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5 Steps for Recovering From the Trauma of a Narcissistic Parent

The Effects of Emotional Abuse

People who enter into abusive romantic relationships, allow their bosses or coworkers to bully them, and/or tend to have friendships with individuals who manipulate and exploit them usually come from an abusive core family. This means that one or both parent(s) (or other guardians, if the biological parents were not around) was an abuser, typically with a cluster B personality disorder (narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, antisocial). Sometimes the abuse is physical, but it will also involve emotional, psychological, or even spiritual abuse.

Some of the most common forms of emotional abuse are neglect, manipulation, gaslighting, pathological lying, exploitation, rage episodes, extreme criticism, and parentifying the child. In this type of environment, the child doesn't learn to establish healthy boundaries, how to deal with emotions, or what a healthy relationship looks like. This sets the stage for equally unbalanced interpersonal relationships in the future, and many survivors experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) as well as depression and anxiety.

Signs & Symptoms of PTSD

Adapted from DSM-IV-TR (2009) p. 468

Avoids activities

Difficulty with sleep

Poor memory


Anhedonia (lack of pleasure)

Outbursts of anger

Feeling detached



Difficulty concentrating

Feeling 'flat'

Exaggerated startle response

Sense of a limited future

Intrusive thoughts

Efforts to avoid thoughts

How to Heal From Abusive Parents

Below, you will find five ways to recover and heal from the PTSD of abuse suffered in childhood. Please note that this article is based upon the assumption that the reader has come to the realization that they are the adult child of personality disordered parents and want to break the cycle of abuse. It also assumes that the reader is familiar with No Contact, Low Contact and Gray Rock and is either using one of these methods or is planning to in the near future.

1. Recognize and Accept the Truth

The first step in recovery from narcissistic abuse is to recognize it for what it is. Many victims do not even realize they are being abused, especially if it wasn't physical. Emotional and psychological abuse can be so subtle and covert that it is difficult to understand.

Acceptance is key if you want to heal. Quit wishing for loving parents. Quit hoping to change a personality-disordered individual into a compassionate human being. It won't ever happen. Accept that you have a parent (or both) who is incapable of loving you and treating you like a person instead of a possession. Such an unempathetic creature will never care about your happiness, only what you can do for them or how you reflect on them.

2. Stop Tolerating Abuse

As an adult, it is important to identify how you allow the abuse to continue in current relationships. This does not mean beat yourself up over it; it means take a step back, assess the situation, and determine what boundaries you need to establish and enforce. Romantic partners, co-workers, friends, parents, and siblings are some of the relationships you may need to scrutinize.

If you were the victim of an NPD parent, chances are you weren't encouraged to establish boundaries at the appropriate stage of your childhood. As you blossomed into a teenager, your normal attempts at autonomy were likely seen as an affront to your personality disordered parent(s). Small children have no boundaries and are completely dependent on their caregivers; when those caregivers fail to teach the children to develop healthy boundaries, it will have a negative impact on personal development.

As you become an adult, you start to make active choices as to whether or not to continue enabling your NPD parent(s) and allowing them to abuse you. You may even keep getting into abusive romantic relationships, because you believe that abusive behavior is normal. It isn't, and you now have choices. You do not have to accept maltreatment.

To an emotional blackmailer, keeping your trust doesn't count, respecting your feelings doesn't count, being fair doesn't count. The ground rules that allow for healthy give-and-take go out the window.

— Susan Forward, Ph.D.

3. If Possible, Figure Out How to Forgive

Some victims are unwilling, or unable, to do this. Personally, I think it's a crucial step. Forgiveness is for you, not the abuser. It's about you being able to let go and move on, about not allowing your abuser to take up so much space in your head and emotions. It does not mean forgetting what was done to you. It also doesn't mean rationalizing it away or letting the abuser think the cruel treatment they inflicted on you was okay.

You do not have to confront the offender or even make them aware in any way that you have forgiven them. You can write them a letter, and either tear it up or keep it in a journal. It can be an "open letter" on your blog, not naming them. The point is that it is an exercise in helping you to heal. And, if you find that you cannot forgive your abuser, at least forgive yourself. Yes, many survivors carry around unwarranted feelings of guilt and shame.

Victims of abuse tend to blame themselves for a plethora of traits and behaviors projected onto them by the narcissist, and this is mostly learned behavior. Your narcissistic parent likely blamed you for everything under the sun growing up - if they had a bad day, they probably blamed it on you - so of course you've learned to absorb the blame for things that are no fault of your own. Do you find yourself apologizing to others frequently, even if you've done nothing wrong? That's a tell-tale sign.

4. Appreciate (Rather Than Feel Shame About) Your Journey

I was twenty-three and in a vulnerable state when I met the psychopath whom I would become entangled with off and on for over a decade. Sometimes it's tempting to get bogged down in thinking about how much time was wasted, how much of my life I can never reclaim, having lived with a monster for so long. How much of my creativity zapped. How much time spent walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I prefer not to think of my time with an emotional vampire as wasted time, but rather as a learning experience. A chance for personal growth and change. The important thing is that you take away something fundamentally life-changing from such an experience. A very difficult lesson learned. The realization that you are stronger than you ever would have thought.

