I didn’t realize I grew up in a narcissistic family until I learned about narcissism and narcissistic abuse. At first, I only focused on its impact on me. It wasn’t till later that I started considering how it influenced my family as a whole.
As I learned more about the narcissistic family, I began to understand the source of dysfunction in my family. It wasn’t me.
My mother used her manipulative tactics to create divisions among the family so she could maintain control. She pitted my father and sibling against me. Whenever something went wrong, it was my fault.
Learning about the narcissistic family can help you understand that the issues weren’t your fault. It can shift the blame from you to the family dynamics at play.
It can also help you identify specific patterns of behavior that were present in your family that can help you make sense of your past. You can also identify similar patterns in your current relationships and learn to break those patterns, thus breaking the cycle.
Like me, learning about the narcissistic family can provide clarity and validation, which can lead you towards healing.
This post will discuss the various aspects of a narcissistic family such as its structure, traits, and roles.
What is a Narcissistic Family?
A narcissistic family is a family system in which one or more members exhibit narcissistic traits or behaviors, shaping the overall dynamics and environment within the family.
Narcissistic traits are typically characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, a need for excessive admiration, and a tendency to exploit others for personal gain.
Learn more about the common signs of a narcissistic parent.
In a narcissistic family, these traits can manifest in various ways. It results in dysfunctional dynamics, unhealthy relationships, and a psychologically damaging environment for all family members involved.
Narcissistic Family Traits
Here are some of the common characteristics of a narcissistic family. I also covered many of these in an earlier post about common narcissistic abuse tactics.
Manipulation and Control – Narcissists tend to manipulate and control others within the family to maintain their desired image or position of power. This can include emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, coercing, and playing family members against each other.
Lack of Empathy – There’s a general lack of consideration for the emotions and needs of others not just from the narcissist, but from others in the family. Members may suppress their own empathy or become conditioned to ignore others’ needs in order to survive.
Enmeshment and Dependence – Family members may be overly enmeshed or dependent on the narcissist. Their sense of self-worth might be tied to the approval and validation they receive from the narcissist.
Lack of Boundaries – In a narcissistic family, healthy boundaries are often nonexistent or poorly defined. Personal space and privacy are often violated, making it hard for members to develop a healthy sense of self.
Triangulation – The narcissist might create conflicts or alliances within the family by involving one family member against another. This can lead to a sense of competition and mistrust among family members.
Parentification – In some cases, roles within the family may become reversed. Children may take on adult responsibilities, such as caregiving or decision-making, to meet the narcissist’s needs.
Emotional Neglect – The narcissist might ignore or invalidate the wants and needs of other members. Members may also do that to each other (due to the lack of empathy mentioned before). This can result in feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and emotional emptiness.
Conditional Love & Approval – In a narcissistic family, the narcissist might give or withdraw love and approval based on the family member’s ability to meet their needs and expectations.
Distorted Reality – The family may operate within their own reality where the narcissist’s version of events and beliefs take precedence over the truth.
Low Self-Esteem – Non-narcissistic family members may develop low self-esteem and a negative self-image due to constant criticism, invalidation, and unrealistic expectations from the narcissist.
Secrecy and Denial – There may be a culture of secrecy and denial within the family, preventing open discussion about the narcissist’s behaviors and their impact.
It’s important to note that not every dysfunctional family is necessarily narcissistic. The degree of dysfunction can also vary widely. Additionally, these traits aren’t permanent. Like in my family, the dynamics can change over time.
However, understanding the dynamics associated with narcissistic traits can help you recognize the unhealthy patterns within your family so that you can address the impact it has had on you and begin healing.
Narcissistic Family Roles and Effects
In a narcissistic family, various roles often emerge as a way for family members to cope with the dysfunctional dynamics and abusive environment.
However, other than the narcissistic parent, most of these roles aren’t fixed. Individuals might take on different roles at different times or exhibit a combination of roles.
At the center of the family’s universe is the narcissistic parent. They are the one who exhibits narcissistic traits and behavior.
The narcissistic parent seeks to maintain control over all aspects of the family and family life, often through manipulation and dominance.
Family members typically revolve around the narcissist, putting their own needs, desires, and well-being on the back burner.
The narcissistic parent is typically extremely entitled, believing that all members of the family exist to serve their needs. As a result, they demand constant attention, validation, and obedience from the family.
The enabler/codependent plays a critical role in actively or passively supporting and reinforcing the narcissist’s behaviors and needs.
Often taken on by the partner or spouse of the narcissist, this role may stem from a combination of fear, a desire to keep the peace, and a dependence on the approval and validation of the narcissist.
The enabler often protects the narcissist from the consequences of their actions, allowing the toxicity to persist. They may make excuses, cover up the narcissist’s actions, or downplay their abuse or manipulation.
They also often prioritize maintaining the family’s facade of normalcy or the narcissist’s approval over addressing the issues at hand.
Enablers may not be fully aware of the extent of the narcissist’s manipulation. Or they could be in a state of denial. Either way though, their role perpetuates the dysfunctional dynamics within the family.
In a narcissistic family, the scapegoat is typically the family member who is blamed for everything that goes wrong within the family.
Usually assigned to the least favorite child of the family, the scapegoat is often the target of constant criticism, emotional abuse, and unreasonable expectations.
This role serves to divert the narcissist’s own issues, creating a convenient scapegoat they can project their negative emotions and shortcomings.
