If you’re in a narcissistic family, we’d first like to applaud your courage and validate your pain.
You deserve better.
The concept of family is built around the assumption that parents have unconditional love for their children, set good examples, and teach the difference between right and wrong while supporting each child’s needs.
Narcissistic families turn that concept on its head.
Instead of being a safe space, the family home becomes a three-ring circus with the narcissistic family member as the ringleader.
The rest of the family falls into designated roles, a submissive elephant or (flying) monkeys putting on a supportive show.
What Is a Narcissistic Family Structure?
A narcissistic family system is run by one parent who suffers from narcissistic tendencies or has a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder (not that they’ll ever be diagnosed).
When someone is a narcissist, they lack empathy and humility.
Instead, they’ve built a facade to hide their weak, soulless self.
They are only concerned with being superior, praised, and preferred, even when using manipulation.
In this toxic structure, you can expect to see things like:
- Focus is drawn to the narcissist on all accounts. Their needs supersede anyone else’s, even in emergencies.
- Children are only as good as the narcissist deems them to be. A narcissist will never know a genuine emotional connection; children only build them up or bear the consequences.
- The parent needs a constant supply of praise. It’s not enough for a narcissistic parent to have control; they seek constant validation from family members who support their warped view of themselves.
- Threatening the supply creates chaos in the family. Members can be pitted against each other unknowingly and fall into designated roles within the family.
What Are the Roles in a Narcissistic Family?
As if the innate competition for parents’ attention isn’t hard enough for siblings, a narcissistic family structure categorizes each member at the whim and will of the narcissistic parent.
The narcissist is the alpha dog. They rule the pack with a firm fist and control everything from the food to the furniture. In a narcissistic mind, the family is a status symbol to back up the narcissist’s greatness.
Since they have the devilish ability to never emotionally connect with their pack, there is no guilt or apologetic crutch to get in the way.
The enabler is the beta dog, wielding some power but constantly bending to the alpha’s will and never challenging them.
Usually, a spouse will fall into this role, having already spent years being trauma bonded through narcissistic abuse.
They’ve seen the consequences and live on eggshells while trying to protect their children from the same abuse and backing up the narcissist’s demands.
The Golden Child
The golden child gets their name from the value they hold—like a large piece of gold. They can also be called the perfect child or the mascot child.
This child is treated differently, getting more praise, leniency, and gifts. This designation can come from sheer loyalty to the narcissist or status-improve traits like attractiveness, intelligence, or personality.
The Lost Child
A child can get lost in a narcissistic family and become quiet, reserved, and aloof. This spawns from a coping mechanism to avoid conflict.
They don’t want the expectations of the golden child but don’t want the brunt of the scapegoat.
While they might not be the most impressive family member, they can escape into a world of daydreams and disaster avoidance since they don’t rock the narcissistic boat.
A narcissist has so many cracks in their facade that it’s impossible always to be a shining star. E
nter the narcissist family scapegoat who always takes the blame. They will never be good enough. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of unhealthy attention-seeking behavior.
Even if the family scapegoat succeeds like the golden child, the narcissist will not meet it with the same praise.
What about an only child in a narcissistic family? They take an incredibly challenging hit because they rotate through roles based on their behavior and obedience to the narcissist.
13 Characteristics of a Narcissistic Family Structure
While there’s a healthier version of birth order traits in a family, like the middle child feeling like the lost child, those roles don’t stick in a narcissistic family.
It’s more about what’s happening behind closed doors that change the family DNA.
1. Constantly Seeking Status
A narcissist needs everything connected to them to be a reflection of their own greatness. They are prone to creating perfect yet unattainable expectations of their family.
They want minions, not individual thinkers, surrounding them. In their mind, everyone around them envies their family.
They can never achieve ideal status because narcissists get bored easily. They need ongoing, relentless escalation of their status.
2. Cunningly Seeking Supply
That boredom creates ongoing conflict—real or manufactured—to bring the focus back to how the narcissist really is. Every single act a narcissistic parent does is designed to get supply.
If they cooked dinner on the grill, it should be the best burger the family has ever tasted. If they help a child with homework, proper praise of their own intelligence should be lauded.
Manufactured supply comes when the golden child gets a gift, like being enrolled in soccer, while the scapegoat child who desperately wants to play soccer is told they aren’t athletic enough.
3. Relentlessly Creating Drama
A narcissist needs to be the center of attention as much as they need to remind people of their roles in this family dynamic. A lesser-known fact about narcissists is that ANY attention is a supply.
Even if a child rages against a decision, all that does is signal that the narcissist controls the child enough to elicit emotions.
A fight with a child can also draw attention from the enabler in the form of sympathy and support.
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4. Constantly Bashing Boundaries
A narcissist believes they are entitled and above societal rules. They are always the exception to the rule.
This creates a world without boundaries where they can stampede through any social or emotional norm while still expecting the rest of the family to live within specifically-designated parameters.
Those designated limits can be expanded for the golden child and narrowed for the other children. That is, as long as the golden child stays in their role.
5. Wildly Wielding Control
Since the perfect family comes from the distorted mind of the narcissist, and the perfect target is always moving, the narcissist needs to reinforce control over each selected family member.
They’ll cancel a family trip, blaming the poor grades of the scapegoat, getting compassion from the enabler, and pushing the quiet child into more submission while taking the golden child out to the local theme park alone.