By the time I left, I knew the problem was narcissistic personality disorder, and I also knew that was the exact same difficulty in my interpersonal relationship with my father. How I didn't see the blatant similarities between the two men is beyond me; they seem so obvious now. Most important was the realization that I was okay. I wasn't crazy, worthless, unlikable, or any of the other things they wanted me to believe. I've not seen or spoken to either of them in several years, and I don't regret cutting ties. Experiencing the second abusive relationship eventually led me to realize that my relationship with my parent was toxic. That has been an extremely useful epiphany, even though I had to go through hell first.

5. Journaling Is an Excellent Way to Heal

Even though reduced price online therapy sessions are gaining popularity, it still may not be affordable for everyone. We all have access to books and the internet. Read everything you can about personality disorders and emotional blackmail. Write about your experiences and feelings, if only for yourself. You've been suppressing these emotions for so long, now you need to feel them. Think of it as self-discovery; you will start to learn who you truly are as a person, not as an extension of your NPD parent who never allowed you to fully be yourself.

If you are comfortable with sharing with a close friend or even posting on a blog, that's a great start. Get it all out. As you start writing it all down, you will probably recall events that you had forgotten and it may stir up strong emotions. Allow yourself to feel them, try not to stuff them back down.

It's Not Your Fault

When reading through posts from others who are recovering from narcissistic abuse, I frequently see such comments as, "Parents shouldn't treat their children that way." No, they shouldn't. In an ideal world, they wouldn't. Welcome to the real world. It happens all the time, every day, to millions of people to varying degrees. It sucks. It is an egregious betrayal, and it almost always leaves lasting emotional scars.

As sad as it is, be aware that it is not your fault. There was/is nothing you can do to make a narcissist love you. They simply are not capable of it. They are incapable of having symbiotic relationships with anyone; they take, others give. Try not to spend too much time pondering what's wrong with the narc in your life; instead focus on your personal growth and recovery.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Karli McClane


Madeleine Clays on July 06, 2019:

I found this article to be very helpful. I have heard it said that women are naturally drawn to men like their fathers, which can be good or....not good, as you mentioned was your situation. I am so glad you were brave and strong enough to walk away from your toxic relationship with your significant other.

Also, I agree that therapy books can be a good alternative to seeing a therapist. I have found some books to be incredibly helpful and noticed that you wrote another article on books you recommend. I will check them out. Thank your sharing your story and knowledge.

Karli McClane (author) from USA on April 21, 2018:

It's cyclic; emotionally unstable individuals generally mold their offspring into emotionally unstable people. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but we all deserve to start our lives in a stable environment with positive caregivers who are willing (and capable) of helping us reach our full potential. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking time to comment.

queenbeetv on April 15, 2018:

Good article, but I think there should be something done about people who are narcissists or in any way abusive or emotionally unstable becoming parents.

People should have to get a parenting license in the same way that people have to get a driver's license. If a person can't pass the test, then they could take classes on parenting and try to pass the test over and over again til they get a parenting license. Then and only then should they be allowed to be a parent or keep their child if they are pregnant.

Allowing abusive and emotionally unstable people to be in possession of a child is societal madness.

natare on January 30, 2018:

Thank you, I so appreciate this article ❤

Nanu on October 14, 2017:

Good information.

It brings some insight to realize that narcissists were and are damaged. There is something sick that remains in them.

Strive and set your course to be healthy... it is an endless worthy journey.

Sally Lego on September 25, 2017:

Thank you so much this article is very helpful. I cannot change my mother and have quit trying.

Karli McClane (author) from USA on June 22, 2017:

dashingscorpio - "At some point, you make active choices as to whether or not to continue enabling your NPD parent and allowing them to abuse you." - Not so!

I was trying to convey that once we are adults, we have a choice.

Thank you for pointing out that my writing was not clear.

Your advice is excellent, and so is your book recommendation; I've read Toxic Parents, and I can vouch for it.

Belinda on May 25, 2017:

This really helped me realized that the abuse wasn't my fault. Thanks.

dashingscorpio from Chicago on February 07, 2016:

"If you were the victim of an NPD parent, chances are you had no choice about being victimized, at least early on." - Very true!

"At some point, you make active choices as to whether or not to continue enabling your NPD parent and allowing them to abuse you." - Not so!

Most children/teens have no say/power in what goes on in their (parent's home). This is especially true of those whose parents who physically whipped or beat their kids for disobeying or challenging them.

The best strategy in those instances is to first acknowledge that childhood is thankfully (temporary)!

The next thing you want to do is create a plan for exiting.

For some folks it's joining the military upon high school graduation, others get into a university that is a distance away from home, and still others just move away and worry about finding a job when they get to where they are going.

The important thing is to have a "light at the end of the tunnel."

Lastly while you are under (their roof) do your best to follow their rules. Behave according to their expectations. Odds are they may even cut you some slack. They don't have to know you're "playing a game".

Your goal is to get out from under their thumb immediately after graduation from high school. Once your arrive on a college campus or wherever you go you can reinvent yourself.

Generally speaking over time you will come to realize that most people having children have very little knowledge regarding being a good parent. They simply "wing it" and do what feels right to them.

They manage to forget what it was like being a child and how words used by parents during a child's formative years can set them back for many years as well as destroy their confidence and self-esteem.

In order to heal/detox, you have to read self-help books, possibly see a therapist, and understand as an adult you are not obligated to be around folks who disrespect you or take advantage of you even if they're related.

One good book to read is "Toxic Parents" by Susan Forward.

The world may not owe you anything but you owe yourself the world!