Narcissistic Family Structures
This discussion is on the makeup of a narcissistic family structure. We first discuss healthy families so that we can compare those to the unhealthy narcissistic family structure. If you or someone you love is in a narcissistic family or comes from one, then perhaps this discussion will help understand what has gone on and what to do next.
Who makes up a family?
Today, a family looks different from the standard of the past decade. In modern times, children can be raised in single parent homes, by grandparents, by same sex parents, some families have no children, some consider a group of friends to be family, some adults consider pets as defining members of the family unit.
So although this discussion refers to ‘family’, this information can be applied to:
Two or more people who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to each other and usually live in the same house most of the time or spend many hours in each day together.
Narcissistic structures can exist in any system in which people are interdependent, such as a community group, church, a workplace, a gym or a social club.
Let us look at how a healthy family functions:
Healthy family functioning
Characteristics of healthy families
Some characteristics that are generally identified in a well-functioning family:
- Providing security
- Providing a sense of belonging
- Open communication
- Making each person within the family feel important & valued
- Respect for each other
Effects of these characteristics on healthy families
These healthy family functions create loving relationships & supportive family environments, which have the following effects:
- Promote physical health, directly related to how healthy we feel, how quickly we recover from injury and even how long we live. / The negative impact of social isolation on health is comparable to that of cigarette smoking.
- Promote mental health, protecting against serious psychological problems, like depression, anxiety, PTSD and enhancing recovery from them and are protective against relapses.
- Promote effective social and occupational functioning.
- In healthy relationships, family members turn to each other for care and comfort when they feel upset. When adults are secure in their relationships, they are more confident and better adjusted, as are their children.
- Conflict in families is normal. Healthy conflict involves respecting the needs of both oneself and others and the ability to mend bonds following disagreements. Healthy conflict is free of criticism, hostility, belligerence, contempt and withdrawal.
- Major life events, even positive ones such as the birth of a child, put a lot of stress on families. Increased mutual support, communication and sensitivity are needed during such times.
- Marital problems ripple throughout the whole family. Improving marital functioning can enhance children’s emotional, social, and academic development.
Roles in healthy families
There are different roles in every family and these roles can change over time. Roles play an extremely important part in healthy family functioning. Clear roles within a family is directly connected to a family’s ability to deal with day-to-day life, unforeseen crises and normal changes that occur in families over time.
Some roles are concerned with the provision of physical resources (e.g., food, clothing, and shelter), decision-making and family management and other roles exist to provide emotional support & encouragement to family members.
Not all families are healthy however. Some families have a narcissistic family structure and they operate and look different to the healthy family structures discussed above. Let’s look at the roles in a narcissistic family structure first:
In a narcissistic family there are there five main roles. These are:
- The head parent/spouse. This is a pathological overt narcissist with a virtual God-complex within the home, or a covert narcissist who controls the family using an overt narcissistic spouse as a shield.
- The secondary parent/spouse. A weaker-willed enabler/codependent of the overt narcissist. Could be the one that the head parent sets up the secondary as the public head of the family.
If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Often, this other parent has redeeming qualities to offer the children, but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse, leaving the children’s needs unmet.
- The Golden Child (GC). A term referring to the preferred child within a family, identified as such by the head parent.
Often this child has a codependent relationship with one or both parents. The parents will often live vicariously through the GC. Any perceived wrong done to the GC outside the family is seen as an outrage and any perceived accomplishment – no matter the significance – will be promoted as an outstanding achievement to be admired by all. This child is most likely of the children to become a full-blown Narcissist because they’re used to having faults excused or ignored, claiming the majority of attention and having wants indulged at the expense of others’ needs within the family.
The role of GC may not be determined from birth. It can be, as seen in traditionally sexist families, that the first-born son is automatically the GC. Sometimes the head of the family tests the children to identify the most conformist and aggressive personality amongst them. This child is most likely to be groomed as they mature. Aggressive conformity within the family structure while outwardly submitting to the head narcissist is the most desirable quality in a potential GC.
In situations where the GC is the opposite gender of the head narcissist, the child may be gradually placed into the secondary position, displacing the same-gender parent in the family hierarchy. This may raise some questions from perceptive observers, but many on the outside may see the GC as simply being “a good son” or “a good daughter.”
