How To Answer Your Child’s Questions About A Narcissistic Parent

mother and daughter on grass

Knowing how to answer your child’s questions about a narcissistic parent is essential to their healthy development and wellbeing.

The reason for this is that narcissistic abuse commonly falls under the umbrella of domestic abuse in families. Raising children in an environment where domestic abuse is normalized can seriously impact their physical and emotional functioning.

Research shows that exposure to domestic abuse affects kids to the same degree as if they had experienced the aggression first hand. In many instances, children may suffer psycho-emotional abuseexploitation, and manipulation by a narcissistic parent. 

By witnessing abuse, they may be quietly conditioned and even encouraged to use the same power and control tactics in interpersonal relationships as their abusive parent.

How exposure to narcissistic abuse can impact children

Witnessing or experiencing abuse in infancy and early childhood can produce elevated levels of emotional stress, which in turn can damage a child’s cognitive and sensory development. This can lead to a reduced ability to concentrate and result in poor academic performance from the child.

Children exposed to abuse in the home may experience difficulties distinguishing right from wrong, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation.  

Research also shows that children from families where abuse is normalized risk perpetuating the cycle of abuse by falling into and repeating the familiar roles of victim or abuser.

Helping your child navigate the narcissist’s gaslit reality

It is imperative for parents who are raising children with narcissists to be able to answer their child’s questions in a way that validates the child’s experience and edifies their level of self-trust.

For answers, we reached out to Clinical Psychologist Michael Kinsey, Ph.D., a specialist in the dynamics of personality, intergenerational trauma, and parent-child attachment. He is also the author of  Transcendent Parenting: A Workbook For Parents Sharing Children With Narcissists and the children’s’ picture book Dreams of Zugunruhe.

N.B. This interview aims to inform, enlighten, and provide

accurate general information on the topic of narcissism. It does not provide medical, psychological, or other professional services. If you determine that you need professional assistance, please seek the relevant specialist advice before taking or refraining from any action based on information in this interview. Thank you.

Narcissistic Abuse Rehab: What is the best way to answer my child’s questions when they are at an age when politician style answers won’t cut it anymore? This kind of speaks to what we were talking about before, about the gaslit reality children of narcissists find themselves in.

Dr. Michael Kinsey: Yes and kids are such good BS detectors even from a young age. One of the amazing things about our brains and how we are wired is simply that we can decode – maybe not consciously – but we can decode guarded answers from free, authentic ones. We can tease these things apart with great precision. I suppose any parent really knows, whether you are involved with a narcissist or not, that kids don’t buy politician style answers.

The best advice I can give is something that I mentioned earlier which is that you really have to understand in a compellingly authentic way why the narcissistic person acts the way they do. That might be hard to hear and it might sound like you’re doing the work of condoning their behavior. It’s important that I say that’s not the case. You can understand something without condoning it.

The more you are able to understand it the more clearly it brings in to relief why it doesn’t work or why it’s dysfunctional or why it shouldn’t be the way it is.

You know for a lot of narcissistic people that explanation could be something like, “Your father or your mother had this experience growing up. What’s closer to the truth is they are feeling vulnerable, sad, disappointed, hurt, other way. It would be much better for all of us if it happened differently but this is the way it is. And there’s a lot of people you’ll run into in life who act this way because it’s very, very hard to feel sad, hurt, humiliated, etcetera.”

Narcissistic Abuse Rehab: It’s interesting because many of the people who get targeted for this kind of abuse are highly empathic and the way you describe this particular course of action allows people to use their empathy to push through is I think that it’s an interesting, solid way to go forward.

Dr. Michael Kinsey: Keep in mind that this is a totally different strategy than you would use with the narcissistic person. Once a relationship has gotten to a point where it’s beyond repair, you can speak respectfully and assertively without needing to empathize or condone their behavior whatsoever.

But when you’re talking about children, you need to understand that you cannot pit yourself against a child’s love for their mother or father. You will not be well received and you’re putting yourself and your relationship with your child at great risk but trying to, in some ways, stand in between them and one of their parents. Because children always love their parents even if it’s unhealthy in many ways.

So when you’re dealing with your kids you really have to be respectful of that love that they have for them. Acknowledge the shortcomings, but also make it okay for that child to maintain some sense of loving connection to them and not make it a sort of zero sum game where it’s either him or me or it’s either her or me.

