by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
I was chatting with a friend recently about narcissism. We therapists love to talk diagnoses, and Axis 2 disorders are our proverbial bogey-man-around-the-campfire-at-night: creepy and fascinating.
Narcissism is diagnosed in only 1% of the general population, but I can tell you this: their children and grandchildren make up most of my clientele!
Why? The damage of an emotionally unavailable parent is multigenerational and multi-faceted. To understand this better, let’s compare and contrast:
Healthy parents do more than love their children (a vastly misunderstood word, love. It’s a verb, not a noun). They take DELIGHT in their children. A babies first smile, a toddlers wobbly walk, a preschoolers adorable mispronunciations, a kindergartner’s flying-leaping hugs, a first grader’s stick figure self portrait … there is never a phase in our children’s lives that we as parents cannot find something to positively swoon with love over. This delight functions as more than just a reasonable trade off for the utter loss of freedom that reproduction exacts.
The experience of being an object of delight buoys children up from the overwhelming and terrifying enormity of childhood tasks. Forget all that ridiculous malarkey about childhood being a time of total freedom.
Just like physicists, children are confronted with a rapidly expanding universe. They go from being inside a womb to a bright and noisy world, from receiving all of their nutrition from the umbilicus to learning the complexity of suck-swallow-breathe necessary to nurse, from having their movements contained in a soft womb environment and the effects of gravity limited by water, to learning movement in open three dimensional space, to moving with intention, to learning speech and social norms, cause-and-effect, safety, and all this before they even reach preschool…holy cow! Nobel prize winning theoretical mathematicians got nothin’ on toddlers.
The need for loving and consistent parents is both practical (someone has to feed and change these noisy, needy little creatures) as well as emotional: to do our developmental job as children, we have to have personal safety. Safety comes from two sources: getting our physical needs met and feeling a secure attachment to a loving caretaker.
So what happens with the child of a narcissist? The narcissist doesn’t recognize the needs of the child because they are so preoccupied with their own unmet needs. They are internally fragile and create a thick armor of self-aggrandizement and aggressive superiority. Any suggestion of their flaws or shortcomings is immediately and angrily dismissed. In fact, they are in competition with the child for love and attention. The parent fails to provide the emotional safety children need to thrive. The adult is bigger and more verbal and more powerful they do a great job convincing the child that they (the parents) happiness is the child’s responsibility.
The child becomes responsible for their own tasks (ie: grasping the complexities of a rapidly expanding universe) while simultaneously taking care the emotional wellbeing of their parent.
This creates emotional stunting. The child becomes other-directed, hyper-sensitive to the needs of those around them but oblivious to their own needs. The female children often become people-pleasers and co-dependent. They male children become aloof and emotionally dismissive to protect themselves from the emotional black hole of their needy parent. Both males and females will frequently resort to managing their anxiety and chronic feelings of emptiness by numbing out from them via addictive substances and behaviors.
If you recognize some of your own family patterns in this description, I recommend reading Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller.
- Judith Acosta, LISW, CHT: Narcissism: The New Normal? (huffingtonpost.com)
- “This is life” … No, it’s narcissism on a huge scale (professorbainbridge.com)
- It’s All About Me: But Is Narcissism A Disorder? (npr.org)
- The End of Narcissism — Or Is It a New Beginning? (psychologytoday.com)