5 ways to deal with toxic, narcissistic parents

I had no idea what narcissistic parents are until I started watching The Sopranos.

The TV series created by David Chase deals with the emotional problems of a New Jersey mob boss, who suddenly suffers a panic attack. After reading about the topic and talking to people who have toxic family relationships of their own, I realized my parents might have real symptoms of narcissism.

The Sopranos
The Sopranos

The first problem that dragged my relationship with them down is the lack of respect. These parents demand to be treated nicely but they can’t seem to make the effort to treat others the same.

Another red flag of narcissism is emotional manipulation.

I found myself many times consumed with guilt , because I was told to do certain things to be considered a ‘good’ child. When I refused to do those things, I felt as if I lost parental approval.

An adult child who realizes he has been raised by a narcissist is very vulnerable. He will often wonder if he’s exaggerating or is too sensitive and can’t take critique from his own folks. He will often give the benefit of the doubt to his parent because, in the end, he only has one mom and one dad and their time on earth is limited.

Right? Wrong.

Think of your parents and remember the last time you’ve been with them. How do you talk to them? How do you feel around them? Do they support you and encourage you to achieve your goals? Are they taking interest in your life without controlling what you do and how you should live?

If you can’t be yourself around them and feel like you have to protect yourself from their influence or, worse, like you have to physically separate from them to be at peace, your parents might be toxic or narcissistic.

However, there are ways to learn a better way to deal with them and not fighting or being in constant conflict with them. If you already suspect your parents to have unhealthy levels of narcissism, understand that they can’t ever change. In order to maintain a less dramatic relationship with them, one needs to learn what narcissistic parents are and try to set clear boundaries with them.

I have studied about narcissistic parents since the beginning of this year and, most of the information I got was about the damaging effects that these parents can have on their children. The advises given on websites that deal with this issue, point out towards a terminal solution: cutting the toxic ties with them.

We all know that it’s not easy.

How many people can easily detach from their own mother even though she is an abusive person? It takes time and effort to emotionally separate from your own flesh and blood. Until then, I’d like to talk about ways to lighten the interaction with the narcissist in your life.

My parents showed signs of narcissism toward me and my brothers ever since we were small. I had to wear ‘those pretty jeans’ because my mother liked them a lot. When I refused one day after being uncomfortable in them for many times, I was told I was bad and unworthy of her love.

We weren’t allowed to make a ‘mess’ in the house and each time we dropped food on the floor, we were yelled at or spanked. My brother was admonished for not excelling in school like the neighbour’s kids. ‘Why can’t you be more intelligent like that kid?’ my mother would ask him.

Like every other narcissist, narcissistic parents are completely oblivious to their behaviour. They never admit they did something wrong to their children. Even if the children were criticized and yelled at daily from a young age, it was done with love and profound care.

Perhaps, this is the most painful part of being raised by narcissists: being constantly invalidated.

When a child is hurt by the parent and the parent doesn’t admit that she did something wrong, the child will grow up thinking that his feelings don’t matter.

Healthy and unhealthy narcissism

We all have certain levels of narcissism. We all want to be loved, seen, heard and cared for. We talk about ourselves and our problems with the ones we care about. We take ‘selfies’ and hope that our Facebook friends will be wooed by our new hairdo or sense of style. We hope that people will be interested in us and in our achievements. This is healthy narcissism and a good level of self-appreciation.

If we don’t appreciate ourselves, if we walk around all day hating our thoughts, wishing we could disappear, we end up failing in all our relationships.

‘Psychology Today’ dedicates an article to the ‘healthy side of narcissism’ and I appreciate that we can read more about the positive narratives surrounding this subject. I believe that loving ourselves should always come first so, we are able to nurture others, too.

As Pierre Corneille used to say, ‘Self-love is the source of all our other loves’.

On the other hand, unhealthy or pathological narcissism is shown through a lack of openness and will to share the intimate world with those around us. Narcissistic parents will never accept responsibility for their mistakes or faulty actions because, that would put them in a vulnerable spot. I noticed that narcissistic parents want to be perceived as ‘perfect’ or flawless at all costs.

