Hoping to maintain a relationship with a parent who has traits of narcissism? Strong boundaries and a good support system can help protect your emotional health.
Narcissism refers to a set of specific personality characteristics, including:
- an inflated self-image
- a need for admiration and praise
- a strong sense of entitlement and superiority
- an exaggerated idea of personal importance
- a lack of empathy for others’ needs and feelings
Narcissism exists on a spectrum.
So, it’s possible to show occasional signs of narcissistic behavior — like a lack of concern for how actions affect others, or a tendency to exaggerate achievements — without meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), says Lena Derhally, therapist and author of “The Facebook Narcissist: How to Identify and Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones from Social Media Narcissism.”
For someone who lives with NPD, however, these traits and behaviors will show up across a range of situations and have a persistent negative effect on multiple areas of life — including family relationships.
Your parent may not have a diagnosis of NPD. Still, their narcissistic behaviors can have an ongoing impact on your sense of emotional safety, self-esteem, and other aspects of your well-being, according to Nikki Eisenhauer, a therapist in private practice who specializes in treating people with narcissistic parents.
But you can take steps to safeguard your mental health and protect your sense of self.
Below, therapists share how to recognize traits of narcissism in a parent, along with a few strategies for handling this behavior — whether you want to maintain your relationship or cut it off completely.
The cycle of narcissism
People with narcissistic tendencies — or defenses, as they’re sometimes called — often develop these traits as a result of abuse, according to Derhally.
In other words, if your mother has narcissistic defenses, she may have experienced narcissistic abuse from a parent in her childhood. What’s more, her behavior may trigger unhelpful defense mechanisms in you and any siblings you have, causing a cycle of intergenerational trauma.
However, this definitely doesn’t mean you’ll eventually develop traits of narcissism yourself. In fact, 2020 research suggests many children of narcissistic parents actively try to avoid repeating their parent’s behaviors.
If your parent has traits of NPD, you may recognize some of the following signs:
They make your achievements about them
Because a narcissistic parent craves constant admiration, they may have difficulty celebrating your accomplishments and skills as your own, says Jephtha Tausig, a clinical psychologist in New York City.
For example, they might downplay your achievements, suggesting they fall short, or give themselves too much credit for your achievements to boost their own self-esteem.
A narcissistic parent often views their child as a reflection of themselves, says Terri Bly, a licensed clinical psychologist at Ellie Mental Health. As a result, they may have unrealistic expectations for you. For instance, they might insist you should take the lead role in the school play, or throw a fit when your soccer team doesn’t win the game.
They project their own ideals and desires onto you
According to Bly, a narcissistic parent may have trouble acknowledging your individual interests, dreams, and goals because they consider you an extension of them.
For example, your parent might demand you play football, run for student council, or sing in the choir because that’s what they wanted to pursue in their youth. Or, they might pressure you to apply to the colleges they deem the “best,” rather than taking your own wishes into account.
Many parents have certain hopes for their children, says Bly. It’s natural for parents to feel a little disappointed if you take a different path — but they should still respect and accept your decision. A narcissistic parent, on the other hand, may lash out to “punish” you instead.
They fail to validate your emotions
Due to a lack of empathy, a parent with narcissism may have difficulty validating your feelings.
For instance, if you tell them their harsh criticism upset you, Derhally says they might:
- shame you by saying something like, “You’re too sensitive”
- gaslight you to deny your experience by saying something like, “You’re making that up,” or “I never said that”
- ignore you by giving you the silent treatment
Because of this, you may begin to feel your thoughts and feelings don’t matter. As a result, you may feel less inclined to share them with your parent, says Lauren Kerwin, a California-based clinical psychologist in private practice.
They refuse to take responsibility
Instead of owning up to their mistakes, a narcissistic parent might actually project the blame onto you in order to protect their fragile sense of self.
“Because someone with NPD often has such a profound sense of emptiness and self-loathing at their core, they often find it nearly impossible to apologize or take accountability,” says Tausig.
Say you express frustration with the fact that they always show up late to your basketball games. They might:
- call you ungrateful
- sarcastically say, “Oh, I know, I’m just the worst mother in the world”
- imply their lateness is somehow your fault
They lash out when you don’t act in a way that serves them
Narcissistic parents may have a strong sense of entitlement and find it difficult to empathize with your needs. So, they may react strongly when your actions don’t align with what they want.
For example, your mother might become enraged if you wear an outfit you picked out, rather than the one she suggested. Or, they might shut down and refuse to talk to you after you say you want to spend your birthday with a friend rather than at home.
As a result, you may develop an aversion to conflict, explains Derhally. You may find you have a harder and harder time separating your own desires from theirs and do things just to please them so you can keep the peace.
They ‘parentify’ you
Parentification describes a role reversal in which the child has to take on the role of a caregiver and supporter. According to Derhally, this is very common when a parent has narcissism because they tend to place their needs above their child’s.
