Saturday, November 11, 2006

How the children of narcissists get conditioned to tolerate narcissists

Many people don't understand how the children of narcissists get conditioned to tolerate narcissists. Here is one scenario that can explain some cases.

Let's say, for example, you have a family of four. One parent is a narcissist. His narcissistic abuse of the more vulnerable child makes her a budding narcissist too.

The other parent, the normal parent, will be driven to deal with the situation in a way that does serious harm. Without intending to, of course.

The problem is that she can't change her husband. She can't even reason with him. Because he is a big, irrational baby.

For example, what if she tells him not to lash out viciously at the kids for trying to get his attention or for some minor imperfection of behavior? What if she tells him that he's hurting the kids' feelings and that he must pay some attention to them, must stop treating them like insignificant flies on the wall by burying his attention in the newspaper, a radio talk show, or the TV and acting as though they aren't there?

Since, he's a narcissist, he will bawl, "WAAAH!" (as if imitating HER as the big baby in the house), and whine, "Get off my back!"

End of story. Nothing less than forcing him to behave at gunpoint will work with a narcissist. You cannot reason with one, because all you get is a blowback of irrationality like that to silence you.

In fact, she soon learns that trying to get him to treat the kids better backfires. His reaction is to get in her face by immediately abusing them worse to train her not to try to protect them.

So, what is she going to do? She has but one stick - leaving him. She draws red lines and lets him know that she will leave him if he crosses one. Typically, the red lines are at physically beating the kids or committing adultery.

He doesn't want to lose his mamma and sources of NS, so he stays back of those red lines. But every day, in every way, he abuses everyone to his heart's content in every other way he can.

In other words, he runs amok just this side of those red lines.

So, what is she going to do? She is normal, so she can't stand his constant uproars. She is normal, so she can't stand to see him lash out viciously at her three- and four-year-olds. She is normal, so she want peace and happiness in her home.

Or at least the semblance of it.

She can't control this wild man. He can't control himself. But guess what? She can control his victims.

No misstep = no uproar. No complaint = no abuse. Get it?

His VICTIMS are the ones she can control. The children. So she deals with the problem by controlling the victims instead of the abuser. In fact, this is why people always blame the victim of a bully = because the bully is wild and the victim ain't.

So, if you can't get the abuser to stop, make the victim stop complaining. Expect perfect behavior of the children so that he doesn't go off at them. Tell them they want too much when they ask for his attention. Instill the belief in them that they have nothing better coming from him, that things are as they should be. All in the name of "peace."

Now, of course this is wrong, because if you instill the belief in children that they have no attention, affection, or praise coming, you instill in them the belief they are unworthy of it. Indeed, they see other kids and the narcissist getting plenty of this good stuff. But THEY, they alone, don't deserve any.

Now before you go condemning her, remember that he is abusing her too. He very likely has her on the edge of a nervous breakdown early in the marriage when she discovers what kind of father her very young children have. She will see how he is hurting their tender little hearts at such a tender age and be beside herself with fear at what this might do to them. Plus, she wants peace. So she goes into denial.

And when one of the children starts showing signs of narcissism, flying into rages at the other, pretty much the same thing happens. At the first sign that something is seriously wrong with that child (such as shocking violence or diabolical behavior), she goes into denial. Because of course she suspects that she is partly to blame for not getting her children away from this man.

She wants peace from those uproars too. So the normal child gets told that he must control the narcissistic sibling's fits by never "being" the kind of person who sets his sister off.

Mother doesn't have to come out and literally TELL the normal child that he is the one to blame. That message comes through loud and clear without ever needing to say it out loud and literally. The normal parent doesn't have to come right out and tell the children that they must make sure Mommy isn't troubled by anything = that they are a troublesome burden on Mommy if they make a mistake, complain about anything, or make anyone mad at them.

That child will grow up conditioned to think that the greatest sin is having anybody commit one against you.

That child has no idea that all families aren't like his, that he has grown up in a home where two people belonged in a psych ward.

When that child becomes an adult and goes out into the world, he will tolerate narcissists, because he has been conditioned to. The double-standard is so deeply ingrained that this child thinks, "Some people are just that way." To be a good person, you must tolerate whatever treatment they feel like dishing out to you.

