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.

Manya Wakefield is an educator and recovery coach specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma. She is also the author of 'Are You In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship?' and host of the Narcissistic Abuse Rehab Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.