Narcissistic Abuse Rehab: Right, by giving the children these sort of impossible choices.

Dr. Michael Kinsey: Absolutely.

Read the first part of our series Co-Parenting with a Narcissist and check back for the next installment soon!

Links

This interview is also available on our podcast on these fine platforms:

Co-parenting with a Narcissist, Episode 2

Resources

Osofsky, Joy D., ‘The Impact of Violence on Children’, The Future of Children – Domestic Violence and Children, Vol. 9, no. 3, 1999; Koenen, K.C., et al., ‘Domestic Violence is Associated with Environmental Suppression of IQ in Young Children’, Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 15, 2003, pp. 297-311; Perry, B.D. ‘The neurodevelopmental impact of violence in childhood’, Chapter 18 in: Textbook of Child and Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry, (Eds., D. Schetky and E.P. Benedek) American Psychiatric Press, Inc., Washington, D.C. pp. 221-238, 2001; James, M., ‘Domestic Violence as a Form of Child Abuse: Identification and Prevention’, Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 1994.

Baldry, A.C., ‘Bullying in Schools and Exposure to DV’, Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 27, no. 7, 2003, pp. 713-732; Fantuzzo John W. and Wanda K. Mohr, ‘Prevalence and Effects of Child Exposure to Domestic Violence’, The Future of Children – Domestic Violence and Children, vol. 9, no. 3, 1999.

Fantuzzo John W. and Wanda K. Mohr, ‘Prevalence and Effects of Child Exposure to Domestic Violence’, The Future of Children – Domestic Violence and Children, vol. 9, no. 3, 1999; Kernic, M.A. et al., ‘Behavioral Problems among Children whose Mothers are Abused by an Intimate Partner’, Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 27, no. 11, 2003, pp. 1231-1246.

James, M., ‘Domestic Violence as a Form of Child Abuse: Identification and Prevention’, Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 1994.

Recovery in the Time of Covid-19

Blueberries Eat Healthy Nutrition

Recovery in the time of Covid-19 can be challenging. Let’s face it, this has been a year like no other. 2020 has challenged every person I know in ways that were simply unimaginable before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Uncertainty, restrictions, and fear have impacted our mental and physical wellbeing.

In the time of Covid-19, simple tasks like going to the shops, throwing away the trash, or taking a long walk can cause anxiety and strike a chord of fear in us as we try to guard our health while avoiding a virus some experts say is airborne.

I live in a country that is an outlier in that it’s coronavirus strategy is to remain open and not lockdown. The government has left precautionary measures largely to the devices of people at the local level. Initially, there was a lot of criticism as the death toll soared until, at one point, it was the highest in Europe. However, over time some have come to view this relaxed strategy as a success.

Unique health challenges for survivors of narcissistic abuse

All over the world, survivors of narcissistic abuse are facing unique challenges in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are still in relationships with the perpetrator and the health crisis may have made escape more difficult or even impossible at this time. Others have gotten out of the relationship with the narcissist and must navigate recovery in the midst of a pandemic that has transformed our ability to socialize, earn a living, and care for ourselves.

In the aftermath of narcissistic abuse, survivors often battle health consequences ranging from inflammation in the body to chronic illnesses like post-traumatic stress and autoimmune disorders.

Prioritizing health and fitness

Many survivors of narcissistic abuse have a tendency to put the needs of others ahead of our own. For some of us, this is the residue of childhood conditioning in which we learned that the practice of extreme selflessness was a virtue. For others, it is part of the ever-changing rule book we were coerced in to obeying in a relationship with an abusive partner. Either way, the reality is that self-sacrificing behavior can cause serious harm to our wellbeing.

Part of building healthy boundaries is recognizing that we matter, our needs are important, and getting our needs met first should be our main priority. Part of our recovery is embracing the fact that if we do not take care of ourselves first, we will fail in our efforts to take care of others.

This is especially true when it comes to looking after our health.

Re-grouping after disrupted self-care routines

Even though many years have passed since I lived in a narcissist matrix, I am still managing a chronic illness. I developed asthma in adulthood, which may be due in some part to long term exposure to narcissistic abuse.

As a child, I was a fiery ball of energy and fit as a fiddle. Today, I must be selective about what I eat and which cardiovascular exercises I engage in because of my condition. Few things can slow you down like an asthma attack.

