It is not uncommon at all for children to emulate their parents, but what happens when your child begins to engage in behaviors that seem to parrot those of your Narcissistic Personality Disordered ex? Does it mean your child will become just as ill as their NPD parent?
Nature vs Nurture
Research literature reveals a likelihood that personality disorders have a genetic inheritability. That is, if a parent has the personality traits of narcissism, callousness, coldness, and irritability, for example, there is a very good chance that a child of that parent may have the same characteristics of personality, or at least a ‘leaning’ in that direction.
The inheritability of personality disorder may in fact, be similar to addiction. While a male child of a male alcoholic is at great risk for becoming alcoholic themselves, there is a very simple fix: the child should never pick up a drink. If the child of an active alcoholic begins to party with dad at age sixteen, the likelihood of the child developing full blown alcoholism naturally increases.
It also stands to reason that when a child is exposed to a micro-culture (like school or family), the child will begin to emulate traits of those they are frequently exposed to. This does not necessarily mean that the traits picked up (like those nasty words kids pick up in school) will continue to be a part of the child’s habit of language for life. In other words, not every characteristic is written in stone, but the more often the characteristic is repeated (unchallenged), the more likely it is to become a permanent part of the individual’s repertoire.
So if your child has a parent with a personality disorder like Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they are routinely exposed to that parent, and are showing behavioral characteristics of the NPD parent, this does not necessarily mean that the child will become NPD and, there are things that the healthier parent can do to curb the characteristics in the child.
Because personality disorders are such a ‘heavy duty’ mental health disorder, most who work in the field of mental health are extremely reluctant to give a diagnosis of personality disorder period, let alone suggest the a child is developing into one. Conventional wisdom says that because children are in stages of personality development, one cannot accurately predict if a few characteristics seen are enough to predict personality disorder in adulthood.
On the other hand, personality disordered people do not ‘pop into existence’ at age 18; they have been forming for the first eighteen years. Less conventional wisdom states that certain characteristics in personality can in fact, be fairly reliable and valid predictors of future personality and behavioral problems in adulthood.
A few of these characteristics that can be seen in children who grow up to be personality disordered adults are things like the ‘Four C’s’: callousness, coldness, calculating, and contentious’. Or, ‘unfeeling’, ‘unaffectionate’, ‘scheming’, and ‘does not play well with others’. Other classic behavioral signs include ‘splitting’ (seeing things in only a black and white fashion, and devaluation, the tendency to ‘sour grapes’ things that they cannot achieve or are jealous of, and consistent boundary breaking.
Treatment Following Recognition
If you recognize the ‘Four C’s’ in your child, there are a number of things you can do. The first is to realize that you are your child’s best hope. While it is good and useful to find a qualified clinical counselor to help, counting on a weekly therapy appointment to change your child is naïve; it takes daily work with a child who has these characteristics to shape them away from the anti-social behavior sets that they lean towards.
The overall treatment strategy is to never tolerate mistreatment by the child, under any conditions. You must always be prepared to assertively respond to NPD characteristics when the child presents them. Getting clear about your own values of acceptable relational interactions is key, as you must be aware of the ‘lines’ that NPD’s routinely violate in relationship. To this end, learning as much as possible about NPD as a mental health disorder, how NPD’s operate, and how to recover from being a victim of an NPD are essential to your helping your child to avoid becoming personality disordered themselves. It may, in fact, be very wise to begin your own therapeutic process with a qualified counselor well versed in helping people who are victims of an NPD.
It is important in your own treatment and in your work with your child to be able to validate your own good, clear thinking, and to genuinely believe that you can succeed in helping your child avoid expression of narcissistic characteristics. This is another area a clinical counselor can help: assisting you in learning how to think critically (instead of your thoughts and actions driven by the whims and actions of the NPD) and self-validate the responses, boundaries, and limits that you decide upon.
Another consideration is to check with your attorney and see if it would be timely and advisable to press for both parties (you and the ex) to get a psychological exam called the ‘MMPI’. This well researched and tested psychological test is very reliable and valid, meaning it really does test and reveal what it is supposed to test and reveal. The advantage of it is that the results will reveal if one party is a personality disorder; this could be very useful in sanctioning an NPD parent from not only too close contact with the child(ren), but also lets the court know the nature of the individual and they can then possibly begin to block frivolous court actions typically undertaken by NPD parents. The downside of the test is that each partner may be revealed as having a mental health problem.
One on One Skills
If you recognize the problematic personality characteristics in your child, it is important to be able to discipline yourself to consistently interact with the child from a very strong dialectic stance. “Dialectic’ means the skill to interact with someone concerning the discernment between opinions and facts. NPD’s are notorious for presenting their opinions and positions as facts (since they know everything and are always right, after all!) By pressing the child to understand the different between opinion, position, and facts, as well as appreciating other points of view, you are helping them to avoid ‘splitting’ habits (seeing the world in only black and white terms).
The standards of behavior for your home and your life must be made repeatedly clear, and it is useful to have strong, but reasonably set ‘bar’ for interactive morality. “Interactive morality” means adhering to the cultural norms of how people interact, avoiding manipulations, threats, demands, and boundary crossing. Any violations of the standards of interactions need to be given reasonable, but strong, meaningful, and consistent consequences. The danger for the non-NPD parent with a child who has NPD characteristics is for that parent to unconsciously begin to duplicate the interpersonal dynamic between themselves and their child that existed between themselves and their NPD ex.
It cannot be emphasized enough the role that genuine demonstrations, instructions, and rewarding of empathy can have on helping children with tendencies of NPD. Not only do NPD’s not have any empathy (though they know how to fake it), they often do not understand it at all. Teaching and pressing for genuine expressions of empathy from the child, while desirable, need to be matched by constant expressions from the parent of empathy for the child, when the child is emotionally hurt, sad, frustrated, angry, happy, or content. This ‘empathy flow’ must be tempered with the ‘high bar’ of interactive moral standards and subsequent consequences when those are violated, because if only the empathy is given, it very well could increase the NPD characteristics noted.
Finally, it may be advisable to seek out qualified, experienced help if you suspect that your child is beginning to express the NPD characteristics of their NPD parent. This may be fairly difficult to do though, as mentioned earlier, there are not many clinical counselors who do this kind of work, or are willing to consider that a child has developing NPD.
Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on January 25, 2019:
My grandson is going through this experience with my daughter's ex-husband. Ten years ago I was so proud of her for getting herself out of that toxic relationship. But with 50/50 custody, she is in a difficult situation now that her son is becoming a teen. Thanks for all this helpful information.
Demian Yumei on May 26, 2015:
Thank you for writing this. I have found most information on the internet about children concerning NPD are written for adult children of NPD and not adults who have children who appear to be growing into NPD adults. This is a nightmare that is seldom addressed and your article was enlightening.
Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 20, 2015:
I am always thankful when a mental health professional writes these sorts of articles, because such huge misinformation and myth about these topics spread like weeds through other conduits. Thank you for your good work.