Narcissistic parents tend to have a complex relationship with their children. On one hand, they often see their children as extensions of themselves and become overly involved in their lives. On the other hand, they frequently lack empathy and the ability to nurture their children emotionally. Determining whether narcissistic parents are truly “obsessed” with their children requires a nuanced understanding of narcissism and its impact on parenting.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy. Narcissists tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own talents and abilities, and believe they are superior to others.
Some key characteristics of narcissism include:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, and attractiveness
- Belief they are special and should only associate with other high-status people
- Need for constant admiration and attention
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment
- Tendency to exploit others for personal gain
- Lack of empathy for others’ needs and feelings
- Envious of others or belief that others are envious of them
- Arrogant behaviors and attitudes
Narcissism exists on a spectrum. About 6% of the population has narcissistic personality disorder, which is the most severe form. Many more people have some narcissistic traits without meeting the clinical threshold for full-blown NPD.
Do narcissists make good parents?
Given their tendency towards self-absorption and lack of empathy, narcissists often struggle in the parental role. Some ways narcissism can negatively impact parenting include:
- Viewing the child as an extension of themselves, rather than a separate individual with their own needs.
- Being excessively controlling and limiting the child’s independence.
- Having unrealistic expectations for their child’s behavior and accomplishments.
- Being emotionally unavailable and failing to provide warmth, comfort, and stability.
- Using the child to fulfill their own needs for admiration.
- Failing to recognize the child’s own desires and personality.
- Seeing the child as competition and being jealous of the child’s accomplishments.
That said, narcissistic traits alone do not always preclude someone from being a decent parent. There is a wide range of parental capacity among narcissistic individuals. Other personality factors like agreeableness and conscientiousness also influence how parenting manifests.
Are narcissistic parents obsessed with their children?
In some cases, narcissistic parents do become overly obsessed with their children. This obsession centers around seeing their child as an extension of themselves. Examples include:
- Micromanaging child’s life: Controlling their academic, social, and extracurricular activities. Making all decisions related to their education, friendships, hobbies – allowing little autonomy.
- Living vicariously: Pushing the child to succeed in areas the parent wishes they had, like sports or academics, regardless of the child’s own interests. Feeling the child’s accomplishments are their own.
- Excessive praise: Showering the child with praise and adoration when they succeed. Using the child’s accomplishments as evidence of their own superior parenting.
- Criticizing small failures: Being intensely critical of even small mistakes or failures. Viewing these as direct reflections on themselves.
- Manipulating child’s emotions: Disregarding the child’s independent emotional needs. Instead using praise and criticism to elicit the emotions they desire to see in their child.
In these situations, the narcissistic parent is engaged in controlling and molding the child to fit their own needs and desires. The child’s own personality and autonomy are not fully recognized. This amounts to a dysfunctional obsession.
On the other hand, some narcissistic parents are disinterested
Though obsession can occur, many narcissistic parents are also aloof and disinterested in their children:
- Find the routine demands of parenthood to be boring.
- Resent children for taking attention away from themselves.
- Feel irritable or resentful about attending events or activities centered around the child.
- See quality time with the child as a chore.
- Leave most childcare responsibilities and decision-making to the other parent or caregivers.
- Are more focused on their own interests and goals than their child’s life.
- Believe showing interest in their child’s life is “babying” them.
Rather than an obsession, these narcissistic parents demonstrate parental disinterest and emotional neglect. Their own desires consistently override the child’s needs for nurturing and support.
There are factors that increase or decrease obsession
Several factors influence whether a narcissistic parent will become obsessed and controlling of their child’s life versus aloof and uninterested:
|Factors that Increase Obsessive Parenting
|Factors that Decrease Interest in Parenting
Narcissistic parents are likely to become more wrapped up in parenting when they believe their child can fulfill unmet needs to achieve and feel admired. In contrast, defiant children who compete with their sense of superiority are more likely to provoke resentment and coldness.
There are also gender differences
Some research suggests narcissistic mothers are more likely to be engulfing and controlling, while narcissistic fathers more often demonstrate parental disinterest bordering on neglect. This may reflect gender role expectations that mothers be more attentive caregivers.
Effects on children of narcissistic parents
Being raised by a narcissistic parent – whether obsessed or disinterested – can be difficult for children:
- Impaired self-esteem: Shifting between excessive praise and severe criticism leaves the child uncertain about their worth.
- Lack of independence: The controlling parent deprives the child of opportunities to develop self-sufficiency.
- Absence of nurturing: The disinterested parent fails to provide security, comfort, and guidance.
- Emotional manipulation: The obsessed parent gives or withdraws affection based on the child’s adherence to their expectations.
- Role reversal: The child feels obligated to take care of the parent’s emotional needs.
Children require stable warmth, acceptance, and guidance to develop a strong sense of self. Narcissistic parents struggle to provide this, which can have lasting impacts on the child’s wellbeing and relationships.
That said, outcomes are variable. Having other supportive caregivers and developing resilience skills helps children cope and break unhealthy relationship patterns. Therapy can assist in recovery.
There are a mix of genetic and environmental factors
Children of narcissists are at greater risk for developing narcissistic traits themselves, but it’s not inevitable. While genetics account for 50-75% of narcissism, environment also plays a role. Providing a loving childhood environment with secure attachments can help counteract genetic risk.
Signs of unhealthy obsession versus disinterest
There are some red flags that can signal when a narcissistic parent-child relationship is veering into unhealthy obsession versus parental disinterest:
Signs of obsession:
- Making the child the center of their world and sole source of pride
- Controlling child’s interests and friendships
- Oversharing about child’s accomplishments
- Vicariously living through the child’s achievements
- Quickly shifting from over-praising to shaming when child disappoints
Signs of disinterest:
- Frequently forgetting or ignoring child’s interests and events
- Declining to participate in caretaking and bonding activities
- Paying little attention to child’s emotional needs
- Leaving discipline and basic parenting duties to others
- Becoming annoyed or irritable if child interferes with parent’s lifestyle
In moderation, parental pride and providing opportunities for children are healthy. But the degree matters – narcissistic obsession and neglect both damage a child’s sense of security.
Setting boundaries with a narcissistic parent
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, it can be challenging to set healthy boundaries as an adult. Some tips:
- Acknowledge the ways they hurt you, but don’t expect an apology. Narcissists lack empathy and self-awareness about harm caused.
- Anticipate and manage triggers. Know that conversations about certain topics will provoke old wounds.
- Limit contact if needed. You have a right to control the circumstances and duration of time with your parent.
- Build a community of chosen family. Surround yourself with people who make you feel seen, secure, and valued.
- Seek counseling. A therapist can provide validation and help you communicate better, set firmer boundaries, and process unresolved issues.
The parent-child bond is complicated, especially when narcissism is involved. Be compassionate with yourself. Healing takes time.
In summary, narcissistic parents have a complex dynamic with their children. Some become obsessively engrossed in molding their child as an extension of themselves. Others are disinterested and prioritize their own needs above their child’s. Both extremes can impair children’s emotional development. Targeted therapy and building a nurturing chosen family helps counterbalance childhood wounds for adult children of narcissists. With self-awareness and healthy boundaries, breaking the cycle of narcissistic parenting is possible.