3 Parent-Child Dynamics That Every Narcissistic Parent Creates

Every child of a narcissist will have experienced one of these three traumatic relationship dynamics.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 15, 2024

Growing up, our world is severely limited. Our relationship with our parents dictates our well-being and we haven't yet developed the tools to objectively evaluate our family and its emotional dynamics.

Considering how dependent, vulnerable and impressionable children are, we can imagine how badly things can go when the parental role falls in the wrong hands. Take narcissism, for instance. A narcissistic parent—driven by self-interest—might organize the entire family around their emotional needs, neglecting and scarring their children in distinct and complicated ways.

Identifying and defining abusive behavior empowers people to learn from it, grow and move past it. If you have spent your childhood in the shadow of a narcissistic parent, you may identify with at least one of the following dysfunctional parent-child dynamics.

1. The "Golden Child"

This parent-child relationship has a strong transactional component. In this scenario, one child is favored and loved-bombed by their parent—if and only if they conform to the conditions levied on them. From the outside, it may look like your narcissistic parent fawns over you and pampers you frequently. However, it is only the "golden child" who understands what it takes to remain perched on this pedestal their parent put them on.

For instance, when the golden child performs well academically, a narcissist parent might be inclined to reward them disproportionately and boast about their achievements to everyone around. The problem arises when the golden child slips up—typically incurring an unwarranted amount of discipling, ridicule and punishment.

This dysfunctional dynamic can go undiagnosed for a long time as it can look like the child is being showered with love, care and appreciation from afar. Outsiders are rarely privy to the nefarious underpinnings of this exploitative form of parenting, including the following:

  • The child can develop a flawed definition of love. When caregiving is conditional, manipulative and conspicuously exploitative, the child might learn that the cost of love is never letting your loved ones down under any circumstances—essentially blinding them to any abuse that they might face later in life. Research examining Reddit testimonials of several narcissist wards corroborates this.
  • The child fails to develop a sense of self. As the narcissist parent turns the golden child into an extension of themselves, the child never gets the opportunity to explore their own individuality. Their personality, likes and dislikes and opinions are closely monitored and dictated by the parent. Rebelling could cost them their parent's love, but complying—unbeknownst to them—costs them their autonomy, free will and the opportunity to individuate from their parents.

2. The Scapegoat

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the golden child lies the scapegoat. If the golden child shoulders the pressure of being perfect, the scapegoat becomes the "fall guy" for anything going awry in the narcissist parent's life. A 2023 study published in The Journal Of Psychology explains how narcissist scapegoating can lead to anxiety and depression in children—but the bad news doesn't stop there.

The scapegoat absorbs the shockwaves of any family conflict, suffers ridicule–both covert and overt—and is usually the object of of the narcissist's scrutiny and criticism. If a sibling got lost in a crowd during an outing, the scapegoat must have gotten distracted and let go of their hand. If the scapegoat is being punished disproportionately by a school teacher, they must have done something to incur their mistreatment. In a scapegoat's world, there is no winning.

Broadly speaking, a scapegoat might develop one of the following coping mechanisms to survive the abuse they go through, both of which are maladaptive:

  1. They fly off the handle. As the scapegoat can see their narcissist parent's abuse most clearly, they might develop a rebellious streak. They may indulge in reckless and dangerous behavior because of their "nothing to lose" mindset and develop a resentment for their siblings who do not get treated as poorly as themselves.
  2. Their inner world implodes. When a child receives nothing but abuse for a prolonged period of time, especially during their formative years, they learn to internalize it. This can lead to low self-esteem, self-isolation and self-loathing tendencies. Shutting everything out may make them feel safe, but also robs them of most essential experiences of personhood such as making friends, falling in love and expressing themselves authentically.

3. The Lost Child

As the name of this dynamic suggests, the lost child is the most invisible member in a household led by a narcissist. This child usually receives little to no attention from the narcissist parent. They grow up rudderless due to a lack of guidance.

They are usually in charge of their own upbringing and look outside of their family for validation, wisdom and support. As there is rarely a two-way dialogue with the lost child, they might perceive life as a solo journey—seriously jeopardizing their relationships in adulthood.

Did your upbringing erode your confidence? Take the Impostor Syndrome Scale to learn more.

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