Do you find it difficult to value relationships where you are treated well?
Is it difficult to envision closeness where both people feel cared for?
Do you worry that new relationships will make your friends or partner think you do not care about them?
The scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent had to cope with a shortage of love. There was not enough love coming towards the child. Not enough of the child’s love is welcomed by the narcissistic parent. Not enough love is allowed to be found in relationships outside the family.
Children are born seeking a primary connection with their parents. The parents are uniquely special to the child. The child needs security in this relationship before setting up other developmental tasks. Security means a mutual fondness, care, support, and interest felt by the parent.
In today’s blog, I explain why it is harder for a scapegoat child to separate from a narcissistic parent than a loving parent. The child is disposed only to want the connection from their parent. Suppose they find a connection readily available, then great. The child can move on to find more connections in life. If not, then the child is stuck trying to do two things. First, they have to keep the relationship going. Second, they pursue the love they need from someone who does not offer it. Recovery involves the gradual surrender of this pursuit amidst an ongoing new relationship. I will explain what all of this looks like with an extended case example.
How Love Between a Parent and Child Is Supposed To Go
An infant and parent tend to be lovingly preoccupied with each other. The parent wants to be available to the child. If the child is happy, the parent is happy. If the child needs a break from interaction, the parent affords it. If the child seems hungry, the parent feeds them. If the child is tired, the parent puts them to bed.
The parent who is not selfish cares about and tries to notice and meet their child’s needs. The child has the ongoing experience that what is inside of them matters to others. They learn that their inner world is understandable to others. They are not alone. Finally, the child learns they can safely depend on someone else to meet their needs. That is part of what the relationship is for.
As the child grows, their needs change, and the parent adjusts accordingly. Adolescents will prioritize relationships with their peers. The parent shifts to supporting them, offering an allowance, driving them to where their friends hang out, and allowing the child to host friends at home. The center of the adolescent’s world expands without losing the parent’s love and goodwill.
Here is what such a child learns about what love means. It means that someone else is there through thick and thin. The parent was there to play with the child when they were happy. The parent was also there to change the child’s diaper when needed. Or console the child when they could not sleep and were crying uncontrollably. The parent withstood the child’s anger when the parent had to deny them what they wanted. Love was a non-possessive comprehensive experience of consistent enough connection and care.
What the Child Learns About Love From a Narcissistic Parent
The child of a narcissistic parent may not find the parent available to them. Instead, the parent may look to the child to make the parent feel good. They learn that smiling in return to the parent is good. Creating a dirty diaper is bad. Sleeplessness and crying are also bad. The narcissistic parent gets angry and holds the baby roughly.
The child is not assessing the parent’s fitness as a parent, as all this happens. This parent is a necessity that the child cannot live without. No matter how poorly the narcissistic parent treats the child, the loss of the parent would be even worse.
Love Does Not Go Both Ways
The child painfully knows they matter less than the narcissistic parent. The parent is also the only person they want to matter to. Now the child is in a dilemma. If they leave the person who matters most to them, they will not survive. Yet staying close to this person means the child has to put up with the parent mattering more to them than they matter to the parent.
This disparity in mattering creates a wound in the child. They are left to conclude that something about them makes the parent take them for granted. The child’s anger at this unfair arrangement cannot be expressed to the parent. They cope by directing it towards themselves. If only the child were more exciting, well-behaved, or interesting, they might get what they hope for from the parent.
While suffering the wound of deprivation, the child must deal with the narcissistic parent’s wrath. Dealing with contempt from the same person who matters most to the child is devastating. The child already feels like they do not matter to the parent. Then if the child fails to comply with the parent’s entitled expectations, they face punishment. The phrase “insult to injury” perfectly captures what the child faces.
There is still no one to appeal to about the child’s suffering. So the child has to find a way not to believe what they are experiencing from the parent. The narcissistic parent’s contempt towards them only happens because they deserve it. Now the parent remains a viable person to the child. The cost is the child’s sense of dignity and right to protection from abuse.
