Ways to make sure that your child doesn’t follow in your ex’s narcissist footsteps
If you’ve survived a relationship with a narcissist, you know how terrible it can be. Custody battles are par for the course when a narcissist is involved in a breakup, and they can leave you and your kids reeling. Once the dust settles and your family begins to adjust to your new normal, don’t be surprised if you find yourself lying awake at night worrying about your kids’ futures. Narcissists leave their mark on all of us, and it’s normal to ask yourself the one question you might be too afraid to ask anyone else: If my ex is a narcissist, are my kids doomed to be narcissists, too?
The good news is that there’s no such thing as a narcissism gene—or at least scientists haven’t found one yet. Dr. W. Keith Campbell is a professor of psychology and a nationally recognized expert on narcissism. He’s also the coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, (Atria Books, 2010). Although he says that narcissism is probably at least partially genetic, it requires specific environmental factors to trigger its development in a child. As long as a child develops a secure attachment with a caregiver, the child is unlikely to become a narcissistic adult. “Close, warm, affectionate, and secure attachment leads to kids who have the capacity to love others,” Campbell told ESME.
Unfortunately, narcissistic parents are more likely than the average parent to raise narcissistic kids. No one knows for sure whether it’s genes or upbringing, or a mixture of both, but narcissism tends to beget narcissism. Narcissistic parents view parenting as a competitive sport, living through their child’s successes and placing intense demands on their kids to succeed. Their approval is contingent on their child’s behavior, and their love is often withdrawn when they become displeased. Narcissists “are sociable and extroverted, but that warm piece isn’t there as much,” explains Campbell.
Having a narcissistic parent can be incredibly confusing for a child. Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. She is also the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist (Post Hill Press, 2015). She emphasizes that narcissistic parents can’t separate themselves enough from their children to give their children the warmth and unconditional affection they need. “The child becomes an extension of [a narcissistic parent],” says Durvasula. “They can’t be empathic long enough to hear what their child wants them to.”
This inability to be mindfully present and to focus on the child’s needs leads to disconnected and erratic parenting that takes a deep toll on a child. When children don’t experience empathy from their parents, it sets them up for a lifetime of relationship challenges and problems with emotional regulation. It can even lead to a greater chance of those children becoming narcissists themselves. Durvasula says, “A narcissist will re-create a narcissistic child because they have little empathy, self-awareness, or presence.”
That doesn’t mean you should panic. Not every child of a narcissist is destined to become another narcissist! There’s little data about the impact of narcissistic parents on their children and even less on just how many of their kids grow up to become narcissists themselves. In Durvasula’s own clinical practice, she works with many children of narcissistic parents. Although they struggle with issues that range from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and perfectionism, she says that less than half of them become narcissists themselves. She even notices that many of her patients are becoming adept at spotting narcissistic behavior in their parents or others and shutting it down before the behavior hurts them.
Even more important, Durvasula has noted what she calls the “power of one.” Just one secure attachment to a caregiver in a child’s life seems to guard against many of the risks of being raised by a narcissist. While many people are enchanted by narcissists and become unwitting accomplices in their damaging parenting approaches, odds are that as a Solo Mom, you’ve already taken the most important step and gotten out of your relationship with a narcissist. With time and distance (and plenty of help recovering from the damage you sustained during your relationship), you will be able to counteract the unfortunate influence of your ex and provide your child with the warmth and attachment he or she needs to avoid becoming another narcissist.
What Solo Moms with narcissistic exes can do to protect their kids is focus on safeguarding their own mental and emotional health. Although it might seem like a strange parenting strategy to focus on yourself instead of your child, distracted parents (no matter what the reason) find it difficult to connect and remain present with their children. To be the best parent you can be, you need to care for yourself first so you are able to be fully present with your child. The energy you invest in nurturing your emotional well-being will manifest in a stronger bond with your child and a more secure attachment.
As a Solo Mom, it’s also essential to recognize that you can’t always do it alone. It’s important that your child has someone else he or she trusts and who can provide your child with focused attention when you’re unavailable. Family members, coaches, pastors, or therapists can all provide the warmth and empathy the narcissistic parent will never be able to offer, while reinforcing the idea that the narcissist’s behavior is the behavior that is abnormal. The last thing you want is for your child to absorb the narcissist’s worldview as normal or typical—the more your child can be surrounded by empathetic and warm people, the better. Children learn from what they see, and it’s up to you to show them a world that is full of compassion and goodness instead of the narcissist’s competition and selfishness.
Therapy also can be an important aspect of protecting children from the impact of a narcissistic parent. In therapy, even young children learn to trust their instincts and erect boundaries that will protect them from internalizing their narcissistic parent’s unhealthy attitudes and relationship strategies. Even if your insurance doesn’t cover therapy for your child, there are many resources available to locate sliding-scale or even free mental-health care for children. A child doesn’t have to be mentally ill to benefit from play therapy with a qualified provider, and it can help the child avoid many of the common pitfalls of having a narcissistic parent.
Is your ex a narcissist? How do you instill empathy in your child? Share your experiences with us by leaving a comment below.
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, and Good Housekeeping, and on Vice, among others. When she isn’t writing, she can be found binge-watching HGTV and embarrassing her teenagers.
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