So, they may outright demand you tend to their needs. For instance, if they catch a cold, they might demand you stay home to keep them company, even though that means you miss an important event at school. They may also send this message more covertly — say, by exploding in anger when you don’t cater to them.
“You might find yourself constantly apologizing, consoling, and trying to make your parent feel better,” Derhally says.
Keep in mind they may also alter their behavior depending on the situation or people involved. For example, Bly says they might harshly criticize you at home for not getting a 100% on your math exam, but then sing your praises in front of another family member or teacher.
It’s certainly possible to maintain a relationship with a parent who has NPD, or traits of narcissism.
These expert-approved strategies can help protect your emotional well-being if you want to stay in contact with your parent.
1. Set — and reinforce — boundaries
It’s so important to set boundaries that are concrete, sustainable, and have specific consequences, says Bly. For example, you might say, “If you start putting me down, I’m going to have to end the phone call.”
Just know it may take time to feel comfortable setting boundaries with your parent, according to Eisenhauer — especially if your parent tries to manipulate you into believing your boundaries are cruel or unnecessary.
2. Build a strong support system
Since a parent with narcissism may not have the ability to meet your emotional needs, you’ll want to surround yourself with friends, family members, and other loved ones who can.
A therapist can also have a valuable role in your support system by providing a safe outlet for your experiences, validating your emotions, and supporting you in establishing clear and firm boundaries.
Plus, your therapist can offer more guidance and help you sort through your feelings if you aren’t sure whether maintaining the relationship or ending it serves your needs best.
3. Try ‘grey rocking’ when necessary
While you may feel tempted to defend yourself or fight back when your parent makes upsetting accusations or statements, Derhally strongly recommends refusing to engage — often called the grey rock method.
This strategy often works because your parent wants a specific reaction from you. When you refuse to give it to them, you both avoid rewarding their behavior and might potentially defuse the situation.
Examples of this might include:
- giving one-word answers
- keeping interactions short and limited to necessary information
- offering as little personal information as possible
- distracting yourself on phone calls with them to make it easier to disengage and show little emotion
Sometimes, a parent with narcissism might not respect the boundaries you set. Maybe they use unkind or abusive language, lie to your friends and partners in an effort to damage your relationships, or frequently try to manipulate you.
Only you can decide what behavior you will and won’t accept. That said, if your parent’s tactics cause ongoing difficulties in your everyday life and have a lasting impact on your mental or physical health, it may be worth considering going no-contact, or ending the relationship.
If you choose to go no-contact, these strategies can help:
1. Consider eliminating all avenues of communication
Because people with narcissism have a tendency to ignore boundaries, Derhally says you may need to block your parent on your phone, email, and social media accounts.
It’s also wise to let the people who do have your email address and phone number know they shouldn’t give it out to anyone else.
2. Share your decision with family members
You might want to let siblings and other relatives know about your choice to go no-contact with your parent. That way, they’re less likely to accidentally or intentionally create a situation where you have to engage with your parent — say, by inviting you both to the same event.
Your family members may not understand your decision, says Eisenhauer, and that’s OK. You don’t owe them an explanation or justification.
3. Seek a lot of support
Going no-contact with a parent can bring up a lot of complicated emotions — from relief to guilt and sadness.
Bly advises building up your support network by maintaining regular contact with trusted friends and family members.
“Surround yourself with supportive people who are willing and able to understand this decision and truly show up for you,” says Eisenhauer.
You may also find it helpful to join an in-person or virtual support group for children of narcissistic parents, where you can meet other people who understand what you experienced and how it continues to affect you.
4. Work with a therapist
If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse or manipulation, you may experience what some people call narcissistic victim syndrome.
Potential signs may include:
- lack of confidence
- difficulty asserting yourself, communicating your needs, or making decisions
- trust issues
- trouble regulating your emotions
- people-pleasing tendencies
Some evidence suggests many children of narcissistic parents have low self-worth, a tendency toward approval-seeking behavior, and difficulty building relationships because of feelings of shame and inferiority.
These effects may prove difficult to shake, especially without support. But remember: these consequences aren’t your fault — they happen in response to the trauma you experienced.
Therapy can offer an important tool for reducing and reversing these effects, whether or not you choose to maintain contact with your parent.
According to Derhally, a therapist can help you learn how to reparent yourself and learn to effectively cope with shame, anxiety, depression, and other effects of the trauma.
“A therapist can help you cultivate self-compassion and rediscover who you are, separate from your narcissistic parent,” adds Bly, who goes on to say, “Therapy can also be a safe space to voice your thoughts, emotions, opinions, goals, and even fantasies, without having to worry about being invalidated, ridiculed, or punished.”
Having a parent with narcissism can affect your mental health in a variety of ways.
Whether you lean on a therapist, friends and family members, or others who survived a similar upbringing, support can prove immensely helpful on your journey to healing.
Bly also emphasizes the importance of giving yourself time and space to grieve the parent you never had — with the help of a therapist or on your own.
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether or not you want to maintain a relationship with your parent. But whatever you decide to do, know you’re not alone.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.