5 Manipulation Tactics Narcissistic Parents Use To Control Their Adult Children
Adult children of narcissists go through a lifetime’s worth of abuse. Narcissistic parents lack empathy, exploit their children for their own agendas, and are unlikely to seek treatment or change their destructive behaviors long-term (Kacel, Ennis, & Pereira, 2017). Their children often endure severe psychological maltreatment, as their parents employ behaviors like bullying, terrorizing, coercive control, insults, demands, and threats to keep them compliant (Spinazzola et al., 2014). This form of trauma places children of narcissists at risk for suicidality, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, attachment disorders, and complex PTSD, leading to symptoms similar to children who were physically or sexually abused (Gibson, 2016; Schwartz, 2016; Spinazzola et al., 2014, Walker, 2013).
If children of narcissists choose to remain in contact with their abusive parents, they will continue to encounter manipulation even as adults. The same tactics which were employed to control them as children can still be powerful even when they are adults – perhaps even moreso because these methods cause them to regress back into childhood states of fear, shame, and terror.
The difference is that as an adult, you have the ability to use alternative coping methods, self-care and to limit contact with your parents as you heal. Here are five manipulation tactics narcissistic parents use to control their children, even as adults, and some self-care tips for coping:
1) Emotional Blackmail
The narcissistic parent appears to make a request, but it is really a demand. If you say no, set boundaries, or let them know you’ll get back to them later, they will apply increased pressure and threaten consequences to try to get you to acquiesce to them. If you still refuse, they may then punish you with sulking, passive-aggressive statements, a rage attack, withholding of something important, or even the threat of violence or sabotage. This is emotional blackmail.
Example: Your narcissistic mother may tell you that she would like you and your family to come over on the weekend for dinner. All the relatives will be there and they want to see you. Knowing her abusive ways, you tell her you can’t make it this weekend because you have a prior engagement. Rather than respecting your wishes, she proceeds to talk about how ungrateful you’re being and how all your family members are looking forward to seeing you and your children. You say no, and she hangs up on you and subjects you to the silent treatment for weeks.
Self-Care Tip: Know your rights and boundaries. You have the right to say “no” to any invitation or request, especially from someone known to be abusive. You have the right to protect yourself and any other family members who would be affected by your toxic parent’s behavior. You don’t have to give into any silent treatments or tolerate rage attacks. You can allow your narcissistic parent to have whatever reaction they have from a distance. During this time, do not answer phone calls, text messages or voicemails abusive in nature. Do not meet with them in person to “discuss.” Your “no” is not a negotiation.
2) Guilt-tripping with Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG)
It is common for narcissistic parents to use FOG (Fear, Obligation, and Guilt) on us to evoke the kind of guilt that would cause us to give into their desires, even at the expense of our own basic needs and rights.
Example: Your narcissistic father disapproves of the fact that you’re single and have no children. He tells you that time is running out to give him grandchildren. When you tell him you’re happy being single, he lashes out in rage and despair, telling you, “So I am going to die without grandchildren? I am getting older and sicker every day – don’t you think I want to see my daughter start a family? Is this how you’re repaying me for all I’ve done for you? What will our community think, to see an unmarried woman at your age? It’s shameful and disgraceful! You’re a disgrace to the family!”
Self-Care Tip: Notice any guilt or shame that arises and realize it does not belong to you when you find yourself being guilt-tripped by a narcissistic parent. Ask yourself if you have anything to truly feel guilty about. Have you intentionally inflicted any harm upon your narcissistic parent, or are you simply doing what every human being has a right to do – live their lives through their own free will? You have a right to your choices, preferences, and autonomy, even if your toxic parent disagrees with those choices. You do not owe them an explanation for choices that have to do with your career, love life, or any children you may or may not have.
Narcissistic, toxic parents shame their children to further belittle and demean them. This is actually quite effective, as research has shown that when someone feels flawed and defective, they tend to be more compliant to the requests of others (Walster, 1965; Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson, 2003).
Example: Your narcissistic parent begins remarking upon your career choices during Thanksgiving dinner, calling them reckless and irresponsible. Even though you are successful, financially stable and own your own home, they continue to nitpick in ways you fall short since you didn’t choose the career they had demanded of you. They criticize your ability to provide for your family and to be a role model for your children.
