Explaining Narcissistic Personality Disorder to Children

When parenting with someone who has a personality disorder – borderline, NPD/narcissistic, antisocial (sociopath), it feels at times that we should explain the disorder to our children.  There are pros and cons to it:  The upside is that it would help explain the parent’s actions, and teach your child/children to have compassion for the parent.   Downside is that it would have to be done very carefully – so that isn’t interpreted as being degrading of the other parent and draw the child defensively closer to the disordered parent.  It is also a very “adult” topic – one that many of us don’t understand as adults.  So how do we explain it to children?

In the grander scheme of raising our children, regardless of whether they have a parent who has a personality disorder or not – there are life skills and morals that they need to develop.   They need to understand and develop strong boundaries.  They need to have a strong, unwavering sense of self and confidence in that self who they are.  They also need to know that they are worthy of being treated with respect, and what respectful, healthy relationships look like – whether it is between friends, or their relationship with the adults in their lives.  Lastly but not all- they need to understand their own feelings and be able to read the emotions and feelings of others (develop empathy and compassion).

So far, I have focused primarily on building this foundation.  My children are young (ages 5 and 8), and I think that this is what they need to know at this time.  I envision (and it is already started to happen), that as they get older and have learned those basics, that the non-respectful, directive, commanding parenting style of their narcissitic parent will provoke the question… Why does Daddy not treat us with the respect that you teach us?

For that, I currently answer “because Daddy didn’t learn as a young child how to understand what other people feel.  He doesn’t understand, even after we tell him, that his behavior towards you is hurtful.”  Although the real origins of what creates a personality disorder are unknown – this statement really gets to the crux of it all.  Also worth saying is that the personality disordered parent can’t necessarily understand their own emotions or how to deal with them.  They can’t understand their child’s emotions and they can’t really understand their child as an individual person.

The older my children get, the more I will help them to understand their father’s personality disorder by using more description and explanation.  For now, I am focusing on building the basics in their own behavior and knowledge just as I would no matter what their parent’s shortcomings are (mine included!).  I also help them to make sense of particular transactions with their father (e.g. – daughter wants a particular type of birthday party, father just doesn’t get it and makes our children do it his way… I explain that their father is unable to understand other people and how other people are different from him.).

What I envision for when my children are older (pre-teens, teens), is to continue teaching them ways to draw strong boundaries with their father, and how to deal with him.  I will then add in information about the various personality disordered traits, staying away from the personality disorder label, and help explain why it might be that their parent has those traits.  Eventually, as they grow into young adults, if it presents itself, we can have a conversation about disorders and perhaps make previously missing connections.

In the meantime, I’m focusing on being the best parent I can be, and building those qualities that they need in life regardless of a personality disordered parent… but just building those qualities a little stronger, a little clearer and a bit more concrete than if I would if they didn’t have to deal with their father.  And in the end – this is one of those obscure, unexpected blessings arising out of a really tough situation.

15 Responses to “Explaining Narcissistic Personality Disorder to Children”

  1. Sharon says:

    Thank you for this insight. It’s soul sucking as an adult to be the target of a Narcissist, and it makes me cringe knowing the damage emotional abuse does to kids because they can’t stand up for themselves when they are little…they also process things literally. So the name-calling and put-downs really make it harder on them…they can’t articulate their feelings very well. Anyway, thank you!

  2. Lotte says:

    There is ample evidence in children of parents with schizophrenic and bipolar disorders that show openness and transparency are the best way to go. In my own country, there are special classes for children with a disturbed parent. There, everything is explained in the open with the proper words attached to them. So you are probably doing the right thing with your kids. In any case it will take away the feelings of guilt and shame these children caarry around, thinking it is them who are the problem. So, congratualtions for being such a sensible mum. Your approach has been scientifically proven best!

  3. Dee Phillips says:

    Thank you souch for this explanation. I would like to read more about this and how to recift certain traits.

  4. Lyndsey says:

    This article is helpful, but what do you do when your child who is 8, who has high functioning autism, is displaying the same narcissistic behaviors as his father??

  5. Kate Beauprey says:

    I appreciate this very much. My daughters are 20 and 13. One decision I made is to call it what it is. I say out loud that their dad has Narcissistic Personality Disorder because they need to have a name for it. This validates it and makes it real, and arms them with the ability to easily look up information on their own if they so choose. Only when I had a real name for what he is was I able to identify that this was a real disorder and not all in my mind, and it empowered me to set the boundaries I so desperately needed. Saying it out loud and calling it what it is is critical, in my opinion.

  6. Lynn D. says:

    EVIL DOES NOT DESERVE “COMPASSION”!!! What a lie! Showing “compassion” to an evil Narcissist is like kissing a cobra. These people incrementally DESTROY lives!! They are PSYCHOLOGICAL MURDERERS and whoever finds themselves married to one needs to get the HELL AWAY FROM THEM ASAP. You cannot have a “marriage” with a black widow spider unless you want to be eaten. I know this from first hand experience as the long abused scapegoated child of a highly covert, devious and sneaky malignant narcissist “Mother” and enabling “daddy” who never took up for me and now is a dried up, spiritless pathetic larva of his former self and in full blown compliant Stockholm Syndrome to this evil BITCH. He probably wont be around much longer. She uses my younger brother and only sibling as her golden child and flying monkey, commits emotional incest with him and shows him “respect” while treating her own husband worse than dirt. I got out of there years ago but am still the scapegoat. I get no respect, no validation, and she uses monkey boy to covertly attack me in subtle ways and spy on me so they can gossip and twist the truth about me (triangulation). No. These MONSTERS deserve ZERO COMPASSION!! That’s just inviting MORE ABUSE. They do not care notice or respond to compassion except as a sign of weakness and invitation to abuse the victim further. Get REAL

    • Tracy B. says:

      I totally AGREE with you.

