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Understanding Narcissistic Parenting and Its Role in Childhood Trauma


As our awareness of mental health increases, many of us may come to realize that we may have experienced childhood trauma without previously realizing it. 


What is childhood trauma? 


Generally, childhood trauma refers to adverse childhood experiences including bullying, witnessing violence, abuse, loss and family dysfunction. Complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could develop with repeated exposure to traumatic events over an extended period of time. The effects may be long lasting and go on to impact the individual relationally through their adult years. In this article, we attempt to highlight the impact of narcissistic parenting on childhood trauma. 


How does narcissistic parenting contribute to childhood trauma? 


Narcissistic parenting has been defined by research to be rooted in a sense of ‘grandiosity’ that is characterized by entitlement, arrogance, dominance, self-centeredness, selfishness and manipulation (Lyons et al., 2023). These caregivers are often quick to shame and blame the child when things do not go their way. Their affection is often withdrawn unless the child submits to their demands and standards. As such, their love is often conditional, leading the child to feel isolated and unsupported while growing up.    


During key developmental periods, narcissistic parenting is especially damaging to a child, who is dependent on their caregivers to survive. If the caregiver begins exhibiting signs of displeasure, disengagement or detachment from the offspring regularly, the child will start developing coping mechanisms to regain the caregivers’ attention and engagement. These coping mechanisms may have helped the child survive during their early periods of life but will no longer be sustainable for them as they grow older. 


Some coping mechanisms include 

  • Self-shaming

  • Making themselves appear ‘small’ out of fear of being seen 

  • Maladaptive relationship strategies

  • Difficulties with conflict resolution 

  • Overwhelming feelings of guilt 

  • Inability to express or recognize one’s needs 

  • Feelings of inadequacy 

  • Frequently fawning or freezing in response to stress  

  • Fawning example: people pleasing, appeasing others at the cost of one’s needs/boundaries 

  • Freeze example: unconsciously holding one’s breath, shutting down when stressed 

(Lyons et al., 2023)


Narcissistic parenting and its manifestation in adults 


According to Määttä et al. (2020), a child who is consistently met with demanding standards and expectations, but without warmth and support from caregivers, may lack in their ability to develop self-confidence and self-worth as they grow older. This is because narcissistic parenting models to the individual that they do not deserve warmth, support or unconditional love. Narcissistic parenting that comes with a lot of aggression, criticism and anger often have the impact of putting the child in survival mode throughout their crucial developmental periods. Due to this repeated exposure to highly stressful situations with their caregivers (chronically being on high alert), these victims may dissociate to protect oneself from a painful reality, and continue doing so as adults in situations that are perceived to be unsafe. 


Over time, the following beliefs are formed as they reach adulthood:


Belief about oneself: Not deserving of unconditional support or good things, that one is fundamentally flawed, broken or bad. 


Belief about others: No one can be trusted. 


Belief about the world: It is not a safe place.  


‘You cannot heal where you have been hurt’. 


The consequences for a child who is unable to receive protection from this narcissistic abuse, can be extremely painful. Eventually, the narcissist’s words and actions get internalized by the victim and may cloud their perception of daily life experiences even after the period of abuse. Without therapeutic support to release this trauma, the abuse may get perpetuated by the traumatized adult in their own lives either on others or themselves. 


To heal ourselves from the effects of narcissistic abuse, I believe in the importance of distancing oneself from the very source of the pain, wherever and whenever possible. Because we cannot heal where we have been hurt, our pain cannot subside if we are constantly triggered. Unfortunately, this can be much harder in places with higher costs of living or in situations where there may not be sufficient financial resources to support such independence. 


Regardless, seeking professional help like a certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) psychotherapist, can help to begin this healing process. 


After all, don’t we all owe it to ourselves to experience unconditional fulfilment and freedom in life?  


Source: Kymberly Puah


References


Lyons, M., Brewer, G., Hartley, A.-M., & Blinkhorn, V. (2023). “Never Learned to Love Properly”: A Qualitative Study Exploring Romantic Relationship Experiences in Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents. Social Sciences, 12(3), 159. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030159


Määttä, M., Määttä, K., Uusiautti, S., & Äärelä, T. (2020). ‘SHE DOES NOT CONTROL ME ANYMORE BUT I CAN HEAR HER VOICE SOMETIMES’—A PHENOMENOGRAPHIC RESEARCH ON THE RESILIENCE PERCEPTIONS OF CHILDREN WHO HAVE SURVIVED FROM UPBRINGING BY A NARCISSISTIC PARENT. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.3662420


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