Self-Care Tip: Acknowledge if you’re having any form of emotional flashback when your parent begins to nitpick and shame you. It’s important to notice if you feel you’re regressing back to childhood states of powerlessness so you can learn to take your power back in the present moment rather than reacting in a way that gives into their shaming tactics. Let them know you won’t be shamed, and that if they continue this behavior, they’ll just have to see less of you. Recognize that this shame does not belong to you and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. You deserve to be proud of yourself, not ashamed.
4) Triangulation and Comparison
Narcissistic parents love to compare their children to other siblings or peers in an effort to further diminish them. They want their scapegoated children to fight for their approval and attention. They also want to provoke them into feeling less than.
Example: You get a call from your parents who tell you the news of your cousin getting engaged. Your toxic mother makes a snide comment like, “You know, your cousin Ashley just completed medical school and got engaged. What are you doing with your life?”
Self-Care Tip: Don’t give into petty comparisons – label them as triangulation and realize it is just another way to undermine you. Switch the subject or find an excuse to cut the conversation short if your narcissistic parent engages in needless comparisons and disparaging comments. Notice if you have an urge to justify or explain yourself – and resist the urge to do so.
Know that you do not have to waste your energy proving your accomplishments to people who are unwilling to acknowledge them. Spend time with people who do celebrate you and keep a list of what you’re proud of to remind yourself that you do not have to compare yourself to anyone in order to feel successful in your own right.
Gaslighting is an insidious weapon in the toolbox of a narcissistic parent. It allows the toxic parent to distort reality, deny the reality of the abuse, and make you feel like the toxic one for calling them out.
Example: Your narcissistic father leaves you an abusive voicemail late at night and ten missed calls when you refuse to go out of your way to do something for him. Even though you’ve explained to him that it’s inconvenient for you to do, he persists in punishing you for not complying to his requests and continues to badger you through the phone. The next day, you call him to confront him about his harassing behavior and he responds by saying, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I barely called you last night. You’re imagining things.”
Self-Care Tip: Those who are gaslighted in childhood often suffer from a persistent sense of self-doubt in adulthood. Rather than giving into your conditioned sense of self-doubt, begin to notice whenever your narcissist parent’s falsehoods do not match up with reality. When you experience an abusive incident, document it and work with a therapist to remain grounded in what you’ve experienced in both childhood and adulthood rather than subscribing to the toxic parent’s version of events.
Track if there’s been a pattern of gaslighting in your relationship with your narcissistic parent and act accordingly with what you’ve lived through, rather than what the abusive parent claims. Remember, the more you resist abuse amnesia, the more likely you’ll be able to protect yourself and avoid being exploited or taken advantage of by the toxic parent.
Remember: you don’t have to tolerate the harmful behavior of dangerous people, even if they share your DNA.
This article has been shortened and adapted from a chapter in my new book Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists: Essays On The Invisible War Zone. Read the full version with more in-depth suggestions in the book.
Kacel, E. L., Ennis, N., & Pereira, D. B. (2017). Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Clinical Health Psychology Practice: Case Studies of Comorbid Psychological Distress and Life-Limiting Illness. Behavioral Medicine,43(3), 156-164. doi:10.1080/08964289.2017.1301875
Gibson, Lindsay C. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. New Harbinger Publications, 2016.
Gudjonsson, G. H., & Sigurdsson, J. F. (2003). The Relationship of Compliance with Coping Strategies and Self-Esteem. European Journal of Psychological Assessment,19(2), 117-123. doi:10.1027//1015-57126.96.36.199
Schwartz, A. (2016). The complex PTSD workbook: A mind-body approach to regaining emotional control & becoming whole. Althea Press.
Spinazzola, J., Hodgdon, H., Liang, L., Ford, J. D., Layne, C. M., Pynoos, R., . . . Kisiel, C. (2014). Unseen wounds: The contribution of psychological maltreatment to child and adolescent mental health and risk outcomes. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy,6(Suppl 1). doi:10.1037/a0037766
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote.
Walster, E. (1965). The effect of self-esteem on romantic liking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,1(2), 184-197. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(65)90045-4
5 Manipulation Tactics Narcissistic Parents Use To Control Their Adult Children
My husband’s mother is a borderline narcissist. This article – items 3 and 4 especially – describes her recent behavior to a T. We had her stay with us over for Xmas as usual this year, since his sister’s husband won’t let her go to their house. She’s 92 now and her filters have come off. She refuses to recognize my husband as an adult. This manifests in ignoring his success in life because he chose a non-traditional occupation, denying that his brother is a gaslighting jerk, and worse.
