Margret and Henry felt beaten down after a weekend visit with their daughter’s family. They were excited to see their grandchildren and spend time with their daughter but instead, they became the target of their daughter’s verbal attacks. At times, their daughter treated them like a complete stranger forbidding them to interact with the grandkids. Then when she needed something, she acted like they were best friends and guilted them into buying things.
The confusing tactic of pushing Margret and Henry away and pulling them in closer was exhausting. Worse yet, their daughter demanded that if things weren’t done her way, they would never see their grandchildren again. She treated them like servants, acted superior, showed no concern for their feelings, and demanded attention even at the expense of her own kids. There were little kindness, only unfair accusations, and constant strife.
After the trip, Margret and Henry sought out some counseling. They had gone to several therapists in the past who suggested that their daughter might be narcissistic. Not wanting to believe that it could be right, Margret and Henry kept trying, giving, hoping, and expecting things would get better. But it was worse. After the weekend from hell, they were open to learning more about narcissism and finding a better solution going forward.
But everything they read about the disorder seemed to blame them as parents. One article claimed that narcissism is the sole product of dysfunctional parenting. But this didn’t make sense because they had a great relationship with their other two children and their families. It was just this one daughter that they struggled to have a healthy interaction. So they came to therapy with these questions.
- Did I create this? Narcissism is part biology, environment, and choice. Narcissism does run in families and their lack of empathy seems to have a biological component. An environment can draw out the narcissism through neglect, abuse, trauma, death, or an addiction. This might have nothing to do with the parents, it could happen in school, at church, or even with friends. Lastly, everyone has the ability to be different if they choose. The problem with narcissism is that they don’t believe they are the problem.
- Is there anything I can do now? Technically, narcissism is not diagnosed until a person reaches eighteen. This makes parenting difficult as most of it is completed by this time. There is nothing a person can do to make someone else change, they have to want it on their own. This is the hard part of parenting, especially after the child has become an adult. Margret and Henry can’t change their daughter, but they can change the nature of their interaction.
- Did I do something to deserve this? Margret and Henry are not narcissistic, but they both had one parent that was, Margret’s father and Henry’s mother. Looking back now, Henry commented that there were times when he felt like he was raising his mother and in many ways he was. There is no fairness meter in life. So just because Margret and Henry were good parents, as indicated by their other two children, does not mean that everything will turn out well and the narcissism trait will be eliminated.
- How am I suppose to act? Just like Margret and Henry learned to set boundaries with their own narcissistic parents, so they needed to do so with their daughter. There is a grieving process which is similar to a death, that they needed to experience. Letting go of expectations for an amicable visit full of fun and adventure was a place to start. Then set limits on how much they spend on their daughter, how often they interact, and how much they share about their lives are all additional boundaries that needed to be addressed.
- What kind of relationship can we have? The answer to this is unfortunate: it depends. Narcissists like to be fully in control of the relationship. So respecting their boundaries of minimal contact or the ridiculous rules they insist upon takes the strength of character. But regardless of the narcissist’s demands, the parents still need to be themselves. If a birthday card is sent every year, then continue to do so. Margaret and Henry learned to omit the extra verbiage about wanting to see them more. Instead, they stayed true to themselves by keeping everything polite and pleasant. Their narcissistic daughter was not going to make them be someone they are not.
- Do I have to cut them out of my life? For a period of time, Margaret and Henry’s daughter cut her parents out of her life. There was no contact and she refused to visit her parents or for her parents to visit her. Margaret and Henry sent cards on the main holidays and patiently waited for things to change. They did. One day their daughter called and acted as if nothing happened. There was no apology or explanation, no grand revelation. Margaret and Henry’s first temptation was to treat her daughter in the same manner that they had been treated. But then they remembered their decision not to become narcissistic while dealing with a narcissist. Instead, they set boundaries of communication and contact until they felt like their daughter could be trusted more.
While parenting might have ended when their child became an adult, there is a constant strategy that needs to be maintained when dealing with an adult narcissistic child. Margaret and Henry never developed the close relationship with their daughter that they desired but they were able to be proud of their own good behavior in light of their daughter’s poor behavior.