Among all of the social commentary and scientific research about narcissism, one important question remains unanswered: What happens when a generation of narcissists becomes parents?
Narcissism is a personality pattern characterised by a lack of empathy, increased levels of entitlement, and a chronic seeking of admiration and validation. In her book Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist, Ramani Durvasula details 30 character traits of narcissism, but says superficiality, greed and vanity make up its central core.
"It's like all of the deadly sins rolled up into one person," Durvasula says.
Everyone is a little bit narcissistic. Narcissism is part of being human, and it's a standard developmental stage for adolescents and young adults.
When narcissism begins to interfere with how a person functions at home and work, though, it becomes problematic and can even veer into the realm of a personality disorder. Narcissists genuinely believe they are unique and entitled to special treatment, and they have a chronic need for admiration and validation - at any cost.
"Most of us grow out of thinking we are Superman at six years old," says Durvasula. "We shouldn't be running around like that at 41."
Children don't offer the type of continuous positive feedback narcissists crave, and narcissistic parents tend to react in one of two ways. Durvasula and W. Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at University of Georgia and an expert on narcissism, say some lose interest in their children entirely and look for other sources of validation. Others view their children as a reflection of themselves and become hyper-involved and controlling.
In both cases, disconnection is the key; even the overly involved narcissistic parent is emotionally detached and lacks warmth.
"One thing you would see with narcissistic parents is using their kids as a route to self-advancement," he says. "As a narcissistic parent, you look good and feel good because of the success of your kid. The same way that a narcissist can have a trophy spouse, you can have a trophy kid."
Narcissistic parents have high expectations of their children - and plenty of them. They view their children as a part of themselves - "like their arm or their leg," Durvasula says - and when their children aren't achieving, they withdraw their affection and become disconnected.
Children aren't equipped to handle that disconnection from their primary caregivers. They need parents who are consistent, available and unconditionally approving to form secure attachments.
Being raised by a narcissist
Jennifer Doig knows the pain of having a narcissistic parent. Her mother was a classic narcissist, alternately abandoning her and expecting her to hold the household together. Now an adult with children of her own, Doig still struggles to carve a path separate from her mother's expectations.
"I feel like I've worn a mask my entire life" she says. "I need to be who I am and I don't even know who that is. That's a hard place to be when you're 41 years old."
Sara Shaugh was also raised by a narcissist. She says her mother focused on her appearance and weight intensely, and groomed her from early childhood to marry a rich man. When Shaugh was in the hospital with a brain injury and a broken neck and back after being hit by a car, her mother's top priority was Shaugh's appearance.
"One of the first things she did was call my hairdresser because my hair was a mess," Shaugh recalls. "This was before they even knew if I was going to live or die. But what was really sick about the whole thing was the whole time I was thinking, 'Maybe now my mother will love me because she almost lost me.' "
These stories aren't unique. "Narcissistic parents beget kids with a whole host of psychological problems," Durvasula says. These problems include higher than average rates of depression and anxiety, lack of self-regulation, eating disorders, low self-esteem, an impaired sense of self, substance abuse and perfectionism.
There's no simple formula for predicting who will become a narcissist, or how a child will react to being raised by one. Upbringing matters, but genetics and a child's personality traits factor in. Fewer than half of the children of narcissists in Durvasula's practice became narcissists, but there's no large data pool of adult children of narcissists to study - for now. Durvasula expects this generation to give psychologists plenty of research fodder.
"One thing I can guarantee you is [children of narcissists] will be plagued by doubt and insecurity the rest of their lives," she says. "The question is how that is going to manifest."
This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared on Washington Post