My brother married a narcissist. I only realized what she is now after she damaged a lot of lives. They have two children who are adults now and have several difficulties with living normal lives. I wondered when they were little why their mother never hugged or showed any love to those beautiful babies. Never knew why until she physically and emotionally destroyed my widowed mother. And destroyed my relationship with my only sibling my brother with lies and blackmail. We haven’t talked for 15 years. Someday we will be together again I’m hoping.
Describes my mother to a T. I couldn’t figure out what happened to me in my former years that left me feeling flawed and unworthy. I related it to my abusive, alcoholic dad and decades went by before I began to understand that my mother was a full blown sneaky narcissist. None of my achievements were praised or celebrated rather, mother always knew someone who was smarter or who did it better. No matter what, she would put me down in every way possible. She mocked me a lot and would blame and shame most of the time then, she would deny it. Who me? she would say, acting the innocent. Ah, and the silent treatment… I remember that so well. If I said no to her in an attempt to assert myself, and set boundaries, then she would threaten me and not talk, sometimes for a month. Then she’d gossip to her friends about her horrible daughter. She was terrible for riding rough shod over me and as far as she was concerned, I had no right to complain. My sister is just like mother but, thank god that I left home at a young age and stayed away from the toxicity of home. The message I was given was that I wasn’t good enough and that I was a disappointment. Tough on her!
Thank you for sharing this insightful article as well as many others. It’s spot on!
this resonates with my mum who is narcisstic fully. last 30 yrs full of mental abuse. but what is the solution when her daughter got ill and needs a help from her? i am in this situation and though i try to limit the contact i need to ask her to help out sometimes physically…
As the intelligent, well-educated & college- educated adult who is single with a free will in the independent life, I always have a right to say ” No” to my toxic mother and my toxic brother who now is a family physician with his M.D. degree by protecting myself and my life. Then I make none of any contacts with them, I refuse to invite them to visit me at home as they’re totally banned in lifetime as I don’t want to see them again. So that I choose to be separated from them as that’s up to me in making decisions to decide so here. My adult life is off- boundary. Now I have my close & supportive friends and others in the local area in my own way.
All of those tactics could be also applied to adult children. My husband’s son, my adult step son and his wife decided that since I was retired that all I should want to do is babysit their children. Although I babyat sometimes, I was not about to be the go to person to babysit. When I refused, they got angry and stop bringing the grandkids around.
Please note everyone with a sibling abuse history, narcissistic parent abuse is same as having a sibling narcissistic abuse. Sometimes even worse because you spend more time with your, in my case older sister, then with your working parents!
Dang you grew up in my house and lived my life.
Suzanne Mc Aleenan
My nm used/uses her Will to control. I will cut you out of my Will if you do not do as I want. I walked away 21 months ago. She can or may have cut me out of my inheritance. I don’t care. I’d rather have peace than be manipulated and triangulated by such a sick person.
Really informative – will share with my students
Don’t forget the “you’re so ungrateful” guilt trip and silent treatment designed to punish and make you think you’re invisible and beneath them. Those were my mothers favourite. For my father, who I always thought was the primary Narcissistic person in my family, but only recently started to wonder whether it was actually my mother all along who had brainwashed me against my father…he like to gaslight a lot and found it very amusing to play sick pranks on me, exploiting my youthful gullibility…then call me a fool or stupid later! Made himself feel very clever at my expense. He never felt good unless he was putting me down or making me feel like crap, and the constant comparisons to my brother, the golden child, were just so nasty. I’m so grateful I worked out their games early on and learned ways to protect myself before I finally removed myself from their bullshit mind games alltogether. They can make me look like the bad guy to all their friends, but eventually some of them will start to understand that I left for a reason…and didn’t come back. That says a lot.
This is scary! My parents have all those triats and are physically abusive. They still nowadays compare to other people and I am always worthless and crap even tho I have achieved a lot for myself and struggled through it all. They expect me to endure their horrible words and tactics but I just can’t I hung up. I’m so angry and upset because they will never change. I want to give all my love but I can’t because they take it for granted ??. I was ill for a few days and didn’t even ask me of I was okay nor get well soon (I know its a small thing) but they don’t care at all and I have gone distant from them a lot and I am very happy without them but then I get sad because when I watch movies and TV shows and see other parents with their child I get a bit sad and wish they where my parents
This describes the overt narcissist. Worse is the covert one, whose subtleties of abuse are hard to pin down but just as, if not worse, painful.
Wow. I am so grateful that I found this article and the comments section. It’s brought me down from a near panic attack I just experienced from texting my dad.