Many parents are concerned about how exposure to excessive or extreme narcissism will affect their children. They worry about whether their kids have a higher risk of developing personality disorders.
Narcissistic abuse as an expression of domestic violence and can adversely affect a child’s neurobiological experience. It can harm the child’s sense of security and ability to bond. Even if a parent is the primary victim of the aggression, abuse, or neglect, it is important to recognize that the child is a secondary victim. Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence in early life can sow the seeds for the repetition of these behaviors in adulthood, which can manifest as victimization or oppression.
A community member asked how they might protect their child from developing a personality disorder. They wrote:
I’m co-parenting with a malignant narcissist who is verbally and physically abusive to me in front of our children. Is it possible that my children risk developing personality disorders from exposure to pathological narcissism?
For answers, we turned to parent-child attachment specialist Dr. Michael Kinsey, author of Transcendent Parenting: A Workbook For Parents Sharing Children With Narcissists, for his analysis.
Prevention of the development of personality disorders in children
“Children learn first and foremost by what they see and what they observe. There are going to be lasting impacts of trauma in a context where there is emotional and physical abuse,” explains Dr. Kinsey, “I think there are things people can do to buffer against the permanent arresting of development that can happen as a result of witnessing or seeing that type of abuse.”
1. Validate the child’s experience
It’s import that children receive support to help them process their experience of domestic violence. Parents can build trust with their kids by being honest and direct about what the child is living through.
Dr. Kinsey explains, “Creating meaningful narratives around the experiences. Do not walk away from it, silence it, or pretending as if it’s not happening. That’s a really important thing for kids. Kids need to know that they’re not experiencing an alternate reality from their parents.”
He points to an important factor that can impact children growing up with family dysfunction, underscoring the significance of the deep connection between kids and same-sex caregivers.
“When the parent who is experiencing the abuse is the same-sex parent, there is a strong identification, i.e. the classic example of a husband abusing his wife emotionally or verbally,” says Dr. Kinsey, “The child who is going to be most greatly impacted by what is going to be the one who is identified with the one who is being abused.”
The reverse can be true in instances when children identify with the parent who perpetrates the abuse. In this way, children may internalize and emulate the dysfunction of their same-sex parent later in life.
Dr. Kinsey puts it this way, “There are other problems in continuing the line of abusers when the observer is identified with the abuser.”
2. Make sure that your child is safe from harm
To protect your child’s mental health after they have witnessed or experienced domestic violence, reassure them that actions are being taken to ensure their safety.
“Let the child know that what they saw was really disturbing and it’s not okay what happened and that something is being done to protect or insulate the child,” says Dr. Kinsey, offering an example of what parents might say to help support their child, “One thing I can think of just at a very practical level [would be to say], “I know what you saw was really scary. Do you have any questions for me? Do you have any feelings about it?”
3. Encourage your child to express their feelings
Help you child articulate the emotions they are feeling in connection to abuse. Be mindful of the ways the child communicates their experiences so that you can affirm them.
Dr. Kinsey explains, “For younger kids watching for signs of the impact of the abuse in play is super important and not silencing the play when it shows up. So, if toys are fighting then you can sort of say, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re fighting. How scary.’ Things like that and just sort of validating that the child is seeing something that’s very hard.”
4. Teach your child to practice compassion
Encourage your child to practice putting themselves other people’s shoes. Without condoning harmful behavior, show them how to practice compassion and understanding for others. This must include people they may not necessarily agree with, such as a narcissistic parent.
“One of the biggest buffers against personality disorder development is having some sense of understanding of one’s feelings and the feelings of someone else.” says Dr. Kinsey, adding that its vital for the parent to remember that a narcissistic partner is still a human being, “Narcissists are not devoid of feeling states. To optimally protect kids, we need to help them develop an understanding of who that person is and what their emotional system is like and give them a context for understanding the behavior. We can hold intention that the behavior itself, that the abuse itself, is unacceptable.”
He points out that to remain in an abusive relationship is to tacitly green light toxic behavior, which sends the wrong signal to a child. However, it’s still useful to help the child develop an understanding of what’s going on with a domineering parents and why the act the way they do.
“At the very least,” he concludes, “The child needs to have an understanding of who the narcissist is, why they are behaving the way they are and how it’s possible to still maintain a loving understanding of that person, even though they do very bad things.”
To prevent the development of personality disorders in children, it is important to prioritize protecting their mental health especially if they have borne witness to or experienced abusive power and control.
There is no escaping the fact that staying with an abusive partner can devastate a child’s mental and physical health. They may develop a fear of abandonment, chronic anxiety and depression, or a guilt complex. Some of the others ways a child’s wounding may also manifest are disconnecting from their emotions, impaired empathy, compulsive lying, isolation, and shame.
If you feel that you or a loved one could benefit from additional support with preventing personality disorder development in your child, reach out to Dr. Kinsey at Mindsplain.
- 3 Causes of Parent-Child Estrangement in Narcissistic Abuse with Dr. Michael Kinsey
- ‘Dreams of Zugunruhe’ by Michael Kinsey, Ph.D. is available on Amazon.com.
- ‘Transcendent Parenting: A Workbook For Parents Sharing Children With Narcissists’ by Michael Kinsey, Ph.D. is available on Amazon.com.
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