Have you ever had to choose between two equally unpleasant options, or be seen as disloyal? If you were raised by a narcissist, you might have experienced parental alienation, and you might have faced such a choice.
What is parental alienation?
In its most basic form, parental alienation means one parent turning a child against the other parent. The goal may be to try to get full control over the child, using them for attention and away from other people who could give it to them; aka narcissistic supply. But in the case of a toxic, narcissistic parent, they don’t even see the child as a whole person but as an extension of themselves or an object to be owned.
In other words, a narcissist is likely to use their child as a weapon or an object to hurt the other parent. It is a form of psychological manipulation and is used to trick the child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect, or hostility toward you and or other people in your family.
For the child involved, it’s a painful and invalidating experience that lasts long into adulthood. complicating every relationship they happen to be involved with, from romantic ones to their own children, friends, colleagues, and more.
Can narcissists be good parents?
Maybe, says Dr. Judy Rosenberg, but there’s a catch. We know that there are plenty of malignant, toxic narcissistic parents who completely neglect their kids’ needs, ignore them, control them, physically or sexually abuse them, or otherwise make them miserable.
But there are also many narcissists who appear to be great parents. They take care of their kids’ physical needs and ensure they’ve got the latest and greatest in fashion, gadgets, and everything else. They have beautiful, expensive homes that are perfectly decorated and always spotless.
But even those who do take care of the physical needs may barely even know their children, and the rest are sort of like live-in bullies until the kids move out – and even then, often continue to abuse and control their adult children.
This is the ONLY Way a Narcissist Can Be a GOOD Parent (But Not GREAT)
“A narcissist can be a good parent if they are ethical and moral and fulfill their obligations to their children,” Dr. Judy said. “But they will never be a great parent because they just don’t have the wherewithal to show empathy.”
That trademark lack of empathy would effectively leave the child feeling unseen, at the very least. If we were talking about a malignant narcissist, the effects on the child would be more profound.
But, Dr. Judy said, “If they choose an empathic partner it can buffer the effects.”
So, if a narcissist chose a good partner with decent empathy skills, any potential damage to the child’s psyche could be mitigated. However, since we know that narcissists are notorious for emotionally and psychologically abusing anyone who gets close enough to see behind their false self (the mask they show the world), we can safely assume that this abuse would also, directly or indirectly, affect the child.
What happens when you raise children with a narcissist?
When you have a narcissist who marries a codependent or someone who becomes codependent, you’ll see a strange thing happening in their family: the codependent parent tends to throw themselves under the proverbial bus more often than you might think when it comes to protecting their kids, but sadly, the kids are still affected by the tension between the parents.
Kids think toxic is normal.
They start to think that this is how a relationship works, and depending on which parent is the narcissist and how they treat the other, among other factors, they may become either a narcissist or a codependent. The only way to prevent this is for the narcissist to be self-aware enough to allow the more empathetic parent to do most of the discipline and daily dealing with the kids.
So, not only would the narcissist need to be self-aware enough to actually recognize this issue, but they’d also need to let the other parent be in control on some level.
While that seems nearly impossible given what we know about toxic parents and toxic family structure, Dr. Judy said that “if they can learn not to demean them but to value their children, and at least make an offer to put their needs first, that would be a good start.”
But could or would a narcissist ever do what would be necessary to be a “good” parent?
It’s debatable, but in my opinion and according to my research, narcissists are infamously terrible parents, whether they ignore and neglect their children or fully control them – or some uncomfortable combination of both. There are many other common behaviors among toxic parents, of course – physical abuse, psychological abuse, and more – though not every toxic parent physically abuses their children, which can make abuse difficult to prove.
This makes it even more difficult to swallow. But it’s important to understand that narcissists have no level to which they will not stoop – and often, this includes actions (or lack thereof) toward their own children. They are not afraid to use a child as a narcissistic supply – and they’re happy to use them as a tool to hurt the other parent.
Narcissists Use Loyalty Binds to Support Parental Alienation
Let’s discuss another kind of manipulation and a whole new low for narcissists: loyalty binds and how they’re used by toxic people to actively alienate their fellow parents and other family members from their children.
What are Loyalty Binds?
Loyalty binds are used against you by someone who is forcing you to choose between them and someone else – often, a parent forcing a child to choose them or the other parent (or a step-parent, in many cases).
In the process, the victim feels forced to choose against their own best interests. This can happen in any type of relationship but it has been previously identified as an issue with step-parenting.
But when you really think about it, it also applies to narcissistic abuse in relationships and families – specifically related to parental alienation.
Loyalty binds are confusing for the recipient because the abuser will say that one thing is true, but behavior shows something else. They then blame their victim for not seeing reality in the same way that they do. This can and often does lead to cognitive dissonance.
For example, a narcissistic parent may tell a child that he loves them very much but then verbally abuse them at every opportunity. The child will believe his mother’s words about her love for him even though she keeps doing things that cause him pain and harm because he believes (rightly) that if his mother does not love him, he cannot survive due to his total dependency on her. The child’s survival depends upon keeping his mother happy so she doesn’t abandon him so he accepts her words and denies how hurtful her chronic abuse is to him.
When toxic parents use loyalty binds to alienate the other parent
The children of narcissistic parents are the most vulnerable to the effects of this vicious cycle. They often feel a tremendous amount of love and loyalty for their other parent, who is trying to protect them from their abuser. However, this abuser will use their bond and affection against them.
