Adult children of narcissists adopt one of two solutions: entanglement or detachment.
Interview granted to Elizabeth Svoboda of Psychology Today
Q. Once you became an adult, how did your relationship with your parents change? What are some of the unique difficulties of being an adult child of narcissistic parents? Feel free to give examples or describe specific situations you found yourself in.
A. Adult children of narcissists adopt one of two solutions: entanglement or detachment. Children of narcissists should avoid the encounter because it is bound to stir up a nest of emotional hornets which they may not be able to cope with effectively. They should refuse to subject themselves to repeated abuse, however subtle, surreptitious, and ambient. Absenteeism is a way of neutralizing the abusive parents' weapons.
But the vast majority of grown up offspring of narcissists find themselves enmeshed in unhealthy permutations of their childhood, caught in an exhausting dance macabre, developing special semiotic vocabularies to decipher the convoluted exchanges that pass for communication in their families. They compulsively revisit unresolved conflicts and re-enact painful scenes in the forlorn hope that, this time around, the resolution would be favorable and benign.
Such entanglement only serves to exacerbate the corrosive give-and-take that constitutes the child-parent relationship in the narcissist's family. Such recurrent friction, unwelcome but irresistible, deepens and entrenches the grudges and enmity that both parties accumulate in sort of a bookkeeping of hurt and counter-hurt.
Q. When we become adults, what are our responsibilities to parents who have personality problems? Do you think we're obligated to put up with them as a kind of payback for everything they gave us when we were young, or are we justified in cutting them off if the situation gets too intractable?
A. Our first and foremost obligation is to ourselves and to our welfare - as well as to our loved ones. People with personality disorders are disruptive in the extreme. They pose a clear and present danger both to themselves and to others. They are an emotional liability and a time bomb. They are a riddle we, their progeny, can never hope to resolve and they constitute living proof that not only were we not loved as children but are unloveable as adults.
Why would one saddle oneself with such debilitating constraints on one's ability to feel, to experience, to dare, and to soar to one's fullest potential? Narcissistic parents are an albatross around their children's necks because they are incapable of truly, fully, and unconditionally loving.
Q. How can we try to manage difficult parents' behavior, if at all—or at least, minimize its impact on us? Q. What advice would you give others who find themselves in a similar situation with their parents? What were some of the strategies that worked for you?
A. At the risk of sounding repetitive: disengage to the best of your ability. Make it a point to limit your encounters with these sad reminders of your childhood to the bare minimum. Delegate obligations to third parties, to professionals, to other members of the family. Hire nurses, accountants, and lawyers if you can afford it. Place them in a senior home. Move to another state. The more distance you put between yourself and your personality disordered abuser-parents and their radioactive influence, the better you are bound to feel: liberated, decisive, empowered, calmer, in control, clear about yourself and your goals.
These points are crucial:
Do not allow your parents to manage your life any longer
Do not allow them to interfere with your new family: your wife and children
Do not allow them to turn you into a servant, instantaneously and obsequiously at their beck and call
Do not become their source of funding
Do not become their exclusive or most important source of narcissistic supply (attention, adulation, admiration)
Do not show them that they can hurt you or that you are afraid of them or that they have any kind of power over you
Be ostentatiously autonomous and independent-minded in their presence
Do not succumb to emotional blackmail or emotional incest
Punish them by disengaging every time they transgress. Condition them not to misbehave, not to abuse you.
Identify the most common strategies of fostering unhealthy (trauma) bonding and the most prevalent control mechanisms:
Guilt-driven ("I sacrificed my life for you…")
Codependent ("I need you, I cannot cope without you…")
Goal-driven ("We have a common goal which we can and must achieve")
Shared psychosis or emotional incest ("You and I are united against the whole world, or at least against your monstrous, no-good father ...", "You are my one and only true love and passion")
Explicit ("If you do not adhere to my principles, beliefs, ideology, religion, values, if you do not obey my instructions – I will punish you").