The GC is not exempt from the abuse doled out in a narcissistic family. From an early age, the child may be abused physically and mentally to effect conformity and to instill a punishment/reward mindset connected to conformity and controlling the other children. This control can range from acting as a covert narcissist and telling lies about the other children, especially the scapegoat, to destroying and stealing possessions, to outright physical domination. The GC’s loyalty is also constantly tested along with that of the other children.
- The scapegoat (SG)
The scapegoat is the child that is seen to be the “black sheep”, the one that doesn’t conform, or the one onto whom the narcissistic parents place their emotional burdens. The SG receives constant blaming, shaming and criticism and the family’s behaviour toward them can be seen to be cruel. They often become rebellious. However, once they mature they are often emotionally strengthened by their childhood experiences and are more easily able to cut contact with their narcissistic family. They are usually the ones that see through the family members and try to expose what is going on, only to receive more blaming and criticism. But they retain the ability to see through people throughout their lives and this serves them well.
- Other children
In families with more than 2 children, the non-GC/SG children usually move up and down the spectrum between GC/SG. If a GC (less likely) or SG separates from the family, one of the other children will be placed in that role.
Although each person in the narcissistic family structure has a role, each person in such a family pays a price, although in different ways. Each member of the family develops an inferiority complex. The lost child/ren is left feeling neglected and worthless, and the scapegoat is left full of rage and shame.
Narcissistic family structures also have specific features that maintain the pathology of the family. These are:
- Lack of Parental Hierarchy. Unlike healthy families where there is a strong parental hierarchy in which the parents are in charge and love and guide children, in narcissistic families, this hierarchy is non-existent; the children are there to serve parental needs.
- Image is everything. The children often hear these utterances: “What would the neighbours / relatives / our friends think?” “Always put a smile on your face.” The message that the narcissistic family is trying to get across to the world is that they are wonderful and better than all other families. This hides all of the neglect, emotional and psychological abuse. Even though the reality of this family is not observable by the outside world, it is just as, if not, more damaging to the children. In some narcissistic families, the dysfunction can be obvious such as in violent and abusive homes.
- How emotions are dealt with and shared. Narcissistic parents are unable to feel and show empathy or unconditional love in any real way. They are also not in tune with their own feelings and do not like uncomfortable emotions so they project them onto their children. They are mostly critical and judgmental of their children and show love to manipulate their children. Children in a narcissistic family structure do not understand love to be something that shows acceptance and nourishment. Siblings are not encouraged to be close and are usually pitted against each other and taught to compete with each other in unhealthy, pathological ways. Comparison of one child to another or one child to children outside of the family is constant. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other. Feelings are denied and not discussed and children are taught to repress them, and are told their feelings don’t matter. The narcissistic family hides profound pain. Although this gives the children severe anxiety, the parent will give intermittent approval – like throwing a breadcrumb – and that is what gives the children a (false) sense of safety so that they continue to play the game, remaining addicted, anxious to gain love, falling into depression and shame when they don’t get it, then starting the cycle again. Each child is left fighting for scraps of attention and approval from the narcissistic parent. Because a child is not emotionally mature, they are unable to understand the narcissist’s agenda and they feel like they are being rejected and rewarded randomly. The child, who keeps opening up their heart but is rejected without knowing why, eventually stops trusting the parent. This mistrust becomes part of their adult life and the path to a love relationship becomes extremely difficult.
- There is a lack of Effective Communication. The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation which means that information is not told to a person directly but told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. In other words, family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behaviour, tension & mistrust. When there is direct communication, it is usually in the form of anger or rage. Children are given messages that tells them that they are not good enough (these can be spoken and/or unspoken) through modelling and these get internalized and become a critical voice in the head of the child as they mature.
- There are few, if any, boundaries in the narcissistic family and if there are, they are unclear. Children’s feelings are dismissed and ridiculed, private documents are read, physical boundaries are not kept, and emotional boundaries are not respected. The right to privacy is not respected.
- Rules and secrets. The family work on an unspoken set of rules and the children learn to live with those rules, even though they don’t understand them, are confused and pained by them.
The narcissistic family becomes a scramble for survival. Those that get out and cut ties with their narcissistic families are more likely to eventually live a healthier and happier life.
If you are someone you know has been affected by a narcissistic family, reach out to them in kindness and compassion and let them know that healing from such a family can happen.