Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.
If you are familiar with blogs and articles about what to do if you are involved with a toxic individual, you are aware that the most common advice given is to cut all ties with the narcissist. Although this can seem like extreme advice, when dealing with a toxic narcissist the strategies they use to maintain control over the people in their life, manipulate them, and make them become the person they want and need can sometimes destroy the person being targeted.
In normal families we look to our mothers to empathically reflect our feelings, desires, and needs and her ability to do this sends the message that we have worth. However, in toxic families with a narcissistic mother, children are raised to believe very differently.
This type of mother can’t empathize with, support or validate her children nor does she strive to do so. This can damage her child’s ability to develop in an emotionally healthy manner.
As in the Greek myth about Narcissus, the toxic mother can see only her own needs and everything is perceived as a reflection of herself. She does not perceive boundaries that separate her and her child even as the child gets older and enters adulthood. She never perceives her child to be a unique or special individual who has grown into their own person.
She does not see them as worthy of love, comfort, help or support. They are only people who are an extension of herself who she uses for her own needs. While the specific symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder vary slightly from individual to individual and differ in severity, they inevitably prevent the ability to parent in a healthy manner. Children of mothers with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not a focus of their attention as the parent’s primary goal is to prevent their negative and intolerable self-concept from surfacing out of the unconscious.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, the mother uses strategies to create and maintain an image of being superior to others through her wonderful ways and actions. For this to be successful, she must be in control of everything at all times and does this through using any tactic available to gather as much information on those in her life as she can. This ensures that everyone believes what she intends them to, and if someone doesn’t, she can correct it with further manipulation or victimize them so no one believes anything they say.
Children are also often victimized through such strategies as gaslighting, spreading negative rumors behind their backs and sabotaging whatever they are good at or would make them happy, including relationships. Many toxic mothers believe that for their child to succeed at anything gives them some degree of superiority over the mother and that’s not acceptable.
Children of toxic mothers are often traumatized in childhood and even adulthood by their parent’s abuse and the rumors and attempts to ruin their reputation with other family members and friends follows them as the get older. The adult child is often left alone, unable to draw on other family members for support, and it’s not unusual that the child of a toxic mother will move far away from where the family home is.
They may also feel self-conscious about contacting relatives or friends, not knowing what to say as they fear everything will get back to narcissistic parent who will hold onto the information until they can use it against the child, not an unrealistic fear. The most common rumor spread by narcissistic mothers is that their child is mentally ill. They try to gaslight the child into believing this as well and are often successful.
Despite the work done to destigmatize mental illness, there is still the tendency for people to shy away from someone with such a label. So even if the child moves to a place where they have some family, those relatives will also be told lies about the adult child so that they never want the adult child near them and it’s as if the individual really has no relatives where they’ve moved to either.
Growing up as the child of a narcissist is very traumatizing experience, especially given that the child is expected to not only never share anything about what’s really going on in the family but is also expected to help the parent establish the positive, exceptional family image that they want people to believe exists. The child must except the emotional abuse that occurs in private and extol the virtues of the family, especially the mother, publicly.
Since someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder will do practically anything to maintain their superior self-image for themselves as well as others, they are not likely to be willing to consider the possibility that the things they do are not positive and justified. They literally believe that nothing they do can ever be wrong. Because of this, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to change themselves or the way they treat their children and others in their lives. It is all they know.
As change is unlikely, something that children realize after numerous attempts to make the narcissist see what they are doing and how much pain and harm they are causing their child, at some point the adult child faces the decision of whether to cut all ties with this parent, which likely means the rest of the family as well, and start a life somewhere away from the toxic person. Many come to the conclusion that this is the only way they will survive psychologically and the only way to avoid further abuse and trauma.
An earlier study examined both the parent and adult child’s reasons for estrangement. Results indicated that parents most frequently reported that the main reasons for the estrangement were
- Their child’s unacceptable relationship
- Their child is narcissistic (based on personal reading)
- Their intolerable sense of entitlement
- Their child has become defensive, angry and hostile,
- A mental illness warped how the child thinks, making her see things not as they really are and prevents her from having good relationships with people.
- Unwillingness of the child to communicate with the parent at all
Adult children more often said that the estrangement was due to:
- Parent’s toxic behavior
- Parent is “narcissistic” (based on personal reading)
- Emotional abuse which their parents refused to take any responsibility for and being around them caused too much hurt
- The cumulative pain which was never discussed, reconciled or even acknowledged became too much
- Conflicting expectations about roles and rules
- Parents lack of interest in child’s life,
- Lack of emotional closeness
- Lack of communication
- Feeling unsupported and unaccepted within the family
- Personality clashes
Parents also said they were unsure of what had caused the estrangement significantly more often than the adult children.
Examining estrangement from the perspective of both parents and adult children offers potential avenues for family reconciliation and future communication research
A new study may ultimately help us understand the dynamics between a toxic parent and child that are related to estrangement and implications for determining how they might be reunited or at least how some degree of positive contact can be initiated.
The study did not screen for personality disorders or symptoms so there is no knowing how many, if any of the participants were answering from such a point of view. Subjects were 1035 mothers currently estranged from their child or children. Over 50 percent of the mothers reported having not contact with their adult child in at least a year.
When asked about the reasons for the estrangement, the most common reasons given were that a family member (child’s spouse or the other parent or step parent) had turned the child against them or that the child had a mental illness or addiction. Mothers tended not to attribute the cause to themselves and failed to validate their child’s allegation of abuse or neglect. Only 18 percent of the mothers said they could have been at fault for the estrangement with the rest placing the blame directly on the shoulders of their child or children.
While there is no indication of whether or not narcissistic characteristics played a role in these mother’s answers, the answers themselves could be seen as being similar to what you would expect a narcissist to answer. Blaming her spouse, or the child’s partner, and accusing the child being mentally ill, are common things you hear a narcissist say when creating victims to use to help establish a sense of superiority and gain sympathy and attention from others.
If there were no mothers with narcissistic characteristics or the actual disorder, interventions on perspective taking and communications could be put into place with these mothers and their adult children to establish an initial protocol. Non-narcissistic mothers would be more likely to care about repairing the relationship with their children than narcissistic mothers would so this would be a good way to establish an effective intervention.
The intervention could then be evaluated and tweaked for mothers who have narcissistic qualities which aren’t severe, to get it closer to being applicable to mothers with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
It’s unclear whether any such intervention would actually work with mothers who have a severe version of the disorder since they don’t care about being able to take others' perspectives and would resist trying to learn how since they believe that everyone should be taking their perspective, especially their child. Similarly, communication training would not likely work with this population since they are not interested in communicating, they are interested in controlling and manipulating.
Attempting this, however, is like making someone jump into the deep end of the pool when they don’t know how to swim. The only way to potentially help a narcissist is to give them enough coping strategies so they won’t run or turn up their defenses when the therapist attempts to slowly peel back their defense mechanisms to get at what led to their lack of self-worth.
This must first be healed before they can consider other people’s perspectives. This would entail long-term therapy with a variety of adjuvant therapy to handle some of the secondary symptoms.
However, it’s extremely rare to see a narcissist enter therapy, since this would suggest they have a problem and they cannot admit this. When they do come in, it’s usually because they are court ordered, have been sent by their boss as they’re in danger of losing their job or have had an ultimatum issued by a spouse who is ready to leave them if they don’t go to therapy.
Once in therapy though, they are unlikely to discuss any of their problems and will instead discuss everyone else’s problems as they see them. Trying to figure out what the first step would be when the patient doesn’t feel the need to take any steps can be an exhausting exercise.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2021 Natalie Frank