This is the unhealthy side of narcissism and, living with this disorder means to care for a false sense of self. We can’t be perfect and, to walk among people who always do things right, would be like walking among robots.

What to do?

Limiting the contact with a narcissistic parent is the most difficult thing to do. My heart is still breaking for putting myself trough this emotional separation. In the end, my parents gave me life, fed me and made sure I had clothes and a nice, warm bed to sleep in.

However, when limiting the contact with a toxic parent, things around us become brighter, we become more open to the others around.  I even started feeling something I never felt before-freedom and happiness combined. It is our job and our responsibility to care for ourselves, because no one will come and tell us to do so. Liberating ourselves from the control of a narcissistic parent is a difficult thing to do but, it will become easier once we practice it. Here are few suggestions that worked for me:

1. Understand why narcissistic parents are narcissists

I learned that my parents had dysfunctional relationships with their own parents, thus, narcissism was a learned behaviour. During the early years, a child needs care, comfort, love and validation for what he feels. Narcissistic parents were not given these things and had to carry with them unspoken pains that were never addressed.

They never questioned their relationships with their caretakers and continued to be close to them over the years.

Relationships are the most beautiful things that can happen in life and, if they’re not adding to our comfort and overall happiness but worse, they lower our self-esteem and make us question our loveliness, they’re not worthy.

In a functional relationship, we’re happy when there’s a mutual exchange of giving and taking. Narcissistic parents do not give because they’re not open to others.

2. Remind yourself that you’re not the problem

Remember that when parents criticize something at you that you can’t easily control, they do it because they are not at peace with themselves. They can’t say ‘I’m hurt because I don’t feel listened to by my children or friends’ so they’ll say ‘Nobody cares about me’ as if the world is out there to get them. It’s not your fault when they feel bad about something that happened to them.

Your only work is to care for your happiness and not to take care of your parents’ feelings.

3. Keep the conversation simple

I became a master at talking about weather changes and food choices with my parents. Shallow subjects are good ways to keep everyone happy-we as adult children and them as parents.

I used to treat my mother like a very close friend and told her intimate details about my life. After all these details were used for her to find new reasons to criticize me and my choices, I learned to share less.

Toxic and narcissistic parents have little insight into their own psychology and refrain from change. Therefore, they are grounded in a negative mindset. Don’t provoke this mindset and keep the conversation simple.

4. Manage your phone calls

Narcissistic parents want to have your time and your attention constantly. I don’t mind talking to my relatives often if they treat me nice over the phone. However, when I receive phone calls that sound judgemental and negative, I cut them short.

Decide when you want to call your parents and define your boundaries clearly. If they will start talking about subjects that make you feel bad, tell them you won’t listen. If they refuse to comply, excuse yourself and hang up the phone. Just because they are your parents, you don’t have to do whatever they ask you.

5. Try therapy

Living for such a long time with narcissistic parents who tell you what to do, what to think, how you should act is mind numbing. In therapy, you’ll learn to separate emotionally from your parents and discover your true self.

When I was small, I knew I loved writing and art so, all I did was writing and painting.

When I expressed my wish to be in art classes, I was told it wasn’t a good choice for me. Thus, I studied psychology and pleased my mom who wanted to have a child with higher education. Luckily, psychology became a passion of mine but I still regret not having the possibility to choose.

Being children of narcissistic parents don’t make us bad or even narcissistic. It will make us a bit more vulnerable than others who didn’t grow up in a dramatic family setting. Finding ways to protect ourselves from these toxic relationships will surely help us grow.

For more on this subject, please read:

‘Will I ever be good enough’, Dr. Karyl McBride


‘Toxic parents: overcoming their hurtful legagcy’, Susan Forward, Craig Buck

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15 thoughts on “5 ways to deal with toxic, narcissistic parents

  1. Great article, Marlena, great advice. My problem is that I find it very hard to have shallow conversations with my grandmother, they annoy me, I feel like wasting time and that my true emotions, interests are nothing and all I can talk to is weather, food and cats. It’s frustrating

  2. Thank you for your comment. Well, if a parent or a relative of yours is toxic or narcissistic you can’t have a deep or meaningful conversation with them. Your emotions and interests are not nothing, they do matter. But not to them. This is a very difficult subject but I noticed that, learning more about toxic family relationships is what can help us cope emotionally.

