Emotional Child Abuse in Narcissistic Families
Written by Randi G. Fine
Children in families with narcissistic parents understand that their family operates by a set of unspoken rules—rules that feel confusing and painful. The only stability these children know comes from adhering to the agenda of their narcissistic parent. The feelings of the children are never recognized. It is demonstrated over and over by the narcissistic parents that their children’s feelings do not matter.
The fact that the parent can sometimes be nice is a primary source of confusion for the children. Wanting to believe they are loved, children deny what is actually happening to them. This causes them to buy into the deception over and over. The truth is far too painful to accept.
The children spend a lifetime desperately trying to get attention. If they receive any favor from their parents, it will only be scraps. Even so, they never stop trying.
Children with narcissistic parents do learn that any kindness shown to them comes with strings attached. Niceness or generosity from the parent is a debt the child must repay. Children are forever beholden to the parent. Any love received has conditions. They are never loved for who they are, only for how well they please.
Even though this dynamic becomes obvious, the children do not know how to be loved any other way. Though it is painful, it seems the norm. Conditional love is the only love they have ever known. Love will continue being associated with pain and conditions until it negatively impacts their adult relationships in ways that eventually cause them to evaluate their patterns.
Children are deliberately broken by their narcissistic parents to remain dependent. They are given no tools for living and are deprived of a self. Their identity is merged with their parent’s identity to such a degree that children do not know where they let off and their parents begin.
Narcissistic parents do not want boundaries between themselves and their children. Boundaries, which allow a self that is separate and independent from the parents, sabotage the control they work relentlessly to maintain. With no boundaries between the children and their parents and no acknowledgment of their feelings, children do not learn healthy ways to process their emotional experiences.
The assertion of feelings, rights, or thoughts can lead to much bigger problems for the children—rejection, isolation, anger, and violence—so they learn to repress these things to keep peace in the home.
Children internalize and absorb whatever their parents tell them. If they are told that they are at fault, they believe that they are at fault. If they constantly receive messages that they are not good enough, that they are stupid, or that they are bad, these things become their truths and define them.
Narcissistic parents are mostly controlling and angry, though they occasionally throw in some kindness and generosity. Alternating between the two, often in rapid fashion, they keep children emotionally off balance. This is a form of mind control well known by survivors of POW camps.
Children in these families never know where they stand with unpredictable, unaccountable, and inconsistent parents. Never having healthy coping skills taught to them or modeled for them, they do not know how to emotionally process their turbulent home environment.
Children cannot emotionally exist in this climate of instability and erratic surprise attacks without going insane. Since they do not have healthy coping mechanisms in place on a conscious level, their subconscious must step in to protect them. Where boundaries should exist to define what is and what is not acceptable, walls are built.
Walls provide internal places to hide. Over time these walls become fortresses. Trapped behind these fortresses are feelings that have never been dealt with. Until addressed, these buried emotions will remain there for a lifetime, wreaking havoc.