The Damage a Narcissistic Mother Does to a Child: What Stepmoms Need to Know

Updated on February 12, 2018
Alice Marlowe profile image

Alice Marlowe PhD, PMHNP, RN, holds a BA in Psychology and is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

The Narcissistic Mother

Narcissistic mothers control their children. They constantly blame others. These women are highly self-absorbed and have an over-inflated view of themselves. These mothers do not tolerate views that differ from their own and will not tolerate their children having views that do not align with their views. They are completely oblivious to the needs of their children. Moreover, they are unaware of how their behaviors affect the psychological and emotional well-being of their children. Children of narcissistic mothers are required to view the mother as she views herself, which is full of grandiosity and self-importance. Narcissistic mothers view their children as an extension of themselves rather than as separate, autonomous being. Their children are expected to represent the mother as she views herself and wishes to be seen by the public at large. Narcissistic mothers use their children to fill their own emotional needs.

Mothers who are narcissists are intrusive and frequently ignore appropriate boundaries with their children. These mothers will cross emotional and physical boundaries with little regard to the child's wants or needs. At the same time, these mothers frequently neglect the basic emotional, and sometimes physical, needs of their children. Narcissistic mothers may use rage, physical abuse, blame, guilt and shame, criticism, and emotional withdraw to control their children.

Mothers who are narcissistic share many traits with mothers who may have Borderline Personality Disorder. The traits of these two disorders overlap quite a bit and are both found in the Cluster B Personality Disorders.

What Does Science Say?

Published scientific studies that examine narcissistic mothers and the effect these mothers have on the psychological and emotional well-being of their children are sparse. The few studies that are available paint a bleak picture of a childhood rife with emotional and psychological abuse. It can be difficult for those who did not experience an emotionally traumatic childhood to understand what these children experience. Furthermore, because many narcissistic mothers are not abusive in public, it is easy for adults to overlook children who are currently abused by a narcissistic mother. Because a narcissistic mother often plays the role of a loving, proud, and concerned parent to others, the child’s experience is frequently discounted when abuse is disclosed.

One study presented in 2015 noted several characteristics of narcissistic parents. Narcissistic parents are oblivious to the needs of a child. The children of these parents often experience “role-reversal,” which is when the child is placed in a role of catering to the desires and needs of the parents rather than the parent attending to the needs of a child. Narcissistic parents expect their children to admire them. These parents also attribute their child's successes to themselves rather than to the hard work of the child. Because these parents have a strong desire to “show-off” their child they expect the child to function and perform at a superior level. Narcissistic parents also engage in psychological control of their children.

The following video describes six effects of narcissistic parenting. (It's about 4 minutes long.)


Characteristics of Children with Narcissistic Parents: The Co-Narcissist

Children of narcissistic mothers can take two paths. No matter the path, the child is still at risk to continue dysfunctional familial patterns of behavior into the next generation. Some of these children reach adulthood and display the same characteristics of their abuser. Other children develop into what has been defined by researchers as a co-narcissist.

A co-narcissist will feel excessively responsible for the behavior of others and will go to great lengths to meet the perceived needs of others, needs which the co-narcissist assumes are like the needs of their parent. Oftentimes these children, and later adults, are oblivious to their own needs, experiences, and feelings. As a child, a co-narcissist was only valued for the ability to meet the needs of their parents. These individuals have an inaccurate view of themselves and have often internalized the self-image the narcissistic parent imposed upon them. As a result, these individuals frequently grow into highly insecure adults. Co-narcissist can be anxious and depressed, have low-self esteem and self-worth, and have a difficult time identifying their own thoughts or feelings about a topic. Because narcissistic behavior was modeled throughout an individual’s childhood, co-narcissists can frequently display narcissistic characteristics as well.

Video: Effects of Narcissistic Parenting

How much does a narcissistic mother effect your stepchildren?

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A Narcissistic Mother in Blended Families

There are no known studies that investigate the influence of a narcissistic mother on the people who create a blended family. Children that are raised primarily by the narcissistic mother will experience significantly more trauma and abuse than those children who rarely, or never, see their narcissistic mother. In some instances the children may have spent their early, formative years with the narcissistic mother and perhaps later custody was changed so the abuse is not as prevalent.

