Adult Children of Narcissists: The Frozen Child

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How do you usually feel after you spend the day with your parent whom you think might have Narcissism?

I’m guessing defeated, deflated, depressed, and dog tired. What just happened? Why was that so difficult?

Don’t worry; It’s not you.

I call this the “Frozen Child” because part of you was “frozen” in time during your childhood upbringing with your narcissistic parent. That means, even now as a fully functioning adult, you still feel very much like a child when you’re around your parent who may be narcissistic.

They treat you as if you’re not standing right in front of them and your valid requests for time alone, boundaries, independence, creativity, or anything that makes you unique is usually met with some kind of judgement, ridicule or passive aggressive remark.

Narcissism is a spectrum.  

This means that while someone may have narcissistic traits others fit the DSM 5 criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Your parent(s) may fall somewhere along this spectrum and the relationship you had with them deeply affected you as an adult.  You may notice that you have a deep sense of unworthiness, feeling that you only matter for what you do not who you are, and the belief that you are undeserving of love.

Coming to terms with the fact that a parent is a narcissist or has narcissistic traits that impacted both your childhood and adulthood can be painful. You may have grown up with a pervasive sense of not being enough, finding yourself asking "what's wrong with me?" and believing you were responsible for pleasing your parent and keeping the status quo.

What is a narcissist exactly?

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition, an individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized as having 5 or more of the following:

  • A grandiose logic of self-importance

  • A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love

  • A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions

  • A desire for unwarranted admiration

  • A sense of entitlement

  • Interpersonally oppressive behavior

  • No form of empathy

  • Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her

  • A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

Sound familiar?

If so, your parent may be on the spectrum of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), in which symptoms range from mild to severe.  

Typically, narcissists have a pervasive sense of insecurity, emptiness, and fear of being abandoned that eventually (if left untreated) can get projected onto their children.  The child then becomes identified with these feelings and loses her sense of self as it becomes fused with the parent.  

Additionally, narcissistic parents will treat his/her child as a friend and the parent/child boundary becomes skewed. When this happens, the child cannot form his/her identity because he/she is thrust into a relationship dynamic that requires a fair amount of managing and maintenance. The child has to check out of childhood in order to be friends with the adult that is supposed to be caring for him/her.

How can therapy help me?

Therapy can help you first come to terms with your childhood experiences with your parent, understand their limitations, and grieve the parent you did not have and the child you could not be.  

Once you have grieved this, you can begin to reestablish who you are in a new context.  You will be invited to get to know yourself by identifying your strengths, learning ways to set boundaries, and identifying how to recognize a projection from a parent and what to do with it (instead of identifying with and internalizing it).  

As you move through these steps, you will develop a healthy and loving internal parent that will nurture and help you meet your emotional needs.  Put another way, you will increase self-compassion and self-worth for simply being you.  You will also learn how to manage situations that may trigger a temporary lapse in self-esteem and emotional regulation.  

The last phase of treatment usually concerns putting it all together so that you can confidently live your life as a separate person from your parent while still maintaining a relationship with them if you choose.  Once you have moved through all of the stages of recovery, you will be able to own who you are, respond to your internal needs, and feel a strong sense of self that you can rely on.

ou deserve to love and accept yourself in the ways your parent could not.  It's time to finally put you first and move forward with confidence, grace, and freedom.

Schedule your free 20 minute consultation

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