Nonetheless, I'm not at all sure that this makes the child more likely to marry a narcissist. Perhaps in some cases it does. But I think this upbringing makes it just as likely that the child will never marry. For example, if you're a woman whose father is a narcissist, what have you seen in marriage that you would want? Nothing. But you've seen a lot you want to avoid!

What does all this mean? It means that you must seriously consider getting very young children away from a narcissistic spouse. And, if you can't or decide not to for some reason, you must make sure not to fall into this trap.

The main thing is NOT to go into denial. Consider and be aware of the effect it tends to have on your children's psyche. Counter that effect. Make sure the normal child never feels responsible for something no one can control = the narcissist's wild behavior.

Children are amazingly resilient. If the normal parent relates appropriately to them and really makes the effort to compensate, it makes a huge difference. Kids catch on to things at a much earlier age than we realize.

They know Daddy isn't satisfied with them. Make sure they learn that it's due to Daddy's defect, not theirs. Yes, that will sadden them and perhaps make them feel cheated. But it won't damage them. Similarly, it's sad to know that your Daddy doesn't care about you. But it's torture to be subjected to conditional love, tantalized forever with cruel hope that you can somehow MAKE him like you if you just keep trying hard enough.

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At 6:06 AM, Blogger Louise said...

This might run long (even for me)- FLASHBACK time. And maybe the telling will help one family STOP the continuation and damage. I now understand how I lost my sister to NPD and that she'll never come back.

If the father's narcissism was exchanged for alcoholism, this story IS my childhood. VERBATUM. My parents, Lil Sis and I all played exactly these roles and we continued this with Lil Sis into adulthood. Thank goodness, my parents are no longer these people- it was made clear years ago that they would never see my kids, their only grandchildren, if they did. We have all grown and changed for the better, except for her.

She WAS more vulnerable to the abuse; I yelled back at him and fought to remain sane when he got drunk every week. Mom sent us to our grandparents' as often as she could to protect us. We were, as my husband says, raised in "lockdown" as not to disturb Dad. He worked 16+ hours a day, so we tiptoed and were in bed with lights' out by 8pm, even into college. God help us if we giggled and woke him up, even with our room at the far end of the house. Never allowed visitors, long phone calls, afterschool activities- yet we both had A's and B's in school, didn't smoke, drink or do drugs. Didn't date until college (not allowed) Babysat to raise our own money. We were freaking PERFECT.

I saw the only escape was to get grades, win scholarships to pay for college, and MOVE- I did, and I had to leave Lil Sis behind in the meanwhile. I thought she was strong and would follow me out of hell- she did, but by then, she was already used to lying, manipulating, using sex to get what she wanted.

I never held her accountable for her lies or behavior; I helped hide it from Mom and Dad. When she got pregnant in college, she had to tell Mom- she got an abortion on Dad's dime and they hid it from him. I didn't find out until months later, as I was already living 300+ miles away.

Divorce is awful- but seeing that you are not protected by your parent teaches you to not value yourself. Everything she does now, decades later, is a SCREAM for help and attention- and I can't help her. She's too far gone. Understanding this helps my confusion and survivor's guilt, but I still mourn my baby sister.

But it also is getting easier to deal with- time does heal.

At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Liz123 said...

Yes, I believe children of narcissits are trained to tolerate narcissim in their relationships. Sadly a part of it feels like "home", so you tolerate it, or at least I did. ALso there is hte false hope that you can make it better. You can not.

Therapy, learning to feel again, talking on boards like this. All help identify this dysfunctional behavior and have taught me to maintain my borders around the diseased.

At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you guys think its okay for me to share what im learning about narcissism with my children? I highly suspect it of my H. The oldest is out of the house. The remaining ones know and share in the idea that dad is a little off. We are "tiptoeing around" him at times, but I think we are all concious of that now. I'm trying to get used to the idea that he doesn't really love me, but that's a tough subject when I think about their heads. The one child is of particular concern to me. College now, but the one that was and still will "try to fix" things. I hate to see her get "fooled" by him, but do I break her heart? Or do I let it be broken for her in their time frame? (I feel almost ill asking it this way).

At 3:15 PM, Anonymous dandelion said...

Kathy--excellent, right-on post. It describes very well my current situation with N-husband and kids, except that my period of denial has been over for a while.

I'm constantly working on validating the kids' reality, and pushing back on him occasionally to keep him behind the red line.

