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My adult child is a narcissist: Is it my fault?

adult child is a narcissist

My adult child is a narcissist: Is it my fault?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Parents sometimes tell me their adult child is a narcissist. They describe sons and daughters who feel superior, lack empathy, and have fragile egos that crumble behind a defensive wall of rage. Frequently, the parents go on to say that everything they read says it’s all their fault.

I’m quick to assure them that the causes for narcissism are not that simple, but years spent in an increasingly demeaning relationship with a narcissistic adult child can leave parents confused, isolated, and vulnerable to these seemingly definitive opinions. A parent’s view of themselves, as reflected through an abusive, narcissistic adult child’s mirror, may be warped. The related shame can be debilitating. If you’re one of these parents, take heart. There’s more breadth to narcissism’s etiology and development including how the behavior can be acquired.

Your adult child is a narcissist: Do the theories keep you stuck?

A zillion blogs assert that narcissists are created by either overindulgent or neglectful parents. That these are opposites has always made me suspect, but like so many loud opinions, they’re repeated so often they’re accepted as absolute. The reality is that these are theories. And why not? Framing parents is convenient and absolves adults of responsibility for their own actions. These days, some therapists even encourage adults to blame parents for all their problems—like this one’s billboard.

Simplistic reasoning that heaps guilt on the parents enables adult children who turn on the charm then drop emotional bombs whenever it suits. Parents can become trapped in hurtful, subservient relationships with self-indulgent, ego-inflated sons or daughters who are intermittently loving. It’s a cycle of hurt and hope. Outsiders might see a carefully constructed public façade, sing the child’s praises, and tell the parent they must be so very proud. This then triggers a mix of pride and confusion, which provokes the parent’s shame and silence—just how abusers like to keep their targets.

Frequently, parents who have hung on for years find themselves discarded for good, maybe because they’ve begun to stand up for themselves and are less easily manipulated. Perhaps the parent’s health is failing so they’re no longer a reliable emotional fuel source for the narcissistic adult child. Or the parent unwittingly magnifies a narcissistic “injury,” that triggers the adult child’s counterattack.(1)

It’s also possible that the son or daughter has settled into the role of what’s known as a flying monkey, which is someone who supports and defends the narcissist, often, but not always, by way of manipulation. A flying monkey may do the bidding for another narcissist in the family. Yes, a flying monkey can also be a narcissist, and chooses or goes along with the role because there’s something in it for them.

Is narcissism in the genes?

Often, when parents identify their son or daughter as a narcissist they’ll spot a few others in the family tree. Whether these people are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or simply show a lot of the traits, is up for debate but the harm is real and the family patterns sometimes uncanny.

In one example, a life coaching client who was the father of two sons said his younger brother, whom he’d never been close to and who stopped coming around entirely when their mother got sick, was a narcissist. He later realized the younger of his own two sons was like his brother. A narcissist who only cared about himself and disengaged from his family when they were on to him. Subservient roles can get old (and intolerable) when people recognize what’s going on and how much they’ve been hurt. And a narcissist will often discard someone who no longer serves them and is difficult to control.

One grandmother talked about her older sister, a narcissist, who bragged about cozying up with a sickly, well-to-do elderly man and inheriting the spoils. Of the grandmother’s daughters, the elder one was a lot like her scheming sister. She even took advantage of a sickly older man. In both cases, the younger sisters stopped associating with their narcissistic sibling … and were cautious of their other family members who continued to associate with the narcissistic one. The ongoing connection, they believed, put them at risk. Subjects of past narcissistic abuse feel safer making sure the narcissist has no way of finding out anything about their lives.

Some may say these scenarios point to the upbringing as the culprit, but twin studies show otherwise. Environment, meaning not only the parents but society at large, surely do play a role in all personality disorders, but research indicates that narcissism is heritable. Depending upon the individual study, and how the research is conducted, the degree of heritability runs from around 24 to nearly 80 percent.(2) It’s a wide swing but a genetic connection exists.

Genes and what else?

NPD frequently occurs with other brain and personality disorders.(1) So, whether your child is diagnosed or simply showing many narcissistic traits, comorbidity can create all sorts of relational and occupational dysfunctions. These problematic scenarios can cause a variety of related consequences. These then influence and shape the course of a person’s life in ways that may contribute to narcissistic behavior and NPD. To name every potential contributor is impossible. The prevalent, yet simplistic opinions, don’t begin to scratch the surface. What’s clear is that narcissism’s basis is more than a cut-and-dried scenario where parents are to blame.

It’s fair to say, though, that parents may contribute. A variety of circumstances influence parents’ lives. Also, individual children affect their parents’ behavior. If your child was sickly at a young age, you probably interacted differently with that child than you did with those of robust health. A sensitive, lonely child might prompt loving parents to work harder at building the kid’s self-esteem. If your child was emotionally volatile, you did your best to calm outbursts, teach them how to use their words, and to soothe themselves.

With any children, supportive parents do their best to show justice, kindness, and what it means to empathize and care for others. However, in the workaday chaos of a busy life, you may, at times, have fallen prey to a child’s insecurities and whims. Perhaps you were indulgent on a day when you needed a modicum of peace. Maybe you even assured them they were extra beautiful, uniquely talented, or even special when they felt insecure. That stuff happens in just about every family. Yet, with a burgeoning narcissist, the times of give-ins and ego boosts may have inadvertently contributed to an insidious and growing problem.

That’s not to blame you, of course. Since the early 1990s, experts have preached the importance of self-esteem. Parents followed suit. And most of us dealt with life in the best ways we could at the time. If your child already carried a propensity for narcissism, they probably learned how to play you, too.