Covid-19 has meant long stretches of self-isolation for me. Initially, I devoted myself to baking and trying out new recipes which was incredibly fun!

But over time I found myself struggling to adjust to the new habits I was forming. I started having asthma attacks daily, my energy levels were dropping and I was becoming a lot less productive.

With this realization, my goals have shifted and now my focus is on achieving optimum health.

Health and Fitness | Covid 19 | Narcissistic Abuse Rehab

Small consistent wins can be transformative

My strategy is to start the day by taking care of myself first. This means nourishing my body with high quality foods that fills me with energy.

Everyone is different and what works best for me in terms of generating energy is a vegan diet.

I start the day with a cup of black coffee. Black coffee is great as it tends to kick start my metabolism.

If the weather is warm, I’ll make a smoothie but if it’s cool, I’ll use the same ingredients to cook high protein oatmeal:

  • 1 dl oats
  • 1 banana
  • A handful of blueberries
  • 1 tablespoon flax seeds
  • 1 tablespoon hemp seeds or hemp powder

I choose this meal because it’s a bit like a wet log that is easy for my body to burn but will still power me through the morning until my first snack: crisp bread with lots of sliced tomato or cucumber.

My next priority is making sure my surroundings are clean and organized which is a bit of a warm up for the thirty minutes of cardio I do to get the ball rolling before I start work.

Simple, small changes done with consistency can lead to transformative results over time. I’m sharing this example of self-care because these are things many people can do, whether you are still in a relationship with a narcissist or if you have managed to escape.

Tell me, how have you been managing your recovery during the corona virus pandemic? Please share what works best for you in the comment section below.

Your’s in recovery,

The Narcissist’s False Self

The False Self | Narcissistic Abuse Rehab

THE FALSE SELF IS A FAKE PERSONA dysfunctional people invent as a psychological defense mechanism against re-living adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as traumatic stress.

A child’s construction of a false self is an adaptive process. Children may develop it to cope with unmet needs, especially the absence of support the child requires to differentiate themselves from their caregivers.

When a child is unable to successfully evolve as a separate individual, a profound wounding occurs. It is this wounding that severs the child from who they really are, causing their true self to retreat into the mist of toxic shame.

Enter the false self

Once the child’s damaged true self is subverted, the false self is developed as a protective fortification. It is the psychological armor the child creates to survive in an oppressive climate of family dysfunction.

The false self is a façade that disguises a vacant, inert, embryonic true self. The true self becomes an unrealized seed with its innate ability to develop roots and nourish the spirit with a rich emotional life unrealized.

Because the disconnected false persona is bankrupt of constructive emotions, it is unable to experience or genuinely express love, trust, or empathy – making it impossible to establish authentic bonds with others. Instead, the counterfeit self relies on subterfuge and predation, mentally spinning deceptive webs to capture its sustenance.

Over time, the false self becomes a prison where the child’s true self is held hostage.

The false self and pathological narcissism

Pathological narcissism is a traumatic stress response that manifests as ego distortion. It is the invention of a fake persona as a coping mechanism for abysmally low self-esteem.

The child’s deformed ego may present as collapsed or inflated, or it may vacillate between these states depending on circumstances.

Narcissism as ego collapse: I am unwanted

The child who develops a collapsed false self learns to obtain the conditional love of their caregiver(s) through compliance and submission. Pleasing their caregiver(s) keeps them safe from harm and so their best defense is to be infinitely agreeable.

To survive in the dysfunctional family they must show up as vulnerable, weak, and co-dependent. They are only acceptable if their ego is collapsed.

Narcissism as ego inflation: I am perfect

Sometimes children react to their caregiver(s) conditional love, neglect, and/or abuse by withdrawing. 

Instead of collapsing into compliance, they balloon with contempt. In other words, the child adapts by concocting a counter-dependent false self with a glaringly inflated ego.

Both the inflated and collapsed egos remain undifferentiated, having internalized a tyrannical inner judge that is a facsimile of all the worst elements of their rejecting caregiver(s). Both ego structures are slaves to repetition compulsion in their adult lives.

The false self and addiction

Because the counterfeit self is emotionally isolated from the true self, it is also cut off from meaningful, authentic connection with others.