How much do you tell them? I've had more in-depth discussions with my daughter than my sons, who are a few years younger. My daughter has always talked more about her feelings, and also has been more emotional than her brothers (very stereotypical, I know). She's verbalized her pain and confusion about her dad, and I've consistently let her know that it has more to do with him than with her (e.g. he's reacting to memories from when he grew up, rather than seeing her and what's really going on in the present). We've had some hard discussions about if he really loves her. I've avoided directly answering that particular question (what is love, anyway?) by talking about feelings and reactions, and why he might act the way he does...all the while emphasizing my belief that he's not going to change. I think she still wants to believe he'll change, and sometimes I see her trying to charm him and get his approval, but she's no longer devastated when it doesn't last.

I have avoided using diagnostic terms such as NPD or what some people might attack as "psychobabble," and maybe you don't really have to in order to explain some of the inner workings to them.

As for my boys, they talk a lot less about feelings, but are pretty sharp and observant. I know it makes a difference to them to get a thumbs up or other forms of approval from me, especially after they've been put down by their dad.

And one of the best antidotes, I think, has been for me to mediate their fights, and encourage them to speak up for what they want respectfully and work together toward a solution. Of course, this approach to conflict doesn't work with an N, but at least they have a model in their heads of how it's supposed to work in a respectful relationship.

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous GH said...

Louise -- my own theory (and I know this isn't original) is that Narcissism itself is akin to alcoholism or other drug addiction. The effects of having an alcoholic parent are likely little different than the effects of a narcissistic parent. And just like your family enable your father's drinking by tiptoeing around it, we tend to enable narcissists by pretending the craziness away for them. Your dad/parents got better when you stopped enabling and laid down the law -- who's to say that can't happen for your sister some day?

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Louise said...

Thank you for the very kind thoughts, GH- I wish that were possible. But while Dad and I were both able to tackle alcoholism and beat it, for ourselves and our families, I don't think it's possible Lil Sis can dig herself back out of this mess.

(BASED PURELY ON MY OWN EXPERIENCE) Alcoholics get sober, even if just for a few really physically awful hours. That's when they can see the damage they've done (or are doing) to themselves and everyone they love. Then it's a choice of what's more important- hiding in alcohol or taking a deep breath and getting sober. It is a lifetime battle, but it CAN be done.

Lil Sis can't "get sober" from narcissism and see what's happening- she can't make a choice to stop this. That goes back to KK's "Is There Hope?"- not in this case. I have to let her and that dream go.

I had it right years ago, when I decided (pre-NPD knowledge) that I'd have to be crazy to understand her craziness. Sadly, I was right spot-on. But thankfully, I have peace with my parents and respect all around.

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dandelion, your replies are always so helpful. It sounds to me like our households have a lot in common. Thankyou. I have a fuzzy thought about the topic of enabling. It always sounds like it's a bad thing and that we shouldn't have done it. But it is such a common thread that maybe a certain amount of it is just inevitable? Really we don't set out to deliberately do it and in retrospect realize it. But a lot of times we really just don't know or can't help but do anything else. It's not like it CAUSES the behaviors or ALLOWS them (because they would happen anyway). I mean we don't hand an alcoholic a bottle- but we really can't stop them. We don't try to manipulate a N, we just try to survive around them. Life has to play out and go on, and just like a bratty little kid we can't just dump out and leave behind, we HAVE to make certain accomadations or just simply stop functioning. (I agree that this is unfair and rather angering, but oh well...) I have been able to draw a few lines that he hasn't figured out how to cross-yet. I'm sure I will have to draw some again. I can see where this is always going to be a maintenance issue for me.Sometimes I don't feel up to it -but oh well...! Being a good example to the rest of the family may be my crowning glory if I can maintain their respect (no one likes a suck up or a wimp or a whiner or a coniving backstabber). You all help a lot with your coaching, discussing and "group problem solving". But most of all with your empathy and compassion. Mine often times is restored here.

At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, this is my life with my N-husband and kids. I'm seeing my super-sensitive, formerly very empathetic 5 year old turn into an angry, self-absorbed bully and wondering WHAT is going on. He is the more vulnerable child, no question. The denial phase is long over - we will be getting away. I just hope it's not too late to save my son - his empathy was his special gift.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous GH said...

