Recently, several books and articles have been written about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While these publications have great merit, few have examined the impact on children of living with a parent with narcissistic traits. There is some evidence that children raised by a narcissist can adopt some of their personality characteristics such as self-centeredness, inflated sense of entitlement and lack of empathy. In fact, growing up with a narcissistic parent can be a strong predictor for the development of narcissistic traits, according to Wendy Bethany.
Experts remind us that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Keep in mind that narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and other narcissistic traits to NPD. Narcissism is very hard to diagnose -- even by experts. The following is a summary of NPD from the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) used by clinicians to diagnose and treat individuals with mental illness. Keep in mind, NPD can only be diagnosed by a person who is a licensed mental health professional.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder - A pervasive preoccupation with admiration, entitlement and egotism. Individuals with this personality exaggerate their accomplishments/talents, have a sense of entitlement, lack empathy or concern for others, are preoccupied with envy and jealousy and have an arrogant attitude. Their sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem are unrelated to real talent or accomplishments. They feel entitled to special attention, privileges and consideration in social settings. This sense of entitlement also produces a feeling that they are entitled to punish those who do not provide their required respect, admiration or attention.
Before we take a look at how NPD impacts offspring, let's take a close look at how this condition affects an intimate relationship. In her acclaimed book Disarming the Narcissist, Wendy Behary, a codependency expert describes a "perilous narcissist" as the type of narcissist who is unremorseful and devoid of a moral compass -- as having a complete disregard and contempt for others. She writes, "There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn't worth fighting for, even if you have the leverage. The narcissist may even be a threat to your (and your children's) security, safety, and stability."
According to Behary, safety should be your first and foremost priority when dealing with a "perilous narcissist" -- especially if their threats are increasing and they are violent or explosive. It follows that if your partner is perpetually verbally or emotionally abusive and becomes more callous or menacing, you may have to decide to put the safety of yourself and your children first and come up with an exit strategy.
Consequently, dealing with a narcissistic parent day in and day out can be devastating to a child, according to Dr. Lisa Firestone. She writes, "The problem with narcissistic parents is that, although the focus seems to be on their child, there is actually very little regard for the child in their parenting style." How do narcissistic parents damage their children? Dr. Mark Banschick notes "For example, they may disregard boundaries, manipulate their children by withholding affection (until they perform), and neglect to meet their children's needs because their needs come first. Because image is so important to narcissists, they may demand perfection from their children."
From a child's perspective, being raised by a narcissist can be damaging because they are unlikely to get their needs met by a parent who is aloof or unsympathetic. A child needs to feel protected and loved and a parent with NPD is likely to be too preoccupied with their interests and needs to give their child the love and attention they need to thrive.
Attorney Stephen Futeral, of the Charleston Lawyers Blog, notes that anyone who is married to someone suffering from a personality disorder will report that their marriage is marked by periods of high conflict. He writes, "When you add the additional struggles that come from a divorce, then you have a recipe for EXPLOSIVE conflict between spouses and significant damage for children caught in the middle."
What impact does a high-conflict home have on children? In her landmark book For Better or For Worse, eminent psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington highlights the results of her 30 year study of 1,400 divorced families and the importance of examining the type of conflict children experience. She notes that high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle, has the most adverse consequences for children. These effects include anxiety, depression and low-self-esteem.
Consider these points if you decide to stay with your partner:
• Don't let your partner off the hook. Practice empathetic confrontation which is showing compassion while setting limits. Wendy Bethany writes, "While it is necessary to harness your understanding and emotional generosity, it's equally necessary to hold the narcissist accountable when he or she acts condescending, selfish, controlling, or downright mean."
• Avoid exposing your child to high-conflict that involves them, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle.
• Educate yourself about strategies to cope with narcissist and set healthy boundaries. Encourage your partner to get counseling by someone who specializes in treating someone with NPD and seek professional help yourself.
If you decide to end your relationship, here are tips on how to breakup with your partner in the most caring, safe way:
• Write a script to use when talking to your partner and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. You might say something like: "I tried to make this marriage work. Nothing has changed and it's not healthy for me or the kids for us to stay together. I wish you well."
• Show compassion toward your children and don't bad mouth their other parent in their presence. Children are vulnerable to experiencing loyalty conflicts and shouldn't be in the middle between their parents.
• Be sure that you and your children feel safe. Have a friend or family member on hand when you talk to your partner; and the support of a therapist and lawyer.
If you choose to preserve your relationship with a narcissist, it's essential to realize that you can only control your own behavior and not his or hers. Focus on personal responsibility rather than blame and call attention to your needs. It's essential to let go of feeling overly responsible and to stop putting your needs last at the expense of your own happiness.
In sum, whether you decide to stay with your partner or not depends on the severity of their narcissistic traits and the resources you have available to you. Take an honest look at the impact their behaviors are having on your children and yourself. You are wise to carefully consider the hazards of living with a partner who has NPD or severe narcissistic traits if you stay.