Earlier, I mentioned the father of two sons who says the younger one is a narcissist, as is his own older brother (the boys’ uncle). Upon reflection, this father was distressed to realize that, to a degree, he treated the younger of his two sons differently than the first. He came to recognize that his narcissistic younger son’s behavior had triggered responses that derived from the father’s boyhood days. His interactions with his younger son were shaped by relational patterns developed in his family of origin as an older brother, interacting with a narcissistic younger one whom the rest of the family doted on.

Does this mean the father is to blame? If given the chance, his narcissistic adult son might claim so. The dad, though, now sees a younger son who was different from the start. “He was always more demanding,” he says. “As he got older, he could suck all the air from a room. It was always about him all the time.” The boy’s attention-seeking, the father says, changed the family dynamics from early on.

“I’m sharing my story because maybe I can make a difference for another father,” he says. “Maybe one who can identify how his kid’s behavior triggers his own people-pleasing and over-tolerance from the past, and then circumvent.”

Acquired narcissism

Society at large also plays a role in narcissism’s development. The onset of social media, which can be addicting, coincides with increasing narcissism.(3,4,5) This ties in with a 2019 letter “from the editor,” Henry Nasrallah, M.D., in the journal Current Psychiatry, wherein he brings up fame as a trigger for “acquired narissim.” (6)

Nasrallah speaks of superstar athletes and actors who “acquire” narcissism from their suddenly revered position, which is enhanced and magnified by thousands of adoring fans. Social media has enlarged their audiences, too. This “acquired situational narcissism” (ASN) is the old saw, “It went to his head,” in action.

I tend to think two things about ASN: 1) that it can happen to lesser stars, standouts in their career or social settings; and 2) that no matter the level of narcissistic traits, those who “acquire” narcissism probably already had tendencies (even if only somewhere in the genes).

Could medications factor in?

Lately, quite a few parents have told me about narcissistic adult children who are taking prescription medications. These parents speculate that the medications have caused the personality changes they see, with a lack of empathy chief among them. Could it be these prescribed drugs cause deleterious side effects that affect their ability to care about other people’s feelings and pain? Perhaps.

Even the widely used painkiller, acetaminophen, (the main ingredient in Tylenol), has been associated with a reduction in empathy.(7,8) The same goes for some antidepressants.(9) In fact, many medications can cause changes in mood, behavior, and thinking. That’s not to say that a prescribed medication is not beneficial or safe. Many medical treatments involve a risk vs. benefit measure to determine the best treatment.

Adderall (made of mixed amphetamine salts) is one medication that has come up repeatedly in discussions with parents who say their adult child is a narcissist. Considered effective for treating ADHD, one known side effect is feeling emotionally detached (10), yet some people so like the increased focus of this stimulant that they take it in higher than prescribed dosages. Misuse can lead to addiction with one side effect being a sense of grandiosity.(11) Add that to the side effect of emotional detachment, toss in the irritability and self-centeredness that’s typical of addicts, and a parent might very well say their adult child is a narcissist.

Other symptoms of addiction, whether to Adderall, marijuana, alcohol or some other substance, include issues with anger, manipulative behavior, mood swings, and a shift in what they care about (meaning they care less about people because they just want the drug). The sum of these can certainly make an addict look and sound like a narcissist whether they clinically fit the label or not.

One dad of a celebrity estranged adult child says, “If it walks like a duck, quack likes a duck, then it’s a duck.”

A longer story

There are other circumstances that may also contribute to a narcissistic way of being. For example, some medical conditions include emotional and personality changes that might fit some of the traits. Hopefully this article demonstrates that narcissism is more complex than some might have you believe.

It has long been my opinion that even people with narcissistic ways can alter their behavior to do good and be kind—if they want to. Plenty of parents who will say their adult child is a narcissist and acts horrendously with them … but gets along well where they must.

The truth is, we all need a useful dose of healthy narcissism if we’re to take pride in our accomplishments and maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. That’s different from someone who feels they’re superior and uses others to prop up their fragile ego or for selfish gain. Read more about NPD here.

Related reading

Parents of estranged adult children: Pack your emotional toolkit

Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults: It hurts

References

(1) American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

(2) Reichborn-Kjennerud T. The genetic epidemiology of personality disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(1):103-14. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.1/trkjennerud. PMID: 20373672; PMCID: PMC3181941.

(3) Malik S, Khan M. Impact of facebook addiction on narcissistic behavior and self-esteem among students. J Pak Med Assoc. 2015 Mar;65(3):260-3. PMID: 25933557.

(4) Andreassen CS, Pallesen S, Griffiths MD. The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addict Behav. 2017 Jan;64:287-293. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.03.006. Epub 2016 Mar 19. PMID: 27072491.

(5) Daniel Halpern, Sebastián Valenzuela, James E. Katz. “Selfie-ists” or “Narci-selfiers”?: A cross-lagged panel analysis of selfie taking and narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 97, 2016, Pages 98-101

(6) Nasrallah, Henry A. “Beyond selfies: An epidemic of acquired narcissism.”  Current Psychiatry; 18(8).

(7) Mischkowski D, Crocker J, Way BM. From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Sep;11(9):1345-53. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw057. Epub 2016 May 5. PMID: 27217114; PMCID: PMC5015806.

(8) Mischkowski D, Crocker J, Way BM. A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy. Front Psychol. 2019 Mar 29;10:538. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00538. PMID: 31001155; PMCID: PMC6455058.

(9) Rütgen, M., Pletti, C., Tik, M. et al. Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy. Transl Psychiatry 9, 164 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0496-4

(10) Sheppard, S. (2023) Adderall and emotional detachment: Why it happens and how to cope. https://www.verywellmind.com/adderall-and-emotional-detachment-why-it-happens-and-how-to-cope-6831140

(11) Adderall addiction: Signs and symptoms of misuse. 2024. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/adderall/symptoms-of-abuse