Louise -- I think a Narcissist can, theoretically, get "sober" if s/he is cut of from narcissistic supply -- but you're right, it's alot harder than recovery from alcoholism, which isn't exactly a cake walk itself. At least with alcohol, there's no real question when you are feeding the disease; we know how to recognize a drink. It's alot harder to recognize what is or isn't acting as NS,

I certainly wouldn't encourage you to live in hope that Lil Sis will get better -- I've set myself up for that sort of disappointment often enough and won't wish it on anyone. But I think when we all start to feel guilty about cutting the N's in our life off, it can help to remember that while they may or may not get better when we cut them off, they absolutely can never get better if we don't. Whether or not the rest of the stars ever align for them is beyond our control.

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of us who have narcissistic parents are trained by them not only to accept a narcissist but to admire them. It is our parents who teach us how to define love and for a narcissists, love is admiration. Manipulation is caste as diplomacy and a wise alternative to truth and parental manipulation as a form of love that is for our own good. The child of a narcissist can never earn admiration=love except by feeding the parent's need for attention and admiration. In fact, narcissists keep their prey at a purposeful disadvantage by offering only crumbs of love and keeping their source of admiration dependent upon them for it.

It takes years and some miraculous intervention in the life of a child of narcissists for this basic definition of love to be changed to a healthy definition of mutual caring for the well-being of one another.

Admiration is the stuff of worship and that belongs to God. Cut off a narcissist from your admiration and watch them self-destruct and then beware as they seek revenge.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

My GOD!! Kathy were you a fly on the wall for my life? My late N-mom conditioned me not only to tolerate but to act as FLYPAPER for 4 Ns (including my STBXH) and 1 Sociopath!! It took me years & years to put the pieces together. I knew in my mind it was related somehow I just couldn't figure it out.

This is a stellar post!

At 1:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found out about NPD just a few weeks ago but the moment I read about the symptoms, I knew that I had found the answer to my odd family. I think they're all narcissistic with one particularly vile brother - psychopath? I was on the Internet browsing for emotional abuse sites and I found one about narcissistic abuse. It explains everything about my family's behaviour. They are the most vicious, amoral, ruthless predators. They don't care about your feelings and will always pick on you in spite of - in fact, because!- of your vulnerability.

I am the youngest in my 'family'. That made me temptingly easy prey especially for my suspected P brother. And the unfortunate eight year difference between me and him - he's the second youngest- didn't help. He was always making me cry and enjoyed it too. Sometimes my sister - the eldest would come between us and tell him to cut it out - but she would soon get bored and start abusing me too. The abuse could take many different forms - insulting my favourite singers, kicking around my cats or even just asking me some stupid question - whatever the answer I gave it would always be called rude and a tirade of incoherent rants would follow. My mum, I know now, enjoyed all the chaos in the house. My dad died when I was two and I can't remember him. She thought nothing of pairing us up to go to the shops or wherever together. Why the hell was it so necessary that I go with my tormentor?? Of course she made some pathetic pleas to my brother to stop torturing me - when there was an audience. It was completely ineffectual, since her behaviour virtually urged him on to continue the abuse, and hinted that I was the one to blame.

Make no mistake, my mum isn't anywhere near normal herself - she isn't in denial, at all. She is the chief narcissist. She is irrational, hypocritical and so selfish, she'll take your breath away. She wouldn't mind dragging me out of bed from my sleep to do some stupid chore ridiculously early in the morning. And she couldn't stand anyone complaining. In fact it took even less than actual complaint to set her off. When she irritated me, though I knew better than to compalin, she'd say in this snide little voice, " And who are you wearing that little face for." And I'd trained my facial expression to be totally blank!!

Well, I have one sister and two brothers. The second born after my sis is also a narcissist. Ugh, AI think he's the one who fooled me for the longest time with that phony mask of his. He was always the quiet one. He used to pick on me alongside his lil bro, but then I guess it was starting to make him look bad. So he stopped. All my life, he's just been there, but he's never done anything to either stop my other bro's tormenting cruelty or to comfort me. He was just a silent rock. When he spoke, it was often some supercilious and sarcastic put-down of others. But when I was a little kid, I didn't care. I guess I fantasy-bonded with him. In my heart, I always insisted that he really was on my side. It didn't matter that he never raised a finger to help or comfort me, I always made excuses for it. I felt that deep down, there must be some integrity to him. In the end, I now think he must be the cruelest of them all. He's the guy Sam Vaknin writes about. He is sadistic in his failure to come through, just as hypocritical as my mum and truly heartless. All in a passive-aggressive sort of way. He can switch masks in a flash. This is a guy who talks up feminism like he invented it, but in truth, I think he loathes all women. His behaviour just doesn't add up with the things he says.

