Clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong because denial is rampant in the narcissistic family system:
“The typical adult from a narcissistic family is filled with unacknowledged anger, feels like a hollow person, feels inadequate and defective, suffers from periodic anxiety and depression, and has no clue about how he or she got that way.”
—Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family
It is common for adult children of narcissists to enter treatment with emotional symptoms or relationship issues, but simultaneously display a lack of awareness of the deeper etiology or cause.
The narcissistic family hides profound pain.
Such families tend to operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block their emotional access to their parents. They basically become invisible—neither heard, seen, or nurtured. Conversely, and tragically, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use (or abuse) them as they see fit.
The following are some common dynamics of this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. (Keep in mind there are always degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.)
The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children’s emotional needs, or that they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: “Don’t tell the outside world—pretend everything is fine.”
The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: “We are bigger, better, have no problems, and must put on the face of perfection.” Children get the messages: “What would the neighbors think?” “What would the relatives think?” What would our friends think?” These are common fears in the family: “Always put a smile on that pretty little face.”
Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized, typically: “You’re not good enough”; “You don’t measure up”; “You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are.”
Lack of Parental Hierarchy.
In healthy families, there is a strong parental hierarchy in which the parents are in charge and shining love, light, guidance, and direction down to the children. In narcissistic families, this hierarchy is non-existent; the children are there to serve parental needs.
Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.
The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation. Information is not direct. It is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behavior, tension, and mistrust. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage.