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The Narcissistic Parent

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The Case of Jack: (Taken from a blending of multiple cases of men and women)

Not only was he addicted to alcohol but a whole host of other substances as well. There was nothing in his background that could explain his addicted, depressed, poverty stricken and hopeless self. Jack came from an upper middle class home. His father was a successful businessman who provided all the comforts and material benefits that money could buy.

Nevertheless, Jack’s parents divorced when he was 13 years-of-age. His father moved away, remarried and had more children but maintained a relationship with his son.

It was during college that Jack’s life turned in a wrong direction. At school he took to the partying life very quickly, drinking and using drugs. He failed all of his classes and returned home to live with his mother. His mother didn’t receive him well upon his return. Angry and dissaproving, she withdrew into silence when he was around. He and his mother had been very close and he reacted to her rejection with a deep sense of loss. He had always tried so hard to get her love and acceptance.

Jack’s abuse of alcohol and drugs worsened. He ran afoul of the law when the police stopped his car for going through a stop sign. Because he was acting suspiciously, the car was searched and a small amount of cocaine was found. He was driving his mother’s car and it was seized by the police. She became engraged. Jack spent some time in the local jail and his mother didn’t bail him out.

Soon after, she became aware that Jack was stealing her possessions and selling them in order to get money to support his drug habit.  She threw him out of the house. Left to fend for himself, Jack became homeless.

Ultimately, Jack ended up in a drug treatment program after a former girlfriend found and rescued him. He completed the rehab program and was referred for psychotherapy.

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Discussion

The predominating feature of this case was that Jack’s mother had many of the features of a person with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

It is important to understand that a narcissistic parent can be either mother or father. It’s also necessary to keep in mind that this article is in no way meant to attack or blame the parent for the problems that the adult child suffers. The narcissistic parent is very much a victim of this disorder. In fact, it is most likely that the narcissistic parent was deprived by one of their own parents who was narcissistic.

Because of the nature of NPD, the parent has no insigtht into their destructive behaviors. What they believe is that they can do no wrong and are always right in whatever they do.

Description of the narcissistic parent:

1. The Child is an extension of the parent:
The parent takes full credit when their child has successfully done something. In a way that is inverted, the child, having achieved a major accomplishment, basks in the glory of the parent.
 
2. If the child doesn’t live up to the expectations of the parent, the parent may retaliate with anything from contempt, rage, pouting, or silence to emotional, psychological, and even physical abuse. In the parent’s endless seeking of the admiration of others, nothing must interfere.

3. The entitled parent: More than anything, the parental demand is that the child must care for them. The needs of the parent come first and always. In order to gain this type of obedience, control must be excersized by telling the child how they should feel and behave, as well as what decisions they should make. There is little or no room for the development of a healthy self in this environment.

4. The controlling parent: Control is exerted by provoking a strong sense of guilt and obligation in the child. The message is clear, “I sacrificed everything for you and you owe me.” If the child fails in this obligation, they are told how unjustly they treated their parent and how they feel betrayed by the child. 

It should be fairly obvious in this description that the feelings and needs of the child are ignored. In fact, narcissistic parents are so self absorbed that they cannot tolerate the child’s needs. Their personal needs are overwhelming and dominant.

Children who come from this type of family structure do everything they can gain the approval of their parent.  As is true with most of these youngsters, nothing Jack could do was enough to gain his mother’s approval. If his school grades were high, she either ignored him or warned him not to get a “swelled head.” If his grades were less than perfect, she was cold and openly critical and rejecting.

To demonstrate her concern about her son’s education, she attended each of the “meet the teacher” days at school where she talked endlessly about her achievements and how Jack was just like her in getting high grades.  She also attended his performances in school plays and athletic competitions. If his team lost, she had no words of consolation for her son.

In her imperious way, she demanded complete conformity and obedience from her son. Jack and his mother were very close but this came at an inordinate cost to his self esteem, and his need for both separation and autonomy.

Without being able to fulfill his own needs for approval and love, Jack did what many children from this background do. He turned to drugs, alcohol and theft in a self destructive attempt to gain his mom’s attention. All he succeeded in getting was more icy disapproval and rejection.

It is interesting to note that, despite his recovery from addiction and self destructiveness, his success in completing his education and getting a good job, his mother continued to withhold approval. Ever imperious, she could not acknowledge anyone’s success, not even her own son’s.

Adult survivors of narcissistic parents are able to recover and live well adjusted lives. I want to recommend a self help book that both explains what these people have experienced, the difficulties they have and how to recover from the damage done. The book is written by

Nina Brown and is entitled,  Children of the Self Absorbed.

In addition, cognitive behavior therapy is helpful in achieving self esteem and reversing the effects of self criticism, guilt and the fear of individuality.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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