  3. I have been advised and I’d like to tell you the same, to get your needs meet through other kind of relationships-friends, partner, people you care about and who care about you, too.

  4. “Your only work is to care for your happiness and not for your parents’ happiness.”
    One of the most selfish thing I have heard lately.
    I’d advise you to do a little research on people who get to live around or even over 80, 90 and see just how much care they put in their family’s happiness. And yes, selflessness and a happy and long life are deeply correlated.

    1. Dear anonymous. Thank you for your comment but I think you misunderstood the subject of this post.
      If you are raised by toxic, abusive parents you cannot be around them all your life. It is not your job to put up with their toxic behaviour. Yes, if your parents support you and help you grow emotionally, you should help them. But, you’re not responsible for your parents’ happiness. Only they can be responsible for their feelings.
      And, I see selfishness as not caring for yourself. If you can’t care for your needs, you won’t be able to tend to other people’s needs. It’s like in an airplane, you have to put your oxygen mask first before saving others.

  5. Thank you, the article was helpful. I think I’m at the point of switching to conversations about weather, etc. with my parents. It feels awful, as this means that I’m kind of giving up on them – giving up on the idea that they will heal, that I can do or say something that will help them improve their condition. Well they’ve always been in denial so what’s the use ? It’s not like I haven’t tried. The sad thing is that our relationship becomes more phony when the conversations become more shallow. Anyway, I guess it’s the only way to keep the relationship alive as I don’t have any tolerance for allowing their abusive behavior anymore. What a coincidence – I wanted to be a painter too and was denied that dream. I still kept on painting on and off though and at the age of 34 , I’m considering that it could be a profession for the first time. So I’m having a go at rekindling the dream , wish me luck ! I hope you still give yourself some time to paint, your inner child deserves it. Happy to hear that psychology became your passion even though it was not the original choice. Best wishes..

    1. Thank your for your comment. Yes, keeping the conversation shallow works, and it works well for some people. Don’t tolerate their abuse and live life like you want to live. It’s your life, not theirs.
      I have started drawing and it feels great, but painting is a painful activity to me as it brings on bad memories. 🙁
      Good luck with your new endeavors!

      1. Thank you 🙂 Yes, I understand. I paint and draw only in sketchbooks at the moment. Somehow it’s scary to move on to a bigger canvas ! I guess it has to do with the memories too. Well, one step at a time is best approach I think. Maybe it could be good to paint in a group with a creatively nurturing leader/teacher. I’m looking at evening / short courses for encouragement. It’s not good to force ourselves but I know that there is sweetness beyond that pain !

  6. This is a perfectly written article that exactly explains what is happening to me, I am unsure what lies ahead… thank you so much Marlena!! take care

  7. Thank you for this article, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the effects of narcissistic parents and I have definitely realized a lot about my family and even myself. I think I’ve been in denial all my life thinking that there was nothing wrong with my life and that their was just something wrong with me but my mother was the one that made me believe that I was the problem or I create problems in my head. I do believe my mom also suffers from Bi polar disorder or some sort of personality disorder cause she would be one person one minute and then change drastically to something different and make excuses to prove her point and it screws me up. I’ve recently told her I need space and haven’t talked to her even though she sends me messages but I know within myself I cant handle her anymore and I feel like I’ve changed as a person and I finally want a better life. Its been a tough road and my anxiety has been through the roof but I’m just finally trying to learn how to live without taking care of my mother…if that makes sense lol She really affected me and my husbands relationship and I feel like we have been getting stronger now that we are finally trying to focus on ourselves. But there’s still that pain inside me of how much this has affected my life and how do I move on from it….Just hope it gets better. Thanks for listening (:

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you decided to put the focus on you and your life. You totally deserve to take care of what’s important to you and not to your mother. That pain you’re talking about is what all ACONs feel. We just have to carry this pain of having unloving parents and focus on our life. If you need extra help with this, I advise you to subscribe to my newsletter. There will be new products and services coming soon. Take care