When Your Adult Child is a Narcissist

Written by Angela Atkinson

Do you have a strained relationship with your adult child? Do they seem to have an overblown sense of entitlement? Do they think the world revolves around them and get offended if you don’t agree? Do they ever try to control you or your choices, either directly or through guilt trips or manipulation? Do they make unreasonable demands on your time or expect you to pay their bills? Do they make up stories about things that never happened? Do they deny things that you know to be true?

Could your adult child be a narcissist? 

Have you found yourself wondering what you did wrong in raising them or what happened to the child you once knew? Have you asked yourself if your child might be a narcissist? How can you tell? And what are you supposed to do if you find out that your child is a narcissist?

What is a narcissist? 

We’re not talking about someone who takes too many selfies or is overly concerned with their appearance, necessarily, though those signs might be present. Still, those signs alone aren’t enough to identify a malignant narcissist.

In this case, we’re talking about a toxic or malignant narcissist, we mean someone who has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (or would be, if a psychologist had the opportunity).  Malignant narcissists are known to have certain features of antisocial personality disorder well as paranoid traits and ego-driven aggression. Additionally, you might see that they seem to have an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement.

In every malignant narcissist, you’ll see the lack of emotional empathy that drives their behavior.

As I explain in this video, narcissists often use “false” empathy to manipulate and control people around them.

What are the risk factors for developing narcissistic personality disorder? 

You’re probably asking yourself how your child could have become a narcissist, right? Maybe you did everything right and it makes no sense to you. Or perhaps you were married to a narcissist and you tried really hard to protect your child from them, and now you don’t understand why they would land on the “dark side” after all you’ve done. So, what causes a child to grow up and become a narcissist? In this video, I explain how narcissists are created.

While there is some research that says narcissism may be genetically predisposed, but there’s no official word on how it really happens. The nurture versus nature debate continues, of course.

With that being said, from a psychological standpoint, it looks like narcissists are created in a few different ways. For the most part, chances are that one or more of the following happened.

An Insecure Attachment Style

Most narcissists are found to have developed an insecure attachment style. This is according to attachment theory, which is a psychological, evolutionary, and ethological theory concerning relationships between humans. When it comes to narcissistic abuse recovery, the significance of attachment theory and attachment style cannot be overstated. The premise of attachment theory is that, during infancy, children have a deep, intrinsic need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver (specifically, the mother in most cases) for normal social and emotional development. When this doesn’t happen, the development of the brain and psychology are affected in dramatic ways, leading to unhealthy attachment styles. Certain attachment styles can naturally lead to both narcissism and codependency. Learn more about attachment styles and how they affect the development of both narcissists and codependents. 

In this video, I offer details on how attachment theory could offer insight into both narcissism and codependency. 

Due to Adoption

Maybe your child is adopted and spent a few days or weeks after birth waiting to be adopted. Maybe it was much longer than that. I explore the possibilities in this video, where I answer a question from a follower named Diana Gish, who wanted to know whether adopted children are more likely to become narcissists than other kids.

Diana said: Most narcissist videos I see relate to children who became narcissists due to parental behavior. Can you confirm the reverse – whether an adopted child fears abandonment more than a nonadopted child, and whether a child will display narcissistic behavior toward adoptive parents much like between spouses – blaming, poorly handling truth, failure to acknowledge anything good has been done for them, or bonding?

Due to an Extended Hospital Stay After the Birth

Perhaps your child was born prematurely or had some other condition at birth that caused them to need to be in the hospital for a long time for was in the hospital for a long time after birth, or you (or their mother, if you’re not their mother) had post-partum depression. In this case, as well as in the case of the adopted child who wasn’t properly nurtured in the first few days, weeks, or months after birth, your child could’ve developed an insecure attachment style, which may have contributed to the narcissistic traits you’re noticing.

Abuse, Neglect, or Other Ongoing Trauma in Childhood

Your child was emotionally, physically, or otherwise abused in childhood. Whether or not it happened at home, if your child experienced any ongoing abuse in childhood, the effects of the abuse could have contributed to their toxic behaviors. Perhaps you were married to a narcissist and your child watched you go through the abuse yourself – and maybe their other parent even encouraged your child to join in on abusing you verbally or otherwise. Or maybe you had to work a lot of hours and couldn’t spend as much time as you’d have liked with your child. There might have been times where your child felt alone and abandoned as a result. There’s also the chance that a sibling or even someone outside of your home caused trauma through physical, sexual or emotional abuse. It might have been a teacher, babysitter, grandparent, family friend, or even a school bully.