They’ll make statements like “We can’t go on vacation until ((scapegoat)) get good grades,” breaking trust and connections between siblings.
6. Corruptly Creating Competition
This isn’t the healthy kind of competition where everyone can achieve success; it’s the kind that festers and rots well into adulthood for impacted children.
This surfaces in statements like, “Why can’t you be more like ((the golden child))?” A family game night is never normal because the narcissistic must win.
The competition among children isolates them from relying on each other and shows that the narcissistic parent is the only true judge of excellence in this family.
7. Repeatedly Refocusing Attention
Yes, their children are a trophy of the narcissist’s success, but the kids can never get more attention, praise, or compassion than the parents.
Even if a child ends up in the hospital with a broken bone, the parent will shift attention to their sadness or how they “rescued” the child from the accident that led them here.
Look for the telltale sign that a narcissist shifts attention from their child to themselves, even in absurd ways.
8. Maniacally Using Manipulation
As children push back or speak up, the narcissist starts to get shrewd with their control tactics.
- Gaslighting: Convincing the child they are too sensitive or overreacting.
- FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt): Preying on a child’s emotions and desperate need for approval to get what they want.
- Flying Monkeys: Using other siblings to send messages.
- Shaming: Berating a child only as a means to make it clear the narcissist is superior.
9. Always Attempting Triangulation
While assigning children certain roles is a form of triangulation, the angles continue as the parent creates themselves as the savior of conflict.
They might tell one child another sibling is mad at them and try to fix the (imaginary) situation by acting as the go-between.
This reinforces the dominant role of the narcissist and preys on the children’s poor communication skills to resolve conflict on their own.
10. Savagely Protecting Secrets
It really doesn’t matter to the narcissist that their perfect family is actually dysfunctional. All that matters is that the entire family keeps up the charade.
Does that mean children are turning into narcissists? Not if they have emotional guilt about it.
11. Consciously Creating Conditional Love
One hallmark of a narcissist is that they use love bombing to scout the weakness, dreams, and desires of their targets. This is an easier task when it is their own children.
The narcissist clearly lays out the rules through words, actions, and attention. You’ll get affection if you abide by their needs and support their ego.
Children that misstep, whether legitimately or in the mashed mind of the narcissist, will be denied attention and possibly ostracized until they get with the program.
12. Repeatedly Reassigning Blame
A narcissistic parent creatively reassigns blame at all costs. Even if they suffer from substance abuse, it will be the family’s fault for stressing them out so much.
If they start having financial issues, the children will be blamed for being so needy.
The enabler or golden child might even accept the blame, with Pavlov prompted pleading to seek forgiveness.
Narcissists are incapable of accepting blame because they don’t think they do anything wrong. This trait creates people-pleasing children into adulthood.
13. Blatantly Rewriting History
Not only is the present day completely controlled by the narcissistic parent, but the past is also still under their command.
The parent will deny events took place, tell family members they don’t remember it correctly, and accuse (aka projecting) other members of trying to be manipulative.
They’ll deny they had more than two drinks at dinner, even though children dealt with drunk narcissistic rage all night.
They can even offer a compliment during a child’s submissive moment and then deny that compliment ever happened.
How Does a Narcissistic Family Impact Those in It?
The toxic effects of being in a narcissistic family run the gamut.
Even within designated family roles, science isn’t sure why one golden child of a narcissistic parent becomes an eternal people pleaser, and another becomes a narcissist.
You might have been exposed to narcissistic family habits if you experience any of these:
- Echoism: Named for Echo, who was doomed only to repeat other people’s words, even as she was in love with Narcissus, these victims of narcissistic abuse have no voice of their own. They go along with what people around them say.
- People Pleaser: When a child has never focused on their own needs, they can spend a lifetime making other people happy to control the chaos.
- Codependency: They lack self-love and spend their entire lives seeking to be an extension of another person, not their own beautiful self.
- Insecurity: Not only is the adult child of a narcissistic parent insecure with themselves, but they have no ability to trust anyone else around them. The world doesn’t hold a safe space.
- Addictions: The lack of trust, awareness, and coping skills can push some people toward alcohol or drugs to numb the pain or confusion.
The elephant in the room here is that the narcissist, as evil and twisted as they are, developed that trait from their own childhood trauma.
They could only cope by creating this invincible mask, like putting on Superman’s cape.
Ways to Cope with Narcissistic Family Dynamics
Victims of narcissistic abuse have so many more resources than in past generations, offering a wonderful opportunity to break the cycle, even just by reading articles like this one.
- Read the Room: Instead of playing the game or raging against it, you simply choose not to play. You refuse triangulation and gaslighting. The one thing that gets under a narcissist’s skin is indifference toward them.
- Create Your Own Validation: Stop seeking praise where you know you won’t find it. Celebrate your victories and create your own path to success with clear milestones.
- Forgive the Narcissistic Parent: It’s too easy to carry a grudge into adulthood. Repeatedly state, “I forgive you,” until it becomes real. You should feel more pity than rage against a narcissist.
- Nurse Your Wounds: Like an onion, the layers of trauma peel off over adult years. You can mourn for what you didn’t have as a child, but you can also use therapy and meditation to help you heal.
Today, right now, this moment — you have the power to break the generational trauma of narcissistic families. You cannot change what happened in the past, but you can make damn sure it stops with you.