In our previous article How to Co-Parent With a Grandiose Narcissist we mentioned that narcissists, grandiose in particular, often expect their needs to come first, even after becoming a parent. The invisible child is a manifestation of this entitled belief. For children who are naturally introverted, sadly, it’s quite easy for their egocentric parents to ignore their well-being.
The invisible child symbolizes how having a narcissistic parent affects a child because they’ll likely internalize the belief that remaining invisible is the only way to gain the affection of the parent, much like the other family roles listed above.
Being the invisible child gives them a unique perspective of the family dynamic because of how forgotten they usually are. They can also internalize the belief that remaining invisible is the safest way to exist within the family, especially after seeing the abuse that the scapegoat receives.
Effects of Being the Invisible Child
The normalization of being invisible and having your well being overlooked is dangerous because like the helper child, invisibility could become their identity. Carrying this mentality throughout their childhood and into adulthood could cause them to truly believe that they are unworthy of being acknowledged.
Many children who were the invisible child are mistakenly characterized as shy, socially anxious, or emotionally immature by those who don’t understand that the neglection they experience at home carries into the other compartments of their lives. Because they’re able to see the wrath of their narcissistic parent to other family members from the shadows of the family dynamic, oftentimes they believe that being seen puts them in a vulnerable position.
In adulthood, the safety of invisibility that they harnessed as a child could cause them to be overlooked both professionally and personally.
Growing up in an abusive environment is extremely dangerous for someone’s mental health in both childhood and adulthood if the trauma is neglected. The moment someone who has experienced narcissistic abuse is able to grasp a comprehensive understanding of narcissism, regain their self-confidence, and take their first few steps in the healing process, they can transform from a survivor to a thriver.
This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.
Interviewing 32 survivors of narcissistic abuse
Roles Narcissistic Parents Give Their Children
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