In most cases, an adult with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has a serious fear of abandonment. They might be terrified of being found out for what they really are or for what they think they are not. They fear rejection, abandonment, and criticism. This is because, in their minds at least, their parents or caregivers in childhood abandoned them or rejected them, in reality, or emotionally. In this video, I’ll fill you in on exactly how and why narcissists develop their often irrational fear of abandonment. 

Acquired Situational Narcissism

Perhaps your adult child became rich or famous suddenly. This might have caused them to develop something called acquired situational narcissism. Acquired situational narcissism is most likely to happen when there were already some pre-existing factors that would have led to narcissism under the right circumstances. So, at least in some cases, narcissism can be developed by people who had good, healthy upbringings. In this video, I’ll share more about acquired situational narcissism and how it might be affecting your adult child.

How do you know if your adult child is a narcissist? 

They Feel Entitled to Your Attention and Your Money

  • Your adult child continues to engage in the same kinds of attention-seeking behaviors they did as a small child.
  • They demand your time or attention even when you are dealing with some crisis or other kind of personal stress.
  • They always minimize or ignore what you do for them, but you continue to help them anyway out of fear or obligation,despite the fact that you feel unappreciated.
  • Your adult child seems jealous or any when you show attention to others, including but not limited to their own children (your grandchildren).

They Don’t React React Normally If A Loved One Is Sick Or Passes Away

While inappropriate relations to death or illness can certainly be an indication of narcissism in your adult child, chances are that you’d have noticed this kind of behavior and types of reactions earlier in childhood.

  • Your adult child either over or under-reacts to family members’ or friends’ death or illness.
  • When you’ve been sick or otherwise in danger, your child may not have shown compassion or any genuine concern.
  • If you are visibly upset or even crying, your child would have either ignored or minimized you, or they would have somehow made it all about them and their own issues.
  • They also may over-or-under-react to the death of their pets.

They Have Unrealistically High Expectations

  • Your adult child has pie-in-the-sky expectations all the time, in nearly every situation.
  • They get angry or sad when they don’t get what they want (narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury)
  • They are always putting others down and pointing out areas where people don’t “measure up” to them or others.
  • They will become overly critical of you as their parent or as a person.
  • They will judge your life choices and the way you present yourself.

They Can’t Seem To Maintain Long-Term Friendships

  • Your adult child can’t seem to keep friends for long, or they have one or two friends who seem to be their little “minions” or “cronies” – flying monkeys who do their bidding at will.
  • They seem to idealize their friends or romantic partnerships initially, followed by a period of devaluation until they either discard them or restart the cycle. This might go on for decades.
  • You might also be idealized, devalued and discarded, over and over again in your relationship with your adult child.
  • They might have a spouse or partner who seemed absolutely perfect until the spouse or partner starts accusing your child of psychological or emotional abuse.
  • They might have lost a lot of friends who suddenly “ghosted them for no reason.” (There IS a difference between “ghosting” and “going no contact,” for the record).

They Cannot Accept Responsibility For Their Actions

  • Your adult child causes harm and heartache to you and others in their lives on a regular basis, but they will never actually accept responsibility.
  • They will deflect responsibility by saying things like, “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t (insert presumed mistake here).”
  • They will often blame the person they hurt directly.
  • They blatantly lie or “omit” the truth in order to avoid responsibility for what they’ve done.
  • They will never genuinely apologize, and if they ever do say they’re sorry, they prove they don’t mean it.

My Adult Child is a Narcissist! What now?

So, assuming you’ve determined that your adult child is a narcissist, what are you supposed to do? Should you go no contact with them? How could a parent go no contact with their own child? Well, here’s the thing. These are difficult and painful questions, and even more so when you consider the possibilities – and the fact that by the time they’re an adult, there is little hope for a narcissist to really change. 

In this video, I offer insight into the possibility of narcissists changing for the better.

Sadly, your options for dealing with your adult child when they have narcissistic personality disorder will come down to essentially two choices – and neither one is one you really want to make.

  • Do you accept the abuse in order to continue to have a relationship with your child, who for most of us, is among the most important people in your life? OR
  • Do you end your relationship with your adult child in order to maintain your own sanity, health, and emotional wellbeing?