Joseph’s father was a brutal and extremely selfish man. He was physically strong and liked criticizing Joseph for being “so weak” throughout his life. Joseph’s mother was extremely submissive towards her husband. She excused herself from the family dynamics by being emotionally unavailable. Joseph knew from an early age that she did not possess authority in the family system. He had to find a way to cope with his father alone.
What complicated matters was that Joseph’s father could be charismatic, funny, and affectionate when the mood struck him. Later in therapy, Joseph recalled what it would be like when his father would arrive home from work. He would bellow, “Hey everyone,” and Joseph and his sister would rush to greet him. They would all go into the kitchen where their mother was preparing dinner. Joseph and his sister would tease each other, and their father participated in the fun. There were smiles all around. Joseph remembered feeling like these moments were the best parts of his day.
These moments could have traveled better, though. Throughout his adolescence, Joseph recalled feeling very isolated and keeping to himself. He felt the time spent pursuing his goals could have been more important to everyone else. Joseph’s well-being was certainly not important to his father. Joseph only felt like he mattered when contributing to his father’s happiness.
These good-humored times in the evening would inevitably come crashing down. As dinner was winding down, his father would pose a question to someone at the table. Joseph’s stomach would drop at this moment. The question could be answered without incident. But Joseph knew that his father would explode regardless of the answer. Tonight his father asked, “By the way did anyone clean the leaves out of the gutter as I asked?”. It did not matter that everyone else had been busy with their pressing matters that day. His mother and sister looked at Joseph, who said, “Oh, I didn’t get a chance. I had a ton of homework after school.
“You what?! I asked you to do one simple thing, and you just blew it off? Who the hell do you think you are? I bust my hump daily at work and must come home to this selfishness. You don’t care about me or your family. I can’t even look at you. Get up to your room…NOW!”
For the next 24 hours, Joseph would have to walk on eggshells around his father. He feared that his mere sight would trigger his father into another verbal assault on him. He also desperately needed to get back into his father’s good graces. Being on this end of his father’s contempt was hurtful, but the worst part was how alone he felt. His mother and sister offered him no viable alternative to connect to.
Why the Child Attaches Even More to the Narcissistic Parent
The child works even harder in the face of the narcissistic parent’s emotional unavailability and contempt. The parent is too important to the child to lose. The child solves this by shelving their needs. They prioritize the parent’s needs because they must. That is the only way to attach to their narcissistic parent.
The child concludes that winning the narcissistic parent’s “love” is all-important. Expressions of appreciation, support, and care from other people seem valueless. The child is too used to working for the narcissistic parent’s affection. When others freely respond positively, the child distrusts and dismisses them.
The child’s connection to the narcissistic parent always seems in question. They must tend to this question at all times. If they do not, then they can feel the pain of how uncared for they are in this relationship. Essentially, the parent has emotionally abandoned the child while requiring the child to tend to them.
Efforts to pay attention to themselves can trigger the child’s sense of abandonment. Finding sources of happiness outside of the narcissistic parent contradicts their role. The parent will likely thwart such efforts. The child learns that they feel completely alone when they try to live their own life. This can extend to anything that requires self-activation. Exercise, critical thinking, humor, friendship, and play all require one to connect to and activate themselves. For such children, these essential experiences can trigger how emotionally abandoned they feel.
The child’s heightened attachment to the narcissistic parent relieves them of feeling abandoned. The parent requires the child to abandon themselves and orient to the parent. By doing so, the child is less connected to their feelings. Yes, this is costly in some ways, but it spares the child’s painful feelings in others. So the child’s attachment to the narcissistic parent is reinforced by the relief of feeling abandoned.
As the child or later survivor of a narcissistic parent moves away, they are more susceptible to these feelings of abandonment. Focusing more on the parent than themselves was a useful stopgap growing up. It allowed the child to not know how abandoned they felt when no good would come of it.
Joseph got into therapy in his mid-twenties. He felt a nagging sense of meaninglessness along with a frantic pressure to do all that was required of him. As I learned about his history, I offered him my conclusion that his father had severe psychological problems that were not Joseph’s fault. We worked to understand the nature of Joseph’s forced attachment to his father.
He began to wonder in treatment why he oriented his life around his father despite how abusive he was. He had gone to a college that was about an hour away. Instead of staying on campus on the weekends, he drove home to spend most weekends with his family.
