So, here I am, the last in the instalments about parentification. Today’s offering is on Narcissistic Parentification. Grab a drink, a snack, and get comfy, because not only could this be long, but I suspect for some of you this might be painful, and I really want to ask you to keep yourselves safe in reading this.
Before you start reading, please make sure that you have some grounding techniques to hand for any anxiety it might trigger, or PTSD responses. This is a very concerned trigger warning.
Okay. Ready? Let’s go.
What is Narcissistic Parentification?
Well, if you’ve read the other blogs about instrumental and emotional parentification, it’s all those together and more. What makes Narcissistic Parentification unique is the ‘projection’ of the parent’s ideals onto the child.
This means the child lives out all the things the narcissistic parent idealises about themselves OR all the things the narcissistic parent loathes about themselves. It’s one huge ego trip, and results in defined family roles, that positions the child in either ‘golden child’, or ‘scapegoat’.
For the golden child, it sounds as though they get an easy ride, and in some ways that might be true, they certainly escape the worst of the abuse. But from where I sit, as a therapist, I sometimes think that as the scapegoats are more likely to escape the narcissistic abuse, in some ways they’re the lucky ones. Because at some point, they’re going to start questioning why it is they are always blamed for everything, or punished more severely, or excluded, or criticised more than their sibling. Because one day, they’re going to wake up and realise that they deserve more than being the vessel of their narcissistic parent’s self hatred, they will fight against the narrative they’ve been given, and they will figure out who they are, not who they’ve been TOLD they are.
My experience shows that the golden child is unlikely ever to do that. I’ve come across it once. Someone who knew they were the golden child, and were able to protect their sibling in adulthood. It stands so freshly in my memory because it is something I have never heard of before, and never come across since. I’m sure I will again, I’m sure it has happened, it’s just excruciatingly rare (in my experience).
As a result, the impact of narcissistic parentification for the golden child is just as big. The golden child will adopt the role of idolizing and defending their parent against all and any criticism (because as the projective object, they’re also defending themselves). They will likely become co dependent, possibly narcissistic themselves, and as a result be unable to self-actualise. This in turn will possibly cause depression and anxiety, unhealthy relationships, and an inability to break away from the image projected onto them by the parent.
The golden child will be moulded to hold everything good about the parent (as the parent sees it in themselves) the parent will likely ignore any wrongdoing or behaviour, and when the golden child offends, hurts, inflicts or does anything wrong towards the scapegoat, it will somehow become the scapegoat’s fault. The golden child will be exonerated from all responsibility and the scapegoat will be made to hold it all. So the golden child may never be able to form any kind of healthy relationship. It may seem like they have the blessed life in many ways, but they will be miserable, unable to sustain relationships, and unlikely to find their way to a place of health because the cost of recognising that they or the parental system are the problem is too high.
That’s why I feel sad for the golden child. And that’s why I think the scapegoat is the most likely to win in the horror that is a narcissistic family system.
So what about the scapegoat?
The scapegoat may also develop significant mental health issues, as a result of a crippling insecure attachment due to the barrage of abuse and criticism, the scapegoat may attempt to hold themselves to a level of perfection in order to gain any scraps of love or affection, but they will never be good enough. They may have difficulty forming healthy relationships before therapeutic intervention, and may repeat the relational pattern of abuse. They are more likely to get involved with a narcissistic partner due to the relational pattern. They will likely be isolated and excluded if and when they start to fight back against the negative projection from family.
The scapegoat is the escape artist. The scapegoat has most chance of breaking the cycle.
So what else happens in narcissistic parentification?
Well, the narcissistic parent will rely on triangulation to divide and conquer their children (where there is more than one child). They will use Idealisation and Devaluing behaviours to do this. They will give with one hand and take away with another. The idealisation behaviours may extend as far as comparing one child to the other e.g. ‘why can’t you be clever/funny/pretty/lovely etc. like your sibling?’. They will use shame, blame, criticism and fear as a way to control both golden children and scapegoats. They will gaslight everyone around them especially the children. ‘I didn’t mean it like that’, ‘you’re being oversensitive’, ‘that’s not what happened’, ‘it’s your own fault because you did xyz’.
Basically, in a narcissistic family system, no one escapes unscathed. It is too easy to resent the golden child for the elevated position they inhabit, but their elevation is also their isolation. They know somewhere in their psyche that their position comes at a cost, that they must toe the line so as to remain in favour. The risk of the attachment rupture is too great to step away from their role.
The scapegoat faces such hideous emotional abuse; they are at real risk of developing significant attachment disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder. Should they attempt to break free from the abuse they are subjected to smear campaigns, and even in their absence will hold the position as the vessel that carries all the family dysfunction.
They can enforce boundaries, heal, build new healthy relationships, but they will never have what they need; a healthy parent.
The impact of narcissistic parentification is so high that it’s impossible for me to capture it all in one blog. But if I can ask you to remember something, it would be this:
Whatever happens in the narcissistic family, no one escapes the horror. Not even the golden child.