No one wants to have to make this choice when it comes to their own child, right? But when the adult child is narcissistic, they drain you of your energy and they absolutely will not respect your boundaries.

When Should You Go No Contact With Your Narcissistic Adult Child?

The last thing that any parent wants to do is go no contact with their flesh and blood. However, unfortunately, it is necessary at times when it comes to the adult narcissistic child. So, if you’ve decided that you cannot tolerate their abuse and manipulation any longer, when is it appropriate to go no contact with the adult narcissistic child?

When It Affects Your Health

Narcissistic abuse is well-known to both cause and complicate health problems you might be struggling with. As we get older, it’s important to remember to be mindful of this. If your adult child is disrespecting your boundaries repeatedly and it is taking a toll on your mental and physical health, it’s time to go no contact with your adult child. Keep a close eye on your overall stress levels and health. If you are struggling to get proper sleep, if you are struggling to eat, or dealing with depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, the time has come to go no contact.

When the Behavior Becomes Abuse

There is never an excuse for abuse, but you might not really recognize that you’re being abused by your own adult child. If this is the case, you’ll often feel exhausted or like you’re walking on eggshells with them. In other words, if the blatant disrespect, lies, and personal attacks that your child dishes out are worsening, to the point that you feel you’re being abused, it is time to go no contact.

When They Try to Ruin You

It’s difficult to imagine that your adult child might actually do something to intentionally ruin your life, but it happens more often than you’d expect. If your adult narcissistic child is angry with you about something and they are smearing your name and ruining your reputation, that is the time to go no contact. You have had to deal with your child gaslighting you, disrespecting your boundaries, and devaluing you for so long. If they smear your name and violate your privacy, then you will want to consider going no contact.

Can you maintain a relationship with your adult narcissistic child? 

Can you maintain an adult relationship with someone who is a toxic narcissist? Sure. Should you? That’s entirely your choice. And listen, I don’t think anyone would judge you if you chose to stick it out with your adult child if they’re a narcissist. But you have to understand what you’re going to be dealing with if you do. So, expect that they will not change, and understand that if you want to keep them in your life while reducing the stress and overwhelm involved, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage and to reduce the friction of the relationship.

Steps to Keeping the Peace With a Narcissistic Adult Child 

Some people will swear that with enough validation and proper counseling, things could get better in your relationship with your toxic adult child. But the truth is that by the time someone is an adult, you cannot help them change if they don’t want to change.

As you are probably aware, your average non-narcissist is perfectly able to create meaningful change in their lives with intention (thanks in part to neuroplasticity). That’s because, not only might they want to change, but they can recognize that there’s something they’re doing that is causing some undesired result in their lives. They can take responsibility for that and be willing to do something to make their desired result a reality.

However, if your adult child is truly a narcissist, they definitely will not have a problem with their own behavior, so they won’t see a need to change. Rather they will blame you and/or anyone else for the things that go wrong in their lives.  Since nothing could possibly be their fault, they’ll literally destroy anyone who implies otherwise as they continue to refuse to accept responsibility for anything they don’t love about their lives.

With that in mind, here is what you can do to keep the peace with your narcissistic adult child. The steps aren’t fair and they’re not easy. They won’t allow you to feel seen or heard, and they will leave you feeling exhausted and emotionally fried.

If you want to maintain a tolerable relationship with your adult narcissistic child, here’s what you do. 

  1. Accept them for what they are, without questioning anything they do, say, think or feel.
  2. Recognize that they will not offer you the same courtesy.
  3. Never argue with anything they say, want, think or feel.
  4. Offer them as much praise and validation as possible.
  5. Avoid criticizing them if at all possible.
  6. If you DO criticize, do the “compliment sandwich” thing. First give them a compliment, followed by the (gentle) criticism, followed by a compliment.
  7. Be prepared to accept all responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the relationship or outside of it.
  8. Be prepared to pay for or take responsibility for their bills or their behaviors.
  9. If they attack you, try to use the gray rock method and avoid confrontation if at all possible.
  10. Never try to “fix” them or “help” them get better. They do not want to change and cannot see a reason they should.
  11. Avoid telling them you believe they’re a narcissist. If they are diagnosed, allow them to deal with their psychiatrist and only discuss the issues with them if they bring them up first.

Do you think your adult child is a narcissist? If so, here are some resources that might help you.

Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Resources

These resources might also be of interest if your adult child is a narcissist.

 

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