When you have a strained relationship with a narcissistic parent, you may notice they seem to have one or more “surrogates” to fill your role and give them narcissistic supply when you’re not doing that – and in some cases, even when you are.
What does this mean?
Well, for narcissistic parents, it happens in a few different ways. First, if they’re single or if their spouse isn’t up to their standards, they might try to “parentify” one of their kids. That kid will be placed in the role of caretaker and sometimes co-parent. So rather than the narcissistic parent meeting the child’s needs, the opposite is true: the child is responsible for taking care of the parent. And sometimes, the child steps into a parenting or co-parenting role when they have siblings to consider.
You might also notice that your narcissistic parent chooses one or more other people (closer to your age than their own) to sort of “fill your role” in their lives, and this is especially true when you go low or no contact with them. But it can also happen while they’re fully entrenched in your life.
For example, one of my clients (let’s call her Jane, not her real name) tells the story of a narcissist mother who happens to have been a teacher. Jane’s mother had always treated her like the scapegoat, and her sister like the golden child. Once her sister moved out of state, Jane thought that maybe they would finally really connect and have a better relationship.
Instead, her mother complained of feeling lonely and lost and would repeatedly reject Jane’s attempts at connection. After awhile, she started to find surrogates.
So, instead of even attempting to form a relationship with her own daughter, who had become desperate for her approval over the years, she would connect with various students and end up staying in touch with them for years. She would post photos of them online with and without her and would act as though they were here kids. Sometimes she would even say as much, making comments like “my extra kid” or “the daughter I should’ve had,” which made Jane feel sick and alone. She would always be “so proud” of everything they said, did, felt, thought…and Jane felt more invisible, constantly being reminded that she was not good enough.
When they’d have their own kids, Jane’s mother would post photos and call them her grandchildren, despite the fact that my Jane had two kids of her own (who the narcissist did not show any interest in whatsoever). When my client’s sister married a guy who had three kids, her mother showed her new step-grandchildren more attention from across the country, gave them more gifts and acted more proud of these kids than of my Jane’s biological kids.
This left her feeling completely discarded and almost like her mother was cheating on her with another daughter. THAT led to a serious lack of self-worth, self-acceptance, self-value. Jane felt useless, worthless and unloved. This, of course, eventually led her to marry someone who wasn’t good enough for her, and who would ultimately steal what should’ve been the best years of her adulthood before she realized what was going on.
Another way this could go: a narcissistic father might connect with a younger guy who likes the same things he does or who admires him and place him as a surrogate son, or if a narcissistic parent has a child of one sex but prefers the other, they may connect with someone who fits the bill and ignore their own child.
And yet, in any case, the parent will be absolutely destroyed if they find out that their discarded child connects with any sort of “surrogate parent,” because they still consider their child to be an extension of themselves, at least when it allows them the opportunity to express narcissistic injury.
How do you deal with this issue?
You have to start by breaking the cycle for yourself and your own kids, if you have them. End the cycle of emotional abandonment in your family. And I know, most of us are already working on that. But every now and then, someone admits to me that they find themselves treating their own kids as they were treated. And I am willing to bet this may be more common than we realize.
So how do you fix this if it’s happening in your life?
Even if you don’t have a perfect relationship with your kids right now, do whatever you can to try to mend it. If they’re old enough to understand, you can explain what you grew up with and apologize for anything you have done that made your kids feel in any way negative, and do your best to start fresh. If not, just start fresh now.
You can and will change your kids’ lives, and this change can span for generations. See, if you look closely enough, there’s nearly almost always a toxic “legacy” in some families; one or both parents is toxic, and they pass this down to their kids, who pass it down to theirs, and so on. If you came from a toxic family, you can probably recognize that at least one of your grandparents and other relatives may have toxic traits, and if not, they may have at the very least suffered from some kind of abuse or neglect in childhood. (Note: That’s about 80 percent of the time. Sometimes, narcissists can be created by parents who have no boundaries and who overly indulge their child materially and never discipline them.)
And here’s another important point to remember.
How a Narcissistic Parent Can Cause You to Get Stuck with a Narcissistic Spouse
We’re going to return to Jane’s story for a moment.
While a lot of us discover our partner is a narcissist before we realize our parent is, Jane’s discovery went the other way: she first recognized her mother, and then recognized her partner. As she went no contact with her mother, she felt like her partner was her only “real” support in the world – what would happen to her if she was just completely alone? How could she leave him now? She’d have no one. What if she found herself in trouble and had no one to help her get out of it?
This kept her in the relationship and in fact, she remains in it today. She has every reason in the world to stay: her kids need both parents, she can’t afford the right kind of neighborhood without the narcissist’s income. She thinks maybe he will change, or that he will just leave her so she can stay in the house with the kids. She rationalizes the abuse and says “well, at least he doesn’t hit me!”
She even tells herself that because she’s so intuitive and aware, she can somehow live with this person and be happy at the same time.
But none of this is true; the truth is that Jane is fooling herself because the idea of leaving makes her so incredibly afraid. But when she really digs down to the reason it scares her, a huge part of it comes down to the fact that she’s afraid to change, she’s afraid of confrontation with the narcissist and yes, she’s afraid she cannot make it on her own.
So she stays, and she tells herself that same story: it might change, he’s all I’ve got in the world and I can’t make it on my own.
You might be happy to know that Jane is actively working on her escape plan now, and that’s a very good thing. She expects to be out within the year – which, for Jane, is big progress. When she first came to me for coaching, she was not even considering leaving. She just wanted help getting through having gone no contact with her mother; and for me to tell her how to live with the narcissist she married.
Question of the Day: Do you relate to Jane’s story at all? Was one of your parents a narcissist, and did you end up marrying one? Did you ever deal with a surrogate situation? Share your thoughts, share your ideas, share your experiences in the comments section on YouTube, and let’s talk about it.
Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.