    • peter says:

      While I understand your anger and frustration the fact is that these disorders manifest in degrees and the behavior they generate often is targeted on particular individuals so while in some cases–like yours, perhaps–there can be no room for compassion as it merely invites more abuse, in others a degree of compassion–at least toward the children and their relationship with the PD parent is not only warranted, it is necessary. For whatever reason–and this has taken me a very long time to accept and I must remind myself daily–the disordered parent did not choose to be that way and likely they cannot choose to be otherwise. For better or worse, usually worse, they are in our lives and our children lives and teaching our children compassion while teaching them boundaries and self-respect is the best way to give them a chance at making peace with their origin and the behavior they witness.

  7. samantha donnell says:

    Thank you for this article. My children are the same age as stated here and its hard to know how to explain things properly and make sure I’m doing my best and right by them. This helped.

  8. Dr. Benitez says:

    After 17 yrs. married and trying to understand my wife I finally found one condition describing her . ‘Narcissist Wife’.
    Looking for ways to help my teenager children understand her behavior I find your site. However it only talks about narcissist father. Is this a serious,
    Objective, impartial, sience based site? Please reply.

    • Hi there, I apologize that it’s taken me a while to respond and sorry to hear of what you are dealing with. I created this site as a way to connect with others in the same situation as me. While I have read a ton of books on personality disorders, spoken with experts in the field and have had years of my own therapy – I am no expert 🙂 My own personal suggestion for you is that since your children are teenagers, it may be very helpful to take them to a therapist to give them an impartial, therapeutic realm in which to discuss how they may be impacted by their mom. There are a number of books for adult children of narcissistic mothers, and it sounds like there can be a lot of damage done – particularly in the area of self esteem and boundaries. I wish you the best of luck!

  9. StrongerMe says:

    It’s hard even when they get into their teen years. They love their dad, so the guilt often works on them. They are in constant turmoil and complain that life for them is “hard.” And you know what? It is.
    Good luck! I think your explanations are great. It’s so hard to know what to say and what not to say. I’ve had many talks about alcoholism and lying, and each time I worry and obsess because I never intend to bash their father…only to help them understand the behavior. Then I try to compensate with “he loves you the best that he can.”
    It’s all so hard to do. Try to remain objective and help them deal with it in a healthy manner, when I am really struggling with it myself.

    • Amen on that! It is really difficult to help them, when they also feel guilty and so badly want a good relationship. I think that there has to be some acceptance that a good relationship can’t happen, and it’s not even really their dad’s fault – as he’s unable to do it. I wonder when the lightbulb most commonly goes off for adult children of narcissists (if it does at all)?

      • Molly B says:

        After being diagnosed with borderline at 18, a total of 5 yrs later I have just had that lightbulb moment with my narc mother. No one, including my father, ever told me that she was NPD because no one had ever diagnosed her! She refuses to go anywhere near therapy and wont even think about getting help for her overpowering “anxiety” which even she can see is beginning to ruin all of our lives. It’s hard because for my own sanity I’ve had to let go of all of the resentment I had against her and try to understand she’s simply doing her best, but as a result I’ve had to escape the family home & am now homeless. I wish I could get some help for her but even family work done for my benefit many years ago was intolerable for her, and I have it on good opinion that she’s so old now that therapy might- at best- “break her” out of the old behaviour, but could have awful consequences like a nervous breakdown and when all the pieces came back together she may not be any different. So sad. I just wish my father had been able to properly explain to me and put in place the boundaries that would have kept me safe.

      • Jeannine says:

        Hi Natalia,
        This project (blog)must be very cathartic and healing for you! I have three children with a man who has many of the NPD symptoms (I guess it takes a professional to actually diagnose) and I know the traits are on a continuum so they are all not the same degree of difficulty. However, my former spouse (7 yrs divorced) is certainly a contender for the “vulnerable narc” type. So arming my children (now 13, 17 and 21)with facts about NPD and that it is likely caused by childhood wounds is important. I have taught them NEVER to use it against their dad in any situation. But teaching them boundaries is paramount. they are learning how to navigate to get what they need while I make it clear that transparency is so much cleaner and kinder. But here is how I protect them most: by pointing out the positive traits they are receiving from their dad, because afterall they have his DNA, they need to know something about Dad is redeemable, that when they discover their own “lower=self” rising up, how to be more conscious and aware, not to hide or be hard on themselves. They are learning to use those traits for “self-care” and to speak what they want and trust their own vantage point as part of the whole. They deal with some twisted parenting from their dad that could leave them in total confusion, but I think they are starting to grasp their individuation and realize they have choices on how to be in the world. Something their Dad really doesn’t seem to have when he is not a rational, normal human. I wish your family well, and the kids are lucky to have one caring, loving parent! They will be amazing adults!

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