There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about narcissistic parents. Characteristics of these types of parents have been better identified as more and more adult children are speaking out. While there are different levels of dysfunction and symptoms differ from parent to parent there are some more typical features that define the narcissistic parent.
Characteristics of Narcissistic Parents
These parents convey the expectation that children never disclose the abuse that occurs in the family system. These families are all about image and appearing as close to perfect as possible. Children function solely to meet the needs of the parents who are critical and judgmental instead of being empathic and loving.
Communication in these families occurs through triangulation, meaning that there is almost no direct communication between members. Instead, information intended to be imparted to the child will be told to another person in a way that ensures it will get back.
Boundaries are generally non-existent in these families and children have no right to privacy. Diaries are read, mail opened and phone calls listened in on. They are not allowed to close their doors and locking one is considered a major offense.
Feelings are denied and never discussed. Children are told their feelings don’t matter and taught to repress them. Narcissistic parents are not in touch with their own feelings and instead project them onto others. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty, and frequently results in the development of other psychological disorders.
Sometimes only one parent is originally narcissistic while the other has to revolve around them to maintain the marriage. This other parent may have redeeming qualities. However, because they know their spouse will emotionally abuse them should they show any warmth to the child, they eventually display similar behavior to the narcissistic parent. So the children’s needs remain unmet by either parent.
Typically, although the narcissistic parent verbally states that they want their children to be close to each other, this is only to maintain the image of the perfect family and is not truly intended. In fact, children are often pitted against each other to ensure they never give their attention to each other instead of the narcissistic parent. This also allows the parent to maintain the ability to control and manipulate them by preventing them from developing a unified front. Siblings in narcissistic families usually don’t grow up feeling very connected to each other.
There is a constant comparison between children which focuses on who is the best and who is the weakest. It is often the case that there are different sets of rules for different children which sets up a sense of inequality and there being a lack of fairness. Over time however, the children come to accept this as reasonable.
Children’s Roles in the Narcissistic Family: The Golden Child vs. The Scapegoat
The narcissist parent assigns different roles to their children. The purpose of this is to meet their own emotional needs while pitting family members against one another. Often there is a favored child or “golden child” who is idealized and one or more scapegoats who are devalued.
The golden child can do no wrong in the parents eyes and their problems or failures are often ignored or blamed on the scapegoat. Even the most minor successes are celebrated. Often the golden child serves as a projection of everything the narcissist parent wants to think they themselves are.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the scapegoat, who can do nothing right. Practically anything that goes wrong in the family is blamed on the scapegoat. They often are given an excessive amount of responsibility and constantly criticized. Whereas the golden child can get away with anything, the scapegoat is burdened with extra rules and consequences. No matter how hard the scapegoat tries to please the parent they are never good enough
How Does the Parent Assign the Roles of Golden Child and Scapegoat?
The narcissistic parent chooses a golden child and scapegoat for a variety of reasons, few of which are rational.. A golden child may be chosen because they are more easily manipulated or because they tend to not listen and it’s a way for the parent to resolve the inability to more fully control them. The scapegoat is usually chosen because they are more independent-minded and therefore threatening to the already lacking self-esteem of the parent.
Sometimes these roles are determined based on gender with the same sex child generally being choses as the scapegoat because the parent sees them as competition for attention. Other times this is determined by whether a child reminds the parent of themselves in good or bad ways or by appearance with the child that more resembles the parent being chosen as the golden child. Regardless of which role is assigned however, the child’s authentic self is damaged and often emotional and psychological trauma results, which can last a lifetime.
Toxic Sibling Relationships in Adulthood
As bad as the abuse carried out by the narcissistic parent is, the pain doesn’t stop there for the scapegoated child. It’s not just a matter of the parent showing constant preference for the favorite child over the rejected child. Often the golden child becomes a narcissist like the parent, and modeling the parent’s behavior, targets the scapegoated child with criticism, backstabbing and betrayal in adulthood.
This dynamic can often be even worse than what the child was made to suffer at the hands of the parent. This is because the narcissistic golden child was initially the primary support for the scapegoated child. The golden child takes great pleasure and pride in assisting the narcissistic parent in destroying the scapegoat child’s confidence and sense of self-worth. This type of emotional abuse can negatively affect the child who is targeted in terrible ways throughout adulthood.
If there are other children in the family, the narcissistic golden may feign kindness towards them if they feel they are easy to control, especially if they gain something from the manipulated sibling. This often gets worse in adulthood, when the narcissistic child and parent become the ring leaders organizing other family members against the scapegoat with the narcissistic child taking over for the parent who sits back and enjoys the show.
This dynamic is strongly influenced by the narcissistic child’s sense of entitlement. The narcissistic parent taught this child that they are entitled to exercise complete control over the scapegoated child, as well as everybody else they come into contact with. Through modeling of their own manipulations, the golden child develops the ability to do this without anyone realizing. They have already set up by the parent to be thought highly of by everyone, so when they go on to criticize and lie about the scapegoat they are almost always believed. The scapegoat is made aware of just enough to understand exactly what is going on but can’t convince anyone else of it.
As bad as the initial betrayal by the parents was, this betrayal is worse. The child never knew any differently as far as the parents were concerned, but they did with regard to the formerly supportive sibling. The scapegoat is often so terribly shamed, hurt and humiliated by first the parent and in adulthood by the golden child who turns the rest of the family against them, that they are frequently advised by their therapist to leave the entire family system and have no further contact.
The Strength of the Scapegoat
Apart from their relationship with their family the scapegoated child has a host of assets. They are often very strong, unusually creative and highly intelligent. They are often also extremely empathic and can be the most empathic member of their entire family, which is one of the reasons they are rejected. The scapegoat has integrity, never backing down when they feel a wrong has been committed. They hold onto this ethical stance even when it would benefit them far more not to do so. If they can leave the family behind, they will take these traits with them and hopefully find a way to heal so they can move towards a satisfying life with healthy relationships far different from those they experienced previously.
Natalie C. Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.
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