narcissistic parents as a theme painted in ingmar bergman's movie Autumn Sonata

Narcissistic parents abuse their children in subtle ways.

As a result of volunteering for a support group that helps abused adult children, I learned how exactly narcissistic parents behave. My goal with this post is to raise awareness of the emotional abuse that often stays hidden in families with narcissists and with those who enable their behavior.

Narcissistic parents are very dangerous to their children, because their abusive behavior can damage their mental health. The adult child does not know what it’s happening to him but suffers in silence.

Usually, narcissistic abuse leads to feelings of self-hate, a negative mindset or to toxic relationships that reflect the unhealthy dynamic at home.

Now, before listing the types of abuse done by narcissistic parents, I’d like to make a short analogy with the movie ‘Autumn Sonata’ (1978), by Ingmar Bergman.

The film tells the story of a celebrated classical pianist who comes to visit her daughter, Eva, in her home.

Charlotte Andergast (played by Ingrid Bergman) is portrayed as an emotionally distant mother who is not able to understand why neglecting her daughter’s needs as a child was a terrible thing.

From her point of view, she did her best to cope with both the fame and the concept of motherhood. Charlotte’s idea of how a mother should behave doesn’t involve empathizing with the child or offering nurture and care. As a mother, she was cold as a stone and treated everybody with the same coldness.

Being raised by a narcissistic mother was very confusing to me. I remember that mom didn’t want to connect with me and I spent my childhood trying to form an emotional bond with my neighbors’ kids or with my friends at school instead.

I wasn’t aware that my mother was emotionally scarred until my first session with a therapist in college. Before that, I thought that, whatever happened in our family, was pretty normal. It took me years in therapy and being on my own, in a different country to learn that I was emotionally abused and lived with narcissistic parents.

The biggest red flag in the relationship with my mother was her lack of empathy. Every time I was ill or struggled with mental health problems, she would either become frustrated with me or ignore me completely.

In an article for www.yourtango.com, Sam Alibrando, PhD, explains how narcissistic people react to sickness or strong emotions. Narcissists hate vulnerability because they see it as a flaw in the human psyche. Being weak is the worst because they have not learned, as children how to deal with their own vulnerabilities.

Instead, they were taught to put on a mask to protect their ego. Perhaps, that is why my mother would become cold and unresponsive when people got sick or emotional around her.

Types of abuse by narcissistic parents

We have all heard the term ‘narcissistic parents‘ and maybe we managed to recognize a bit of narcissism in the way other parents behave on social media. Sometimes, they share hundreds of photos with their youngster’s adventures or talk too much about the most insignificant events in their lives.

I don’t think this behavior is highly narcissistic. Maybe these parents are just too proud or over excited about becoming a parent and caring for another human being.

However, that’s what we are told by the media: taking too many selfies or photos with your children and posting them online is a narcissistic thing to do. What I learned about narcissistic parents from my experience, therapy and online work, is that, narcissistic behavior is very hard to spot. Moreover, narcissistic abuse is witnessed by very few people who happen to be a part of the family unit.

Bellow are the types of narcissistic behaviors that hurt children, with facts drawn from my personal research on the subject.

1. They neglect their children

Emotional neglect is one of the most subtle sign of abuse. That’s because, it is really hard to draw a distinction between a parent showing that she cares or just manipulating you into thinking she cares.

Narcissistic mothers want their kids to know they care without actually making the effort to prove it. Much like Bergman’s cold mother, mom was also unable to show love for those around her. And that made her more challenging to me. That made me fight for her, competing with the insatiable thirst of her ego.

According to author and psychotherapist, Ross Rosenberg, narcissistic parents use their children to gain love and comforting feelings that they didn’t get as children. This is a form of emotional neglect. By perceiving the child as something that he/she isn’t, (a source of comfort) the parent is actually ‘abandoning’ him.

Narcissistic parents have one-sided relationships with people. As a child you’ll need to give because there is no other thing to do. But as an adult, you have the option to stop giving and manage your own life, instead of theirs. You can live your life independent from your parents’ love and approval.

The painful phase of emotional neglect that most adult children of narcissistic parents go through, is painted beautifully in ‘Autumn Sonata’.

