Narcissistic parents identify their children as either a favourite or a scapegoat, and they pit them against each other

Narcissistic parents create a damaging environment for children to grow up in.

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Narcissistic parents create a damaging environment for children to grow up in.
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Mama Belle and the kids / Shutterstock

  • Narcissistic parents are controlling and manipulative.
  • If they have more than one child, they tend to pit them against each other.
  • One child is usually the favoured child, while another is the scapegoat.
  • Narcissists often emotionally reject a child that reminds them of their own insecurities and flaws.
  • As an adult, strong boundaries, detached contact, or no contact at all are the best ways to deal with the relationship.

Growing up, Sarah* wasn’t allowed to wash her hair or wear perfume, makeup, or deodorant.

“My hair would be very greasy and I was forced to go to school like that,” she told INSIDER. “My mom would then constantly tell me that I smell bad, and that I was dirty and lazy. She did this because she didn’t want boys to notice me.”

Sarah’s experience is similar to many others who were raised by a narcissistic parent.

As well as trying to control her appearance, Sarah’s mother gaslighted her, and told her nobody would rape her because she “smelled bad and was ugly.” She also didn’t allow her to have hobbies or leave the house over summer holidays, and later in life, she said Sarah wasn’t allowed to die young because she had to pay her back for raising her.

“I didnt realize this was abuse growing up,” Sarah said. “I realized my mom was a narc when I finished college. I was extremely down and sad, watching my friends and classmates be able to move on to grad school or to a job when mine basically stole my money to make me move home.

“It made me mad, I wish I had realized that this was abuse sooner. I would’ve stood up for myself much earlier and changed so many things.”

In the DSM V, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity” with a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and a sense of entitlement, among other things. Psychologists have many different theories about whether narcissism is a learned personality disorder, a genetic predisposition, or a mixture of the two. But what is clear is the way narcissists behave can be extremely damaging for those close to them.

“Narcissistic parents create tension among all family members, and sometimes it’s very covert tension, but it is at a chronic level,” Shannon Thomas, a trauma therapist and author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse” told INSIDER.

“They will triangulate siblings, they spin stories, they tell half truths, and you start to notice the pattern, just like in a romantic relationship, of how they create that chaos.”

The favoured and scapegoated child

Toxic sibling dynamics are archetypal of narcissistic families, she said. For instance, narcissistic parents are hyper-critical, but they need their children to feed their own ego. The way this manifests happens in two distinct ways.

It’s very typical to see narcissistic parents treat different siblings very differently – often one is the favoured child and one is the scapegoat.

You’ll see narcissistic parents attend every school event, every sports game, every production the favoured child takes part in, and never show up to anything the scapegoated child does.

“It’s very hard to foster any authentic sibling connection in that environment because they’re being used as pawns by the parents,” Thomas said. “When the scapegoated child tries to talk about what their life is like with the narcissistic parent, the favourite child won’t see it at all.”

This creates tension and “camps” within families, Thomas explained, because the favoured child may simply see their sibling as jealous of their attention.

Read more: Narcissists often recruit people called ‘apaths’ to help with their games – here’s why they’re dangerous

Angie Outis is one of five siblings who are now all between the ages of 35 and 44. She told INSIDER that through triangulation, her narcissist mother and enabling father drove a wedge between her and her siblings with an “almost decade long smear campaign” when she and her mother fell out.

“My mom had very few good things to say about people behind their backs,” Outis said. “To a person’s face she was nice. But her monologues to me were a seemingly endless list of judgments and criticisms, most of them petty.”

Through love bombing, gaslighting, criticism, silent treatment, and manipulation, Outis’ mother caused her and her sibling a great deal of harm. She would badmouth her sisters, saying she didn’t understand why anyone liked them, or tell Outis she was “much prettier.”

“It made you feel dirty to be part of that kind of talk … But I had to listen to it,” she said.

Outis’ father, while not a narcissist himself, added to the abuse by listening to his children’s troubles, then telling their mother about them – a bit like a spy.

“He is enmeshed with my mother and doesn’t seem to understand where his feelings end and hers begin,” Outis said. “As such he often acts as her informant and sometimes as her hatchet man. He’s good at listening and will give you the impression he’s on your side, then go back and tell his wife everything you shared with him in confidence.”

Narcissists treat people like pawns on a chessboard

Narcissistic parents see their spouse, children, and anyone else in their lives like pawns on a chessboard, Thomas said. The best case scenario is that the siblings grow up having some kind of awareness of the situation, and then they can make amends with each other and put up healthy boundaries together. But this doesn’t always happen.

“Unfortunately I see more where the scapegoated child has to help educate that favoured adult child as to what took place,” she said. “And that can be a tough sibling dynamic.”

If there isn’t any obvious academic or athletic reason for one child to be the favourite, narcissistic parents will sometimes choose a scapegoat because they remind them of their own failings. Some research suggests shame is part of what creates a narcissist, and if they see some of their own insecurities, perceived weaknesses, or flaws in their child, they may emotionally reject them for it.

“Narcissists try to pretend that they are perfect,” Thomas said. “They don’t want to see any of their own flaws, and address the fact they are just normal, because in their mind they are superior.”

By reflecting back their own humanity, the narcissist’s sense of self is threatened, and so they lash out.

One child is often the scapegoat.

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One child is often the scapegoat.
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NadyaEugene / Shutterstock

Do narcissists love their own children?

Sarah and Outis both said they were sure their narcissistic parent did not love them. Outis said while they used the words “I love you” a lot, they were empty.

“My mom does not love me,” said Sarah. “She sees me as an object, a robot with no feelings, and something she could benefit from. All she can talk about is how much I owe her … She never once cared about my feelings or even what was best for me.”

Thomas said she believes what narcissistic parents experience is not love. There will be moments of perceived affection, like Christmases with extravagant gifts, or expensive summer holidays. But at some point, the mask will inevitably fall and the kindness will fade.

Narcissists want children because they believe they will get more out of the relationship than they do. But parenting is the most selfless job you will ever have, Thomas said, and the unrealistic expectations can lead to narcissistic rage when a child grows up and becomes their own person.

Read more: 8 things that can keep you trapped in a relationship with a narcissist

Thomas recommends “detached contact” to her adult clients who had narcissistic parents. Essentially, this is finding out where your boundaries are, and exiting the situation whenever the parent crosses those lines.

In the long term, growing up with a narcissistic parent affects how children form their own relationships and develop their attachment styles. And it can take a long time to unravel that traumatic beginning, said Thomas.

“I always say that our toxic parent can push our buttons better than anyone because they created the buttons,” she said. “For a scapegoated child, it’s like a dance with a toxic parent. Sometimes they will just embrace the role that they’re a rebel, or a screw up, because that’s the message that narcissistic parent has given them.”

In therapy, children of narcissistic parents need to take a step back and ask themselves whether they want to remain that pawn on the chessboard or not.

“It’s very deep subconscious work we have to do, with that belief system,” Thomas said. “But unless we do that work, people will go out and on some level continue to play out the role they were given in their narcissistic family.”

Sarah and Outis have learned to protect themselves now they are adults. Sarah said she now stands up for herself, because she doesn’t care about what happens.

“I have nothing to lose now, she can’t starve me or do anything like [she did when I was] growing up since now I have my own money, she said.

Outis said boundaries are hard, because for her whole life she was given the message that being open with her needs would burden others and drive them away.

“I’m no contact [with my parents] because [they] can still hurt me,” she said. “I’ve gotten better at accepting previously unloved parts of myself, but it’s been a long journey. It isn’t over.”

*Name changed for anonymity.