Was there a big disparity in power between your parents?
Did one of your parents make the other parent seem disappointing, dangerous, or rejecting?
Have you found it difficult to see the good in this other parent?
A narcissistic parent often does not like to share the “throne” of parenthood. In these cases they may denigrate their partner so that they are the only parent with authority in the home. When one parent pits the child against the other parent the child is thrown into a state conflict. The child wants to love and be loved by both parents but is being told that this is impossible. In order for one parent to keep loving them they must agree to hate the other parent. The narcissistic parent will often pressure and threaten the child to agree with them. Disagreement can lead to emotional withdrawal, accusations of betrayal and rejection. The child is left seeking reasons to agree that the other parent is as bad as the narcissistic parent claims. When these reasons are found, the child resolves their inner conflict at tremendous cost.
In today’s video I examine the destructive impact of one parent scapegoating the other. Also known as parental alienation, this practice requires the child to side with the narcissistic parent or else. First, I discuss two reasons why a narcissistic parent scapegoats the other parent. Second, I describe the emotional and developmental costs to the child of the scapegoat parent. A fictionalized case example will be used to illustrate this process. Today’s videos is the first of a two-part series. In the second part I explain the process of recovery for children who had to sacrifice their relationship to the scapegoat parent.
Why a Narcissistic Parent Scapegoats the Other Parent
A narcissistic parent may scapegoat the other parent for two kinds of reasons. First, the narcissistic parent needs to offload their worthlessness onto someone else. Doing so boosts their artificially inflated self-worth. Often the other parent is a convenient target. Second, the other parent may possess a quality that evokes the narcissistic parent’s envy. Vindictive attacks often follow to destroy that quality so there is no longer cause for envy.
Reason #1: A narcissist needs to devalue someone else
A narcissist lives in fear of their own feelings of worthlessness. Their psychology is designed to deny this worthlessness and “find” it in others. They do this by consciously insisting that they are worth more – not less – than others. Unconsciously they perceive someone else to be worthless. They will coercively influence the other to experience themselves as worthless. This can be done by devaluing and controlling the other person so that they feel less than the narcissist.
The narcissistic parent’s inflated yet fragile self-worth is their highest priority. They use the people in their lives to boost themselves up rather than give and receive care. It is impossible for them to feel love towards themselves or others. Relationships become a contest to see who can dominate and be superior to the other.
The other parent may be someone who believes they must fix others’ unhappiness. It is hard for such individuals to question the reasonableness of the narcissistic parent’s abuse. The only signal they consciously process is that someone else is unhappy with them. Their ready response is usually to fix whatever they are told is ‘wrong’ with them.
Jessica was in therapy in her mid-twenties because she felt pervasive anxiety and a sense of dis-ease. She could not pinpoint why. As she recounted her history in one of the first sessions she came to her parent’s marital strife. When she was in first grade she remembered her mother screaming at her father for what seemed like hours. This would happen every night after dinner. She and her older brother would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to the “fights”. She said the fights were very one-sided. Her mother would be yelling at their father for an infinite amount of “offenses” and her father would silently take it. The bouts only ended when her mother tired herself out by screaming for so long. Her mother seemed to have to yell at her father. She would be charming and pleasant to most everyone else.
Jessica’s mother illustrates how a narcissistic parent may habitually put the other parent down. Although she would manufacture “offenses” that her father committed the goal seemed to be to unleash her contempt. If her husband was deserving of her contempt then she was not. Instead she could feel superior to him. Tragically, Jessica’s father saw her mother’s hostility as his problem to fix. He would try to do as she asked only to find her unhappy with him about something else.
Reason #2: The other parent evokes the narcissistic parent’s envy
Another reason the narcissistic parent may scapegoat the other parent is out of envy. For children who have witnessed one parent scapegoating the other – this may seem hard to believe. However, the narcissistic parent may be unconsciously aware that the other parent has qualities or abilities they do not. They may denigrate the other parent to find fault in these qualities. Doing so can convince them that they have no reason to envy the other while also making the other parent feel devalued.
A narcissistic parent may particularly envy the other parent’s ability to love and care about others. This may show up in the other parent treating their children more kindly and empathically. Such treatment may come naturally to this parent and the children may gravitate to them. This can puncture the narcissistic parent’s entitlement to being the favorite parent. The narcissistic parent may berate the other parent as being irresponsible, weak, or manipulative for being kind.
During the summer before second grade, Jessica, her brother and father spent the day together. Their mother had gone to a training for her job. The three of them went to the swimming pool and played Marco Polo. They went out to lunch afterwards. In the afternoon they hung out and watched a movie. Jessica remembered a feeling of ease and joy throughout the day.
