Sensitive Children and the Adult Child in the Abusive Narcissistic Home


In a home affected with an abusive narcissistic parent emotions are repressed and become twisted.  Rules are built on shame, guilt, or fear.  Feelings are often not shared and when they are expressed, it is done in a judgmental manner placing blame on one another.  The narcissistic parent is self-involved and feels no empathy for their children.  They are incapable of mirroring real love and try to get their children to fulfill their unmet dependency needs.  The narcissistic parent’s unresolved drives for attention and caretaking takes center stage as the child’s early developmental needs are ignored and denied.  The self-involved parent shames the child for having desires and makes them feel guilty.  All of the family attention and energy is focused on the demands of the narcissist.

Sensitive children growing up in abusive narcissistic homes build their personalities based on what they have to do to survive.  Many of these children learn early in their development to hide out and not draw attention to his or her needs.  They learn to act busy and look good.  Because they lack the needed support and positive role models they are more vulnerable to certain emotional and relationship problems.  This makes maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships difficult. A common personality pattern of sensitive children is that of a people pleaser or a codependent.  Sensitive children try to make others in the home feel better.  As adults they find it difficult to ask for what they need and tend to seek validation and reassurance from others (their parents) who are unwilling to give them this type of support.  They develop an exceptionally high tolerance for emotional pain and inappropriate behavior.  They are very responsive to the family’s feelings and in adulthood this coping behavior often leads to unhealthy extremes.   Codependent children spend their early childhood development years trying to “fix” the family sadness, fears, anger, and problems of everyone.   The sensitive child is always trying to make life easier for others.  The damage from pleasing others and making them feel better is never showing their own disappointment to anyone.  They tend to never disagree and are the first to apologize when they are being abused.  Perpetrators are attracted to them and enjoy witnessing their apologizing while they abuse.  The codependent adult becomes the narcissist’s perfect victim for contempt and feelings of omnipotence.

In adulthood the effects of growing up in a narcissistic family become apparent.  These adult children begin to feel a loneliness that doesn’t make sense to them.  They feel different from others and often find themselves depressed.  They might experience increasing feelings of fear and anxiety.  They have problems with intimacy and maintaining a close relationship.  They tend to find themselves in relationships with abusive partners (narcissists) and or substance abusers.  Codependent’s may develop problems of their own with substance abuse, alcohol, food, spending and compulsive caretaking.  They begin to rationalize these behaviors and those of their partners.  As their partner’s (friends, bosses) abusive behaviors increase their rationalizations for inappropriate behavior have already become a normal way of life.  They learn early to act as if nothing is out of the ordinary when someone is acting abusive.  They feel totally alone and believe talking to the abuser will not help.  And they are right because the people around them are not sane.  They have learned others will not be there for them emotionally and this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hiding feelings leads to repressing, denying, and minimizing and makes true expression of emotions in relationships challenging.

This is not a life sentence because new behavior can be learned.  Hope lies in learning a language for what happen to you growing up and using your emotional pain to motivate change.  Change and growth are possible.  You can learn entitlement to your feelings and give yourself permission to say no to what feels bad. Many adult children of narcissistic parents do best by taking a break from their family of origin to stop more damage to self-esteem.  The biggest challenge is giving yourself permission to learn what is right for you and developing endurance for sitting with the bad feelings that come up when you are breaking the family rules.  You are likely the only one who can change in your family and will need to accept that your parents are incapable of loving you in a healthy way.  It is important to find mentors or healthy friends that support your courage to experience the love and life you deserve. The development of self-acceptance from facing adversity is your freedom from quiet desperation and will be a great gift you earn.


Thank you for reading this article. I’ve dedicated my personal and professional life to the importance of non-violence and self-compassion by teaching from my experience.  As a result, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create healthy relationships.  And, as I learn and grow, I teach self-compassion and give advice I use myself, in the hopes that it helps you to improve your own life.