It can be incredibly difficult for a child that has grown up with parental alienation to stand up and question what they’ve been taught. In many cases, even as adults, they will continue to have difficulty forming relationships in which there is give-and-take, healthy boundaries, or mutual respect. The bonds they had with their targeted parent have been severed (or weakened), leaving them feeling abandoned, scared, and alone.
The relationship with the child may be distorted by the narcissist in order to maintain control.
The child may also be made to feel like they have to keep a secret or that they’re not allowed to tell the truth about how they feel for fear of disappointing the toxic parent.
They may be put in the position of having to keep the happy parent happy, or they risk punishment. The child might experience guilt and be actively triangulated by the toxic parent through guilt-tripping and other forms of manipulation. In some cases, children are made to believe that they are better off with the toxic parent, regardless of how much abuse they suffer at their hands (or how much better off they would be if they lived with the non-narcissistic one).
Attachment styles are affected deeply as a result of narcissistic abuse. The child may feel obligated to the toxic parent and guilty for loving or wanting to know the other parent (or even just being curious about them). They are often made to feel that it’s betraying one or both parents somehow just for them to want love from both sides (which is their natural right as children).
A child (or adult child) may have to choose one parent over the other.
When a child (or adult child) is forced to choose between the toxic parent and the narcissistic parent, they can experience very uncomfortable emotions. Examples of these situations include having to choose which parent’s birthday party to attend or being torn between visiting a sick parent in a hospital or going on a romantic vacation with a narcissistic partner.
When the narcissist is abusive toward the other parent, they may try to discourage a relationship with that other parent by demonizing them or by creating intense situations where choosing their parent would demand courage.
A child who is loyal to a narcissist parent will often have a difficult or impossible time visiting or seeing the other parent. The narcissist may create intense situations in which the child must choose between being loyal to their parent, which requires courage and strength or choosing the other parent.
The narcissist may actively try to alienate the child from their other parent by using verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, and guilt trips to discourage contact with them. An example of this might be if a child has plans to visit their father for his birthday but the mother strongly discourages it. They do this because they know that they can use fear, guilt, and shame as powerful tools against their offspring.
The abuse can escalate when it’s time for one of the parents to move out of the home.
From a child’s point of view, the custodial parent who remains in the home may get a disproportionate amount of attention. This is because the child will only spend part of their time with the non-custodial parent.
As for the non-custodial parent, he or she will feel as if they are walking on eggshells around their children. The children may be very angry at them for leaving in the first place.
They may also have been brainwashed into thinking that the non-custodial parent has done something wrong by leaving and that they somehow deserve to be punished. For those parents who live far away from their children, weekly phone calls can become awkward and difficult.
Children may experience grief, anger, and embarrassment over how the narcissistic parent talks about their other parent when they’re not around, or when they are on Skype or Zoom or over the phone.
The child may feel ashamed of what their parent is doing and feel like they are the only one dealing with this, or they may learn that this is one way to get their needs met.
They may think that they are alone in having a parent who acts this way because no one else’s parents appear to act like this.
A narcissistic mother will often try to force her daughter into submission through guilt trips or through anger and aggression that has no reason.
- When a narcissistic mother has decided it’s time to give you a guilt trip, she’ll disappear, suddenly and without warning. You might be in the middle of a conversation, but she won’t respond to your questions or calls, no matter how many times you try. She’ll ignore you until you’re so worried that you track her down and apologize for whatever offense she believes deserves your groveling.
- A narcissistic mother will often threaten suicide when her daughter makes positive changes in her life that don’t involve the mother. The point is to get her daughter emotionally hooked again so the daughter will be forced to stay in the relationship and keep doing things for her mother. This can also work with threats of harming herself physically or going on “hunger strikes” when she doesn’t get what she wants from others.
- Another common way of making people feel guilty is by threatening others with harm—especially if the threat includes children or pets. Mothers who are more concerned about their own needs than those of their children are always looking for ways to manipulate their daughters by using their emotions and fears as weapons against them—and there’s nothing they won’t do to ensure they have control over everyone around them.
You can recover from being made to feel like you were stuck between two parents who were demanding your loyalty but not giving any back to you.
It wasn’t your fault.
You are not alone.
You are not responsible for the dysfunction in your family.
Healing is possible and you can have a future.
Start Getting Help with Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Today
Online help is readily available for survivors of narcissistic abuse. Here are some options to begin healing from narcissistic abuse right away.
- Here’s a video interview I recently did with Dr. Judy about her amazing mind map system. If you have questions, give Dr. Judy’s office a call at (855) 431-0360.
- Sign up for our free email newsletter service that includes a free guided recovery experience via your inbox.
- Start your narcissistic abuse recovery here with our free narcissistic abuse recovery support system and program.
- Think you might have C-PTSD, but you’re not sure? Then, take our free C-PTSD Self-Assessment.
- Join one of our free online narcissistic abuse recovery support groups!
- Join one of our private small coaching groups!
- Get private, one-on-one narcissistic abuse recovery coaching or counseling.
- Get a therapist who will work with you online. Check out our guide to finding a therapist or psychologist who understands narcissism and narcissistic abuse.
- Learn more about the narcissist’s cycle of abuse.