You know those conversations when you’re just sitting there, and it feels like it’s the other person’s show and you’re just watching? Or those times when they make your problem seem smaller than theirs? When it’s a persistent pattern, and when it-broadly-involves extreme selfishness or self-centeredness, it’s considered narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
The “easy” solution is to cut those people out of your life, says Kasey Stanton, PhD, a psychology professor at Western University in London, Ontario-but what if it’s the very people who raised you, your parents? Dealing with a narcissistic parent can put a strain on your relationship because you might hold them to a higher standard than other people in your life. Moreover, growing up in a narcissistic household makes you feel like your parents can never be wrong. If you sense that you might have a narcissistic parent, here are common signs and some expert tips on how to deal with them.
What is a narcissist?
First, a brief explainer on what makes a narcissist. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-5,), narcissism is defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy.” It usually begins in early adulthood, and it presents in a variety of ways, including:
- Having a grandiose sense of self-importance
- Being preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success
- Believing he or she is “special” and can only be understood by other “special” people
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement, like unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative. They take advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes
In order for someone to be diagnosed with NPD, they must meet a minimum of five or more of these patterns. However, these criteria aren't always that black and white, says Stanton. “We’re all a little narcissistic to various degrees, but it’s when it becomes pathological that you need to worry," he says.
Signs you have a narcissistic mother or father
So what are the signs unique to parent-child relationships that begin bordering on pathological? We asked Stanton to explain a few.
Their standards are unrealistically high
Those with NPD often have high standards for others. "That could potentially extend to their children and could mean thinking their child is the best and deserves recognition or seeing the child as an extension of him or herself," says Stanton.
Narcissism can also manifest as thinking their child needs to be a superstar in their career, or very good looking-beyond a reasonable standard. It really becomes a problem when it affects others, like a parent contacting a child’s coach or professors, which creates more issues for the child, who might be viewed more negatively.
They don't seem to care about what's happening in your life
Does your parent frequently tell you everything going on in their lives without ever asking you what’s going on in yours? Or, do they tell you just to put on a happy face, despite what you're really feeling? If you find yourself sweeping your feelings under a carpet, this could be a red flag that you have a narcissistic parent. The parent is too preoccupied with their own needs to tend to yours. “We often think of the ideal parent as one who puts children’s needs first,” says Stanton, “but someone who lacks empathy and perspective is likely going to have a much harder time, as they may struggle to recognise children’s needs and when those needs should be addressed."
Sometimes, you feel like you're the parent
If you’ve been acting more like a caretaker than a child since you were young, this is just one way your parent could be taking advantage of you. Other ways could include borrowing money from you without repaying. Sometimes, a parent will also do something nice for their child, like praising, complimenting or helping with chores, but they expect their children to return this favor with a lot of praise, explains Stanton.
They expect you to worship them
A parent who is domineering or authoritarian often needs a lot of attention and praise. An example is a parent expecting whatever they say or do to be followed or respected without question from others. “They might lash out at children or other family members if they don't receive what they deem to be enough praise or attention,” Stanton explains.
They truly believe you are perfect
Every parent believes that about their kids, but narcissists take it to an extreme. Another common trait of narcissistic parents is projecting their own narcissism on their children by seeing them as perfect or special-beyond reproach. “A narcissistic parent might interpret any negative feedback or setback that their child has as others being jealous of their child or being ‘out to get them’ because they're jealous,” says Stanton.
How to deal with narcissistic parents
The good news, according to Stanton, is that you don't have to cut off your relationship with your parent. Talking it out can definitely help. “A lot of the skills would apply even with working with a non-narcissistic parent-communicating your needs and focusing on how you’re feeling.”
For example, you’d say, “it really hurts me when you judge my appearance,” rather than “you make me feel hurt.”
As soon as they hear a "you" statement, Stanton says it puts them on the defensive. It’s important to set clear boundaries and expectations because unlike a friend or partner, you usually can’t cut them out of your lives quite that easily.
Another way to facilitate behavior change is to “appeal to their grandiosity a bit,” Stanton says. In other words, use some of their own traits on them. What would be in it for them to approach the situation in a different way? “I’d come at it this way: ‘you’re a great parent when you do this, but I want things to be that way-how about [compromise]?," he says. You can also use this approach if you're a parent co-parenting with a narcissist. "Even if this positive behavior is rare, reward it with praise when you can, such as telling your partner you appreciate when they gave you or your child a compliment,” says Stanton.
Over time, focusing on rewarding those positive behaviors from them (don’t we all just want to be rewarded?) will help increase the frequency of the positive rather than the negative.