In the end, all anyone out there going through narcissistic abuse should know is that these people have absolutely no integrity - so please DO NOT blame yourself for what they do. It's not your fault and could never be your fault. They have deep, serious problems which they should go about treating instead of abusing people. No one with any heart or integrity would do that. It's their duty, to both you and themselves, to get help. If they don't it's because they're too lazy and too irresponsible.
Sorry for the long post.

At 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am convinced (have been for years) that my mother was narcissist, my father suffered from some sort of depresssion (borderline), his only brother was an alcoholic, both of my grandmothers were manipulative, cruel to their children and grandchildren (verbally, emotionally, physically - 1 lived with us until I was 11, the other also for a short time before I was born), etc. My family was never a safe place to be because of the casual cruelty, lies, etc. yet of the 5 siblings (I am the yongest) my (middle child)sister and I have happily married, raised healthy children, and eliminated this violence in our generation of our families (despite the fact 1 of her daughters has OCPD - she has been successfully treated, is a teacher, and with her husband is expecting their 1st child). All 5 of us siblings are professionals - engineers, doctor, pharmacist, teacher, yet with at least 2 the violence has continued into the next generation (nieces and nephews with various diagnosises and conversely those living healthy lives and establishing their own families). My sister and I treasure our relationship - across the country - while my 90 year old mother spews her venom on the care taker sister who has become so twisted, so abusive, and took the brunt of my mother's abuse - and my 2 brothers, both with diagnosed mental illnesses - one is bipolar, the other won't tell me - lead sucessful professional lives while their personal lives have been very difficult. I don't know all the facts how and why 2 of us "escaped". We are all well educated ("A" students, graduate or professional degrees, etc.). I agree with 1 thing as being key, however, and I realized it by age 16. You cannot live with or near a narcissist, and familiarity with them breeds their contempt for you. If you lead you own life, limit contact, etc., they become much sweeter, but you cannot ever be close to them. They hurt for the pure pleasure of it...lie about you, try to ruin your reputation, steal from you, lie to you, and then play the victim, accuse others of what they do, etc. I can see how my father's abuse and neglect during the Depression & rejection by his mother and my mother's physical and emotional abuse by her controlling mother made them into the people they were, but I could not stay and let them do to me what their parents did to them. To this day, I am in contact with all of my siblings and love them, but with the oldest sister and 1 brother I have to maintain and re-establish boundaries, because their perceptins are warped, their processing of events past and present is is not accurate, and 1 continues the "family tradition" of lies, trashing others, manipulation, etc. (NFD?) and the other theme with me seems to be, "I unconditionally love you/you are perfect/I hate you/don't abandon me" (BPD) Sigh. My husband, son, & I are far from perfect, but it never gets that crazy at our house, and as I told this brother the 1st (and last time) he exploded in 1 of his, "I hate you," comments on Thanksgiving day (for a man in his mid 40s - how pathetic), "No one is allowed to ask crazy around my kid." It stopped him dead in his tracks and he never did it again. When confronted, if if threatened with loss of a relationship, he can behave better! (BPD) Regardless of his diagnosis - he won't share it with me, and is no longer on medication, though I believe he is in counseling, I've found firm boundaries, deadlines & cause effect statements("If you want to come our to dinner with me, I'm leaving at 6 p.m.) work with him! (If you ask him if he wants to eat lunch with you when in town over the holidays and let him name the time & when to come over, he may not show, he may show up 3-5 hours late, he will not call, and he will be as mad as hell because he decided to something else and didn't call and you should understand that!) His gifts are cheap & unsatisfying - a $10 horizontally striped pink & orange turtleneck on clearance - I shop L L Bean also - he has 3 graduate degrees in engineering, teaches on the college level, and is a consultant - I cannot figure him out, but he is my brother. GCH

At 7:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When that child becomes an adult and goes out into the world, he will tolerate narcissists, because he has been conditioned to.

Amen. I am generally known as 'easy to get along with,' a 'pleaser.'

A therapist helped me learn to protect myself from emotional predators.

I've become fairly good at spotting Narcissists, but it dismays me how rarely Normals recognize them. Most people are nice, and aren't prepared to circle the wagons when an N comes onto the scene.


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