No matter how masterful it may be in its manipulations, the false self is a solitary figure. The consequence of this disconnected existence is that the false persona is prone to binging on poor substitutes for unconditional love and acceptance i.e. alcohol, narcotics, sex, gambling, work, gaming, adulation, people, etc.  

Freedom from the false self

Only an apocalyptic psychological event can shatter the cruel defensive armor of the false self which is every bit as oppressive as it is protective. To relinquish it is to experience the sum of all fears: ego death and the resurrection of the true self.

Bibliography

Grief in the Digital Age

The Last Goodbye: Grief in the Digital Age

THE BUZZ OF MY SMARTPHONE broke my concentration. I picked it up and checked my messages. A grief-stricken family member had texted me to let me know my cousin Francis had died.

Frantic phone calls ensued as I struggled to come to terms with my shock and sorrow. A hidden heart condition had claimed his life. He died five days before Christmas. His funeral would take place in Massachusetts in the New Year.

I was heartbroken to find that I could not attend. Fortunately, technology made it possible for me to mourn with my family from a distance. Francis’ sister and I texted on WhatsApp, and she kindly sent me updates so that I could feel like I was part of the gathering. 

After the service, she sent me a photograph of herself standing next to the open casket. I saw my late cousin’s body, resplendent in a tailored ivory suit, carefully arranged in peaceful repose.

At first, the image overwhelmed me, and I shut my eyes to shield my mind from the painful reality that he was gone. My first impulse was to delete the photo.  

When I opened my eyes and looked again, I saw his sister standing bravely by his side among the countless floral wreaths that surrounded around him. I realized how happy Francis would have been to see how cherished he was and the tenderness that went into celebrating his life. From that perspective, the image began to give me a sense of comfort.

A Memento Mori

The photo reminded me of my finite existence and put many things into perspective. Instead of deleting it, I kept it as a memento mori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember death,” or “remember you must die.” It refers to works of art that recognize the ephemeral nature of the material world and encourage focus and meditation on the afterlife. 

These artworks became widespread when the Great Plague swept through Europe during the Renaissance. The concept reverberated in literature, paintings, and song.

As technology evolved, so did the memento mori. The invention of the camera made it possible to immortalize and preserve images of deceased loved ones. This became a popular art form in the Victorian era.

I was a child the first time I saw a memento mori. My grandfather and my mother were organizing our family archives and discovered a postmortem image of one of our ancestors. My grandfather was disgusted and threw it away.

That memory became especially poignant this year. As I write this, Francis has been gone for four months, and I still have the postmortem photograph stored on my smartphone. I don’t sit and stare at it but it’s somehow comforting to know it’s there, especially as the world navigates the uncharted waters of COVID19.

Its existence is not something I discuss with anyone. Occasionally, I find myself wondering about the emotional significance of keeping a memento mori. I can’t decide if it is a healthy, unorthodox or macabre custom. For answers, I turned to clinical psychologist Dr. Michael C. Kinsey, author of Dreams of Zugunruhe and founder of Mindsplain.com.

Why are memento mori images a source of comfort for the bereaved?

Human beings are both sensory and social creatures. The way we learn that we exist is by being seen by others. When we’re upset, we’re comforted by being held. Knowing that someone is “there” for us is a core element of being able to explore the world. Over time, the process of knowing ourselves and finding comfort becomes more and more autonomous and abstract. We represent ourselves and experiences of others instead of directly perceiving them. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, called these representations “internal working models.” 

Internal working models are built around experiences, and experiences are built around the senses. Pictures give us something to look at and hold when someone is gone – no matter whether the separation is temporary or permanent.  

I think that looking at – and perhaps holding – pictures help us to make representations of the absent loved ones feel more immediate. They comfort us by giving us a rich sensory experience to scaffold our memories and procedural representations of that person.

I have an especially strong childhood memory of my grandfather’s disdain of postmortem photography. There is still a part of me that feels leery about the appropriateness of the memento mori image. Maybe because it was taken on a smartphone and transmitted to me via social media. Is this a normal response?

That’s interesting. My hunch is that funerals are a communal and social way of coping with grief, where tradition and sacred values are at the forefront of the experience. Snapping a photo with a phone may feel analogous to facing the back wall in a crowded elevator. That is a violation of norms at a time when there is a strong social imperative to submit to them.