The entire family sat down for dinner later that night. Jessica and her brother gushed about how much fun they had with their father that day. Jessica remembered expecting that her mother would be happy for them. Instead her mother looked at her father and asked if he had picked up the dry cleaning. He said he had not and she slammed her fork down on her plate as a snarl crossed her face. “Darnit! I asked you to do one thing and you didn’t even care enough to do it…” The tenor of the moment crashed to terror for Jessica. Her mother continued to yell louder and louder at her father as she and her brother left the dinner table.
In this episode, Jessica’s narcissistic mother seemed to envy her husband’s ability to connect with their children. She knew – deep down – that her kids did not genuinely enjoy her company in the same way. She found an excuse to attack him meant to send the message that he was not worth their esteem.
Impacts on the Child
The child to the narcissistic parent and scapegoat parent experiences a profound conflict. The narcissistic parent feels entitled to be the favorite parent. They will then coerce the child to see them this way or else. Failing to comply can result in rejection or attack by the narcissistic parent.
On the other hand the child may value their relationship to the scapegoat parent. They may feel reasonably close to this parent. The narcissistic parent sets things up so that loving the scapegoat parent is an act of disloyalty.
To survive the child must comply with the narcissistic parent’s emotional demands. Protesting the parent’s abuse of the scapegoat parent will only produce more anger. The child needs to believe they have at least one good parent. They must convince themselves that it is the narcissistic parent who is the good one.
This means that the child must lie to themselves in a way that can disturb their soul. They must insist to themselves that someone who is good to them is bad. They must also conclude that someone who seems to be up to something bad is actually good. This disrupts the child’s ability to know what is morally true. They must betray what they feel is right in order to be found acceptable to the narcissistic parent.
Children of a narcissistic parent can feel empty inside as a result of this sacrifice. They know – often unconsciously – that they are betraying themselves. Though they have no other choice there are still damaging effects. Having to believe the lie that the scapegoat parent is as inferior as the narcissistic parent claims makes it impossible for the child to genuinely look up to anyone. They have to act as if they are looking up to the narcissistic parent but at some level this does not feel genuine. The result can be a loss of faith in the goodness of others. It can seem like nobody is an actual good person. Life can feel grey on the inside.
There is another insidious impact on the child. If the scapegoat parent was a good person to the child then they would naturally identify with this parent. All children want to look up to and internalize what they like about a parent. If the narcissistic parent coerces the child to see the scapegoat parent as bad then the child can see themselves as bad too. The qualities of the scapegoat parent that the child cherishes and sees in themselves have to be tarnished. The child must disavow the scapegoat parent and whatever qualities in themselves they share with that parent.
When Jessica was alone with her father he treated her well. He did not have as big a personality as her mother but he was a good man. He wanted to spend time with her. He would ask her about her life. He always showed up for important events in her life. She one time asked him why her mother yelled at him so much. He told her that it was OK and that sometimes parents just argue. Although he may have been trying to protect Jessica and her perception of her mother, this left Jessica confused. She could not figure out how her father could be so bad that her mother would scream at him so much. She thought that either her mother knew more than she did or wondered if her mother was wrong. The second option did not seem viable because her father did not even seem to think she was wrong to yell at him.
Jessica lived under a strain of not knowing which parent was right. Her mother’s nightly yelling attacks at her father struck her as mean. But her father did not seem to find it mean. And her mother tended to treat Jessica well. She took her shopping with her and treated her like a best friend. Jessica knew not to bring anything up about her father, however. What Jessica did know was that her mother grew angry and loud when her father was around and seemed sweet when he was not.
The strain finally broke when her father decided to separate from her mother. Suddenly Jessica felt a surge of rage and hatred towards her father for “leaving the family”. Her mother did nothing to correct Jessica’s perception that her father was leaving her too. Despite the fact that her father would call the house everyday to check in, always show up for visits when he said he would and generally make every effort to remain present in her life, she was gripped with a visceral disdain for him. She would overhear her mother talking to her friends on the phone about how selfish her father was. She felt sorry for and extremely protective of her mother now. Finally it was clear to her who was right and who was wrong. Or at least it seemed to.
This resolution of her conflict was costly to Jessica. She could now make her mother the center of her world but she felt an ongoing anxiety and dis-ease within herself. Something felt wrong but she couldn’t figure out what. She found herself seeing her friends’ fathers and male teachers as untrustworthy. She found it hard to be alone with herself. She would hypnotize herself by watching TV, reading, or playing video games. These activities let her drown out disturbing thoughts she might otherwise have to entertain. There was no place for the truth to live in her anymore. Her narcissistic mother had made it too dangerous to know what was really going on. She had to distance herself from the parts of her that knew the truth.
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.