In all scenarios there will be some impact of the mother's behavior on the blended family. Children who primarily live with the mother will mimic the narcissistic traits modeled for them by their mother. They will also display many of the co-narcissistic characteristics described in this article. Children who primarily live in the home of the narcissist are the most at risk because the abuse is ongoing throughout their childhood.

In blended families, the stepmom, father, and other children who live in the home may experience depressive symptoms or feel anxious when the stepchildren are present due to their behaviors. Some step-families may never be able to "blend" due to the effects of a narcissistic mother and will be fragmented and broken for the duration of the second marriage or relationship. The stepchildren may begin to mimic the abusive behavior of their mother and target the adults or other children in the home that the narcissistic mother does not like. This will lead to a lack of bond between these children and their stepmom and other children in the home. If at any point other children in the home become the target of abuse led by the narcissistic mother it is imperative that the priority be the emotional safety of these children.

The effects of a narcissistic mother will impact the immediate step-family as well as the extended step-family. Relatives of the stepmom may become targets of abuse simply for being related to the stepmom.

The harsh reality is a narcissistic mother, through herself or her children, has the ability to ruin a second marriage and cause severe emotional trauma and distress for stepmothers and their own children. Although there is a continuum of narcissistic mothers, those on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum will especially cause extreme chaos and dysfunction.

What Stepmoms Need to Know

If you are a stepmom and your stepchildren have a narcissistic mother, life can be very difficult for you, your spouse, and most of all, the children you are helping to raise. Most likely, no matter what you do, the ex-wife will hate you simply for existing. If you find yourself in this situation, here are some key points to remember:

  • Accept you cannot fix this for your stepchild.
  • Model appropriate personal boundaries in your home, including appropriate physical and emotional boundaries.
  • Model appropriate and respectful parenting practices in your home.
  • Support your spouse when the stepchildren display narcissistic or co-narcissistic characteristics.
  • Understand that you may have to let go.

Some stepmoms may be close enough to their stepchildren to offer them emotional support as they navigate childhood with a narcissistic mother. There is a reason this point did not make the list. All too often, narcissistic mothers will label the stepmom as an "abusive" individual and make the stepmom a target of the narcissistic mother's verbal, emotional, and sometimes even physical abuse. The stepmom becomes a threat to the image the narcissistic mother has created of herself as the best and most amazing mother. Due to this, the narcissistic mother will actively sabotage any effort the stepmom makes to build a relationship with the stepkids and will actively shame, criticize, and manipulate the stepkids into joining the mother in the abuse of the stepmom. Remember, a narcissistic mother cannot tolerate view points that differ from her own, this includes the views of her children. A narcissistic mother will not be able to tolerate her children liking or loving a woman she hates.

With therapy, many adult children of narcissistic mothers can break the generational cycle of abuse and become emotionally healthy adults. Unfortunately, this is not reality for many of these adult children. While the stepkids are still minors and coming to your home, it is imperative that you model appropriate personal boundaries and respectful parenting practices. It's also acceptable to have honest discussions with your stepchildren about appropriate and inappropriate boundaries and behaviors.

As a stepmom, it is also important for you to be aware that children of narcissistic mothers may grow into adults that are also narcissistic and their target of abuse may be you or your spouse because that is what was learned in the childhood. These adult children are responsible for their own behavior and treatment of others. To maintain your emotional and mental health and to preserve your marriage, there may come a time when you need to "let go" of adult children who have grown into narcissists themselves. We often struggle to let go of "toxic" people in our lives if they are parents or children but this is perfectly acceptable. No one, stepmoms included, has to accept being the target of abuse.

What about your situation?

Have you "let go" of an adult stepchild due to narcissistic abuse?

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    • profile image

      LV 6 weeks ago

      This article was quite insightful- thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      Tony tetlow 7 weeks ago

      Are there any studies into the npd of italian mothers, especially over there sons development.

    • Farawaytree profile image

      Michelle Zunter 2 months ago from California

      This was very informative - thank you for writing it!