The scapegoat exists to keep the family’s focus off of the narcissist and onto the scapegoat instead. They often bear the family’s burden of dysfunction, constantly feeling inadequate and rejected.
The golden child is often the narcissistic parent’s favorite. They receive excessive praise, attention, and privileges. However, the favoritism often leads to unrealistic expectations.
The golden child is often placed on a pedestal and expected to fulfill the narcissist’s unmet desires and aspirations. So while they may appear to have a “better” life compared to the other family members, they have their own challenges.
They usually face immense pressure to live up to the unrealistic expectations of their parent. They also have to bear the burden of maintaining the facade of a perfect family.
The golden child may struggle with their sense of self-worth being tied to their performance. They are also often enmeshed with their parent, finding it difficult to establish their own identity and boundaries.
Learn more about both roles – Golden Child and Scapegoat: Signs, Effects, & How to Heal
The lost child tends to withdraw from the family dynamics to avoid conflict and dysfunction. They often become invisible to avoid drawing attention to themselves for fear of being caught up in the chaos.
They may become introverted, daydream frequently, and develop a rich inner world as a way to cope with the turmoil within the family.
While the coping mechanism may offer temporary relief, the lost child usually ends up neglecting their own emotional needs, identity, and personal growth as a result.
They become skilled at suppressing their wants and emotions. In a way, they learn to live in the shadows, giving up an identity so they don’t have to deal with confrontation.
This role often results in an extreme sense of isolation and difficulty forming meaningful connections outside the family.
The entertainer typically uses humor and amusement to deflect tension and create a sense of relief in the family. They use wit, charm, or comedic antics to divert attention away or mask the family’s underlying dysfunction.
While the humor may serve as a temporary distraction, the entertainer often struggles with their own emotions and needs.
They tend to suppress their feelings, focusing on making others laugh or feel better as a way to manage the discomfort caused by the narcissist.
As a result, the entertainer may end up believing that their worth lies solely in their ability to make others laugh. This makes it challenging for them to express their own vulnerabilities and needs.
The caretaker child takes on the role of an adult at a young age. They take on responsibilities that aren’t age-appropriate to create stability within the family.
The caretaker child often becomes the reliable problem-solver and emotional support for both the narcissistic parent and younger siblings. Bearing the weight of the family’s dysfunction, they attempt to minimize conflicts and maintain order.
Their caregiving frequently comes at the expense of their own childhood and needs. The role can lead to a sense of overwhelming responsibility and trouble prioritizing their own wants and needs in future relationships.
The caretaker child typically has trouble forming healthy relationships. Their identity becomes closely tied to being a dependable caregiver so they tend to end up being a selfless caretaker and people-pleaser in their relationships.
The martyr perpetually takes on a victim mentality. They may seek sympathy and attention by highlighting their own suffering.
The martyr may use their struggles as a way to gain a sense of control or manipulate others into meeting their needs, all while avoiding responsibility for their own actions.
They typically manipulate using guilt and portray themselves as helpless to maintain this position within the family. In other words, they act helpless in order to seek attention and control.
This role in the narcissistic family can vary. It’s not typically assigned to a specific family member like the golden child or scapegoat.
Instead, multiple family members may take on the martyr role at different times or in various situations as a means of gaining attention, sympathy, or control within the family.
The role can also be adopted by anyone seeking to manipulate or divert attention away from the narcissist’s behavior or the family’s dysfunction.
Lasting Effects of Being in a Narcissistic Family
Growing up and being in a narcissistic family can have significant and lasting effects on the people involved, such as:
- Emotional and psychological trauma
- Difficulty setting boundaries
- Low self-esteem
- Distorted identity
- Relationship difficulties
- Emotional numbness
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Continuing patterns of dysfunction
The effects of being in a narcissistic family can vary widely among individuals. It depends on factors such as the severity of the abuse, the specific roles the person falls under, and individual differences like how they cope.
Healing and Moving Forward
It’s important to recognize that the roles in a narcissistic family are not inherent personality traits. They are responses to the dysfunctional dynamics within the family.
But over time, these roles can become ingrained patterns of behavior that impact the person’s self-concept and relationships outside the family.
Breaking free from these roles and healing from the effects of a narcissistic family is crucial. If not, it’s something the individual might have to live with forever.
The journey to healing and how complex and difficult it can be will look different for each role. But an earlier post I wrote, How to Heal from Narcissistic Abuse by a Parent, can hopefully guide you in the right direction.
The healing methods discussed in the post about the Golden Child and Scapegoat may also be helpful.
As always, feel free to modify any of the methods or suggestions described in any of these posts to fit your needs and preferences.
Understanding the dynamics of a narcissistic family can help you better understand how your experiences shaped who you are and the issues you might be experiencing as an adult now.
It can help you notice patterns you may be repeating from your narcissistic family in your current relationships. I hope it can also help you accept that none of it was your fault.
Understanding the dynamics at play and recognizing the roles each person had, including your own, can help you begin moving forward. Rebuild your self-esteem, form healthier relationships, and discover the real you.
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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with a physically and emotionally abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.
I am always trying to better learn, understand, and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this healing journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda, a place where others who faced childhood abuse can hopefully find support, resources, and motivation to begin healing.
A lot of time and effort is put into this blog – for me and for you. If you enjoy my content or find it helpful, please consider sharing and/or making a donation. Thank you!