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The Impact of Borderline and Narcissistic Parents: Navigating Childhood and Beyond

Quite a bit of research has been done on how parents with personality disorders (PDs) can cause similar difficulties to arise in their children, not just as a result of genetics, but as a result of the environment the children are subsequently raised in. Sometimes, it is the case that the child of a parent with a PD can have an entirely different PD–a narcissistic parent may raise a child into an avoidant personality–and other times, the child may have the same PD as the parent–a borderline parent may raise a borderline child. It has become rather popular, in recent pop culture, for adults to discuss their childhood experiences with their personality disordered parents–most often this is the case for those raised by borderline or narcissistic parents. Though the contexts for these PDs differ, the presentations share many similarities, and the results may often be more similar than not.

The Differences

BPD, or borderline personality disorder, results in emotional dysfunction and lack of control, and a severe fear of abandonment that often leads to either extreme levels of attachment to others, or a pushback that forces others away before they can leave on their own (as the person with the PD is sure they eventually will). Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, on the other hand, is a product of severe self-entitlement, and a strong belief in their own self-importance, as well as decreased empathy for others and an underlying antipathy to any sense of inferiority. Those with BPD cling to others to feel a sense of worth, but those with NPD use others to prop themselves up. 

A borderline parent will cling to their children because this is their ‘affection’. Oftentimes, it means the child will need to excessively reassure their parent that they care–any semblance otherwise will trigger the emotional dysfunction and fear of abandonment in the parent. This may lead to the parentification of the child, where the child must ‘handle’ their parent. In addition, the parent may even guilt the child for going against them, claiming that it is proof their child does not love them, even for the slightest of infractions. The parent with BPD may also have disorganized tendencies that lead to instability in the child’s routine, creating a situation where the child may be sufficiently cared for in the ways that the parent values rather than in all necessary aspects.

A narcissistic parent will hold their child to their standards, rather than average standards for a child or what is reasonable to expect. They will criticize before they compliment, if at all, and value appearances over true care. To this parent, the child becomes a platform through which they can portray their own positive image–they are no longer a person in their own right, but simply an extension of the parent. A parent with NPD  will care little for their child’s preferences and difficulties beyond those which they have shared experience in, and will only show performative kindness. The narcissistic parent may be manipulative, with the express intention of using their kindness as incentive for their children’s obedience.

Overall, the parent with NPD may be better organized than a borderline parent–appearances matter, and that means making sure the child’s basic needs are met. Emotional needs, however, to a parent with little empathy, are hardly considered basic–since they themselves can hardly comprehend emotions outside of their own for the most part. A borderline parent may be kinder and more loving, most of the time, and may come from a place of good intentions–but good intentions pave the road to hell (as they say), and that love is contingent on the belief that it is unconditionally returned, something they have little faith in unless it is proven over and over again. The unstable behavior and sporadic aspects of this parent also mean that there is a lower likelihood of stability in the child’s care.

The Similarities

Though the contexts behind borderline parents and narcissistic parents are rather dramatic in their differences, the presentations may appear very similar. In both types of parents, there is a firm belief that everything is about them, and that the focus must be on them–they need validation, they “should” be the one that is being paid attention to. If you are not with them, you are against them–there is no in between, no gray area. There is a disconnect between the reality of the situation–that the other person in the relationship is their child, and thus not even an adult who can handle their needs (in the case of the borderline parent), but also a person who is separate from them even if they were made by them (in the case of the narcissistic parent). 

The blame, in any situation, is never laid upon themselves, even if they claim such. They will put more effort into making sure their own emotional needs are met, before they even give consideration to their children, which often they do not have the time to do–with how much effort they are putting into themselves first. Their oversensitivity to criticism and hostility–and note, children are well-known for throwing tantrums–can result in uncontrollable anger due to emotional dysfunction and immaturity, and the child will often bear the brunt of it. In many ways, they have in part the mentality of a child themselves, and that means that they see themselves as on the same level as their child–a competitive relationship, rather than one of an adult caretaker to a younger ward. 

sad child

You, The Child

For the child, this means that they will constantly be walking on eggshells. Any wrong response may lead to an outburst; their relationship with their parents is like walking in a minefield constantly. Is it any wonder, then, that when they are finally able to leave, they take any opportunity to do so? Not at all–and yet the impact of the way they were raised will not immediately disappear. A constant need to please others, to acquiesce to the needs of others; holding oneself to unnecessarily high standards, and falling into deep depressive states when they cannot–these are just some of the ways childhoods under these circumstances can present in adulthood. The voice of the parent in the child’s mind, and the part of them that remains a child even as they grow up, remain even when the parent is no longer present in their life.

Most children grow up loving their parents, and the children of those with these difficulties are no different. Even those who eventually leave their parents often love them still, but understand that the toxicity in the relationship may be beyond healing due to certain power dynamics. Parentification may mean that they spend many years trying to help their parents, trying to understand them and work with them, hoping that one day their reciprocal efforts will be rewarded with unconditional care. Oftentimes these efforts will not produce the results that are sought for. In the end, what is important to acknowledge is this: it is not the duty of the child to help the parent. 

To love one’s parents cannot be helped, but to love another is also to acknowledge their flaws. It is hard to help those who believe they do not need it, or those who do not want it–but for those who do, as a child, you should seek an adult or safe space to confide in, rather than shouldering the burden yourself. It is important, also, to know that these presentations of affection do not necessarily equate to a loveless relationship with such a parent; these are only the most extreme examples. Oftentimes, distance is key in these relationships–distance allows for the parents to form relationships with others that are not the child, and to disable some of the dependence in the parent-child relationship, going either way. Distance also allows for a stronger enforcement of boundaries, creating a situation where it is harder for the parent to repeatedly breach boundaries.

You, as the child of a borderline or narcissistic parent, are not at fault for the hardships your parent may have gone through that led to their present behavior. It does not excuse the hardships that you were put through as a result. You are free to choose whether to continue your relationship with them as is, or to seek change–regardless of how they may perceive it, because their perception of your intentions matters far less than what your intentions truly are. Know this, and know you are not alone.

Helpful therapeutic modalities for adults seeking help for a parent with NPD or BPD include DBT and MBT. You can find resources that may benefit this group including, but are not limited to:

  • Reddit support groups such as: r/raisedbynarcissists, r/raisedbyborderlines

  • Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride

  • The Truth Will Set You Free and The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller

  • The Family Connections™ - BPD/Emotion Dysregulation Program offered by the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder. 

Some of these provide information that may lead you to communities or other resources. 

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