“If I weren’t with them when I had time off, I’d feel aimless and so alone,” he said. He recalled how the friends in his dorm would ask him to stay and hang out on the weekends, but he would decline. Something stronger was pulling him to go home. In therapy, we understood that he had to develop a stronger attachment to his father than anyone else. Doing so prevented him from feeling catastrophic alone. It also helped him always put his father first so that he might avoid his father’s attacks for being “selfish”. He was offered no other experience to know what reciprocal attachment looks and feels like.
Recovery: Going Where Love Is Given, Not Earned
Everything described so far leads to the child believing they cannot live without the narcissistic parent. Early in life, this was a fact. Later the child had to stay attached to the parent to stave off the ever-looming feeling of abandonment. The child had to over-activate their attachment to this parent because the parent was not attaching to the child. This over-activation of attachment makes children attach more strongly to unloving than loving parents. If the child does not manufacture the relationship with the parent, then there will be none.
Recovery from this form of narcissistic abuse means surrendering the pursuit of the parent. Survivors must make sure they can survive this. They must find and surround themselves with new safe relationships to do so. “Safe” means that the survivor feels valued and responded to.
Initially, feeling valued by others may not feel good to the survivor. The narcissistic parent was the only valuable person before. The child had to identify with being of lesser value. So if someone treats the survivor as valuable today, they may be less valuable themselves, or they must not see the survivor accurately.
The survivor of narcissistic abuse also knows that this arrangement has only led to their unhappiness. If they are willing to reconsider this hierarchy of values, they may be able to hang in with these new safe relationships.
With enough time and continued participation, these safe relationships become easier to accept. The survivor grows to know that if they question the parent’s inflated importance, they will be OK. The survivor now has – and feels – other options to meet their attachment needs. Their attachment needs are healthy. Having to direct those needs to people who do not reciprocate creates suffering. This process involves attaching to people who do reciprocate.
Freedom may eventually arise. The freedom to question the importance of the parent’s goodwill over others’ goodwill. Why should the narcissistic parent’s approval matter more than a close friend’s approval?
When the survivor feels attached to people who treat them well, they see the narcissistic parent differently. The parent’s devaluation and deprivation were not necessary taxes to be paid for their company. The survivor has other options for the company that seems just as valuable. Options that require them to pay no such taxes. The survivor is now free to surrender the pursuit of attachment from a parent unwilling to reciprocate it. This means the survivor can now live in a world where reciprocal relationships are sought.
Joseph turned an important corner in his recovery as he navigated his dating life. He had a close friend named Karen with whom he stayed close. “She’s always been there for me. And she’s really smart, fun and attractive. For some reason, I’ve never been interested in her.” He said that Karen had expressed romantic interest in him, but he said he wanted to remain friends.
Joseph found himself preoccupied with another woman named Carmen. Like the opera character, Carmen was physically attractive by conventional standards, charming when she wanted to be, aloof and tempestuous. She could just as easily shower Joseph with hugs and kisses as treat him like he was not there. He never knew what to expect from her, but he always hunted for her affection.
After a few years in therapy, Joseph began to reflect on his inner experience with Carmen. Initially he could only address his anxiety over whether she would reject him and how he could prevent it. As he accrued more experience in the therapeutic relationship and other friendships of being treated with respect, care and reciprocity he seemed to feel safe enough to question his attachment to Carmen. He described feeling like he did not matter, like he could not trust himself and disempowered in his relationship to Carmen. I remarked on how similar these feelings were to what he felt in relation to his father.
“Yeah!”, he exclaimed. “I do feel the same. And I see both of them as people I have to win over no matter what. Then there’s Karen over here who’s done nothing but be there for me. I really like spending time with her and I like myself when I’m with her.”
I said, “You would be really defying your father’s rules if he went where you were wanted instead of where you had to earn your welcome.”
Over the next few months, Joseph continued to question how Carmen treated him versus how well Karen treated him. Eventually he broke up with Carmen. After a few more weeks, he found himself wanting to be closer to Karen and asking her on a date. They struck up a relationship where he continued to feel reciprocity and equal value.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.