During Charlotte and Eva’s interaction, we feel Eva’s inner struggle when she brings up the unbearable loneliness she felt as a child. She explains how empty the house felt during her mother’s long absence.

2. They question the child’s worth

A child of a narcissist won’t have much value except for being a source of narcissistic supply. But what is a narcissistic supply? you might ask.

According to Sam Vaknin, author of the book, ‘Malignant self-love‘, narcissistic supply is the narcissist’s drug. It is an act of asking from a loved one, constant attention, validation and praise. Some parents even ask some questions that would ‘force’ you to praise them. Something like ‘Didn’t I raise you well?’ or ‘I have done so many sacrifices for you over the years. Tell me it’s not true’.

All these statements force the adult child to pity them, to express praise or validation. I would often be forced into praising my mom and telling her she did a good job raising me because I didn’t want her to get upset.

However, asking for constant validation from your own child is wrong. That’s because it sends out the message that the child is not important. The needs of the narcissistic parents are the most valuable and everyone should focus on them only.

A part of the dialogue from ‘Autumn Sonata’ shows how a toxic parent asks for validation from her own child. (Eva confronts her mother about her absence)

Eva: I read your letters out loud. Your long, loving, amusing letters in which you told us of your interesting travels. We sat there like two idiots, reading your letters, over and over. We thought a more wonderful person didn’t exist.

Charlotte: You hate me.

3. They parentify their children

In an article from www.psychcentral.com called ‘Harming your child by making him your parent’,  parentification is explained as the process of turning a child into a parent.

In other words, the needs of the child are sacrificed in order for the parent to fulfill his own needs.

‘In parentification the parent gives up what they are supposed to do as a parent and transfers that responsibility to one or more of their children. Hence the child becomes parentified’. (Minuchin, Montalvo, Guerney, Rosman, & Schumer, 1967).

Examples of parentification:

-the child needs to listen to his mother’s emotional problems or struggles as a mother or wife;

-the child needs to encourage the mother when she is in a low point in her life, thinking it is his responsibility to do so;

-the child takes over the duties of the adults in the parental home and starts cleaning, cooking or taking care of his younger siblings.

4. They infantilize their children

Infantilization is the process of treating a child much younger than he actually is.

The child is made to think that he is not able to grow up or be mature enough to take care of himself. The only way he can survive in the world is through the help of his parent. Narcissistic parents need to feel needed by their children. They can’t accept the fact that children grow fast and their adult life will stop revolving around their parents.

Honey, will you please not grow up?

Examples of infantilization:

-Your parent speaks in a baby style to you: trying to show they care for you like they’d care for a helpless baby

-Your parent assumes unnecessary responsibility for your well-being: choosing your clothes, choosing your hair style or even the decorations of the apartment you live in. They can even choose boyfriends or girlfriends for you, without asking your opinion.

-Your parent cuts in a conversation and speaks for you instead letting you have an opinion.

-Your parent doubts every decision that you make, thinking that you’ll fail or not handle the consequences.

My mother made all these errors and fortunately, I’m less angry with her than I was years ago. Now that I know why she behaves in such a controlling way, I’m not hurt but rather more compassionate. One way to deal with a parent who treat you like a helpless child is by setting strong boundaries.

You can go to my article on setting boundaries and learn what it takes to put some distance between you and your omnipresent mother.

5. They use guilt to control the adult child

I have written about unhealthy guilt on this blog.

In general, unhealthy guilt is felt when you take the responsibility for your parent’s feelings. A narcissistic mother might want to choose the house you’re going to live in with your partner and if you refuse, she might resort to emotional manipulation.

She will assume you’re a bad daughter/son for refusing her help. After all she has done for you, you can’t even involve her in your decisions!

Whenever you feel guilty for something you didn’t do, remind yourself that it is your mother’s problem to deal with whatever feelings of rejection she might have.

You’re allowed to say ‘no’ to your mother for as many times as you want. Read more about unhealthy guilt from my earlier post, 5 ways to deal with unhealthy levels of guilt.