In the Alejandro Amenábar film ‘The Others,’ memento mori images were used to excite horror and awe in the audience. Yet, there are Facebook groups dedicated to antique postmortem photographs, where they are regarded as things of beauty. What is behind the allure of such images to people who aren’t related to their subjects?  

Human beings are remarkable in our ability to create complex, abstract ideas and concepts. However, the more abstract, the less personal, immediate, and emotionally salient. Seeing a dead body is a profoundly impactful image. I think a corpse is incredibly evocative because of the way it’s both “real” in a material sense, yet devoid of any of the social emissions we expect. There are no facial expressions, noises, rhythmic breathing, fidgeting. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to encounter a “person” that is lacking the capacity to relate to others and the ambient environment in the way we expect of an entity so defined by its capacity to connect and attune.

In short, the conspicuous absence of the person within the body is emotionally striking, thus giving it stronger influence over our attention. When an emotion is strong enough to capture our attention, we are forced to deal with our feelings. We experience the heaviness of the moment, we imagine the life the deceased person lived, we search for meaning in life and death.

In your opinion, do you consider memento mori images a healthy custom?

It’s not a question of health vs. not healthy. Grief and loss are something we process collectively and personally. As you point out, at times communities have used pictures as a way to process loss. There could be any number of personal reasons why you might want to take a photo that is not based on shared meaning. 

I might speculate though that taking a picture of a dead person is much more of a “just in case” type of measure. It’s a last chance to see someone in the flesh, and taking a picture could be a precaution against feeling some type of regret. From a logical perspective, there is no reason to consider a final moment with a body to be more important than any of the moments we had with a person when they were alive. But psychologically speaking, last moments are among the most salient in memory and therefore carry added pressure to make optimal use of them.

Do you think the Victorian practice of memento mori images as an art form can serve as an aid for mourners, especially in the age of COVID19?

I’m sure creative people could make wonderful use of death portraiture to deal with personal experiences of loss and to say something both meaningful and relatable about impermanence and the human condition. As far as the psychology literature goes, there was an interesting study done by a colleague of mine about “coming to terms with” death. Her study examined the effects of death on the people who work around dead bodies in Varanasi, India–a place where many Indian people come to die or bring deceased loved ones. The hope was that the people who encountered death every day would achieve a deeper peace with and acceptance of death. The findings were essentially that people who work around death every day respond to it in basically the same way that everyone else does. An interesting and important null result. The study was the dissertation of Sylvia Fernandez at The New School for Social Research.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It is syndicated at Medium.com.

Follow Dr. Kinsey on Twitter and at Mindsplain.com. His book Dreams of Zugunruhe is available on Amazon.com.

Honoring Men’s Mental Health

Men's Mental Health | Narcissistic Abuse Rehab

Our theme for the month of November is Men’s Mental Health and Suicide Awareness. Narcissistic Abuse Rehab will be using our platform to raise awareness on these critical issues.

Men often neglect their mental health

Social pressure on men and boys to conform to traditional gender roles can place a heavy burden on men’s mental health. Physical strength, stoicism, dominance and controlling behaviors are rewarded. However, they can also have serious consequences for the wellbeing of men and boys. 

Time and time again men and boys are often punished for showing emotion which can cause some to emotionally shut down. Because of this, it can be difficult for men and boys to recognize when they are in emotional distress. Ultimately, many men and boys don’t seek support until their problems have become a crisis. Many men and boys neglect their mental health.

Recognizing male survivors of domestic abuse

In cases of domestic abuse, men and boys are often unable to conceive of themselves as victims due to stereotypes of abusers being male and victims being female. The reality is that current research shows that 1 in 7 survivors of domestic abuse is male

Men and boys are less likely to seek support when they are experiencing domestic abuse, including narcissistic abuse by a family member, peer or employer.

4 of 5 suicides are men and boys

A staggering 4 out of 5 suicides are men and boys who take their lives, mainly due to relationship problems. According to the Office for National Statistics suicide is the biggest killer of men and boys under 45 years old in the U.K. For men over 45, suicide is second only to drug overdoses as the top killer.

Men and boys are facing a mental health crisis. This is why it’s critical to spread awareness about men’s mental health issues and options.

Our goal this month is to highlight some of the issues that are causing mental distress in men and boys and where they can turn for support in order to restore their sense of wellbeing.