6. They assign ‘roles’ to each sibling

According to the psychotherapist Michelle Piper, the author of www.narcissisticmother.com, children of narcissistic parents are often put into shifting roles.

The golden child is the most important child in the family, often seen as the hero who can fix the family or the one who can do no wrong. He is usually a reflection of the mother’s inner flawless image. The child is perfect because the mother feels she is perfect.

Every small accomplishment is celebrated, thus, the golden child’s ego suffers. As a result of this, the golden child grows up becoming too proud of himself or confused about his own identity.

After the golden child, comes the scapegoat child. This guy is the opposite of the family hero. He is usually blamed for everything bad that happens in the family. If the scapegoat somehow manages to succeed in his career, his accomplishments will be belittled or completely ignored.

The third role is the one of the ignored child or the lost one. Being made to feel invisible is the burden that this child has to carry. Ignored children do their best to stay hidden in order to not trigger the parent’s anger.

In ‘Autumn Sonata‘, we see clearly that Charlotte’s second daughter, Helena, is the ignored child. Due to her illness, she is unable to move or use her muscles.

In an attempt to ask for help, she crawls down the stairs to reach her sister and mother who argue passionately in the living room. (I found that scene painful to watch)

7. They ‘worry’ too much for their adult children

There are two types of narcissistic mothers: ignoring mothers and engulfing ones.

An ignoring mother will usually leave you alone or not want to talk to you for long periods of time. I heard people saying that, having this kind of mother helped them heal faster.

However, the ignoring mothers are hard to deal with because they will involve in every aspect of the adult child’s life. They will tell you they worry so much for you and it is for your own benefit that they want to help.

I think ‘worrying’ for an adult child who has his life put together is a form of manipulation. That’s because, by telling the children they’re very worried for them, it shows how little trust they have in them. It is possible that the adult child will start to believe he is indeed not capable to be on his own.

You can watch ‘Everybody loves Raymond‘ to get an idea of how insecure parents worry too much for their grown up children.

8. They ignore and overwhelm the child when it suits them

During childhood, the child might be ignored for months in a row, and some other times, he might be given too much attention.

There is no consistency in how much attention is given to the child. Narcissistic parents decide when to suffocate their children with too much praise and when to make them feel like they don’t exist.

9. They gaslight their children

Gaslighting is a method of manipulation used by narcissistic parents to deny any ill-treatment given to the child. The parent will rewrite the reality of what happened, so that it fits their false image of a good and caring person.

Theodore L. Dorpat thinks that gaslighting occurs ‘when false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity’.

I read that people, in general will twist reality a bit to make themselves look good. For example, you convince your friend to do some shopping and buy some interesting boots you spot in a catalog. When you go out in a group and another friend compliments your friend’s boots, she might say that it was her who found the boots, not you. This is gaslighting.

However, the reason your friend gaslighted you wasn’t to make you feel bad. It was to make herself the bright, decisive person in front of others.

On the other hand, malignant narcissists gaslight people with the intent to hurt them, so they gain a twisted, inner satisfaction from it.

You can find out how to deal with this type of abuse using this link www.outofthefog.website.

10. They say I love you but behave in unloving ways

Some narcissistic parents will be very nice or say I love you often. However, these phrases are not sincere or given unconditionally.

Unlike healthy, mature parents, narcissistic parents will only declare their love if they know they’ll gain something from it. They don’t say it to make you feel good.

Thus, children raised by these parents learn that conditional love is a normal behavior.

In order to have healthy relationships, adult children of narcissistic parents need to find their true self, build their damaged self-esteem and learn how to satisfy their needs on their own.

If you know someone who is abused verbally or emotionally in their families, please read this article and share it with them. Leave a comment bellow or add a type of narcissistic behavior you have witnessed yourself.

Thanks for reading!

N.B: ‘Autumn Sonata’ is a powerful movie and, if you have been abused by your mother, it will trigger intense, emotional reactions in you.

Photo credit: https://themovierat.com/2015/08/

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Written by Marlena Bontas
I'm a writer of fiction and non-fiction with an MA in Social Psychology. My favorite subjects to write about are mental health, wellness, society, culture and art. I relax with a cup of coffee or while listening to music.