Roles Are Assigned to Sons of Narcissistic Mothers
Sons of narcissistic mothers will generally be assigned one of three roles: the golden child, the forgotten child, or the scapegoat – see Roles in The Narcissistic Family.
It is commonly believed golden sons become narcissists. This makes intuitive sense because they are favored and the mother builds them up in a grandiose fashion so that they may reflect well upon her. But golden children are victims too. They are not appeciated for who they are; they just get praise for reflecting well on mommy.
The forgotten child is the most likely to fly under the radar and have the freedom to be themselves. Therefore they are usually the least damaged. But damaged they are; they get precious little attention and care.
Scapegoats have the most hurtful legacy to overcome. The narcissistic mother projects her core sense of shame, worthlessness and emptiness onto the scapegoat and treats him accordingly.
The Wounds Inflicted on the Son
Growing up with a narcissistic mother is not a complaint. It is a serious, serious developmental trauma.
Insecure attachment, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and identity problems are likely to occur. Sons may be diagnosed with all varieties of mental illness, but developmental trauma may be the root of it all. The ramifications can be tormenting and lifelong if not properly addressed.
Sons Get Hurt in Unique Ways
Whatever unique wounding exists for you as the adult child of an NPD parent, there will be some manifestation of difficulty in the form of compulsive behaviors, grandiose strivings, low self-esteem, excessive guilt and worry, anxiety, depression, loss of vitality, codependency issues-and the list goes on.
These symptoms will be the clues that force your attention inward to recognize your need for healing.Eleanor Payson. The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, Julian Day Publications, 2002 (p74)
The children of Borderlines and Narcissists all suffer assaults to their self-esteem and self-concept … The barren womb of the Narcissist offers an environment of neglect with their children feeling invisible, ‘less than’, or at least ‘less important than’, and unworthy with associated low self-esteem …
The child of the Narcissist mother must analyze their sense of self and rebuild it without relying on their parent or parent substitute for approval.“The Borderline/Narcissistic Mother” ~ Psychology Today
Child abuse tends to repeat itself from generation to generation. It is highly likely that your narcissistic mother was severely abused or came from a highly dysfunctional family.
Possibly, she had a narcissistic mother herself.
Victims of abuse often perpetrate the same type of abuse upon their own children. It is therefore essential to break the cycle of abuse.
The first step is becoming aware you were abused.
Awareness of Abuse
Some sons don’t seem to be entirely aware that they have been the victims of abuse. Many report a rather normal childhood.
Others recall abuse starting in adolescence, as they naturally attempted to gain independence from their Mom.
Some may have eventually pushed back against the unrelenting abuse, or acted out to varying degrees, and been labeled a “black sheep” or “bad seed” by their outraged mother. The truth is that constant criticism leads even the best of us to eventually rebel.
However, even sons who rebel will on some level buy into the grooming message, that they’re bad. They may still think extremely poorly of themselves as an adult.
The Childhood & Adolescence of a Son of a Narcissistic Mother
Growing Up as the Golden Child
A Son of a Narcissistic Mother who is the golden child may recollect a golden childhood and adolescence. He may have been treated like a prince, and then a king. He will have been fed with the message that he is unique, exceptional, etc., and given everything he wanted to serve the grandiose projections of his mother.
He will become a doctor, lawyer, or anything that makes mommy proud. He will have a trophy wife, picture-perfect children, a house and a dog, or two, and maybe a boat on a lake.
He may sleep around and divorce, be a workaholic, gamble, drink a bit, and steal a little. But he makes mommy and daddy, proud. He may never realize that he was never allowed to be truly himself, and will continue going through life according to mommy’s wishes until he dies.
He is unlikely to be reading this.
Growing Up as the Lost Child or Scapegoat
These sons of narcissistic mothers will have a more chaotic experience of life. But usually, childhood is remembered as the better part.
In early childhood, the narcissistic mother can more easily control her children and maintain them in a state of dependence. She is not overly threatened by dependent, small children and may gain narcissistic supply for her inflated ego from them.
People may tell her “Your little Johnny is so cute!”
However, she may already be discouraging their independence and monopolizing them. Many Adult Children of Narcissists (ACOONs) report being isolated, often missing school, never having any friends at home, etc.
It is usual for a mother to accompany her children everywhere in childhood, and to make decisions for them. But as the child becomes an adolescent, they will need more independence and want to make their own decisions according to their needs and wants.
Therefore, it is in adolescence that the more obvious forms of abuse tend to start.
Adolesence: Independence is Betrayal
Attempts at independence are seen as betrayals by narcissistic mothers. The purpose of the son as far as Mom is concerned is to make her look good, and she must always be right.
God forbid the son disagrees with his narcissistic mother about anything – as healthy teenagers need to do.
Independence results in relentless criticism, punishments, insults, beratement, humiliation, unfair treatment, neglect, abandonment, silent treatment, even physical abuse.
These discouraging experiences become the norm for scapegoated sons.
It all aims to ensure that you behave as your narcissistic mother wishes. You are a narcissistic object to her, an extension of herself. She can’t see you as a separate person; she can’t see you for who you are. Objects do as they’re told, or they are bad objects.
… the narcissist expects you to conform to his will, just as his own arm or leg would do. When your behavior deviates from his expectations, he often becomes as upset with you as he would be if his arm or leg were no longer under his control.Eleanor Payson. The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, Julian Day Publications, 2002 (p22)
This abuse is similar to what a totalitarian regime would do to break an adult’s spirit.
While it may feel like all the abuse started in adolescence, the reality is that abuse by the Narcissistic Mother will have started from very early childhood.
But survivors have forgotten it due to a brain development phenomenon known as infantile amnesia.
Most people don’t remember anything before three years of age and have only fragments of memories before age seven.
Severely abused children typically remember very little about their childhoods as adults.
Abused Children Blame Themselves
Young children simply must see their mothers as capable, well meaning and right. Because to believe the opposite would put the child into an intolerable state of anxiety.
An abused child will always believe he deserves the mistreatment from his mother, at least on a deep subconscious level. Dependent children cannot afford to believe that their caregivers are not willing and able to take care of them.
Children always choose to believe abuse is their fault, because it gives them some hope.
The hope is that if they could improve somehow, maybe be perfect, the mistreatment would stop and they could get their needs met. It’s within their control; it’s a possibility. Perfectionism is born here.
If they believed their mom is simply going to keep abusing them no matter what they do, because she is sick and malevolent, they would feel totally screwed, helpless and hopeless ‐ which is very hard live with.
Also, abusers groom their victims to believe it’s their fault. The only relationship that is offered to the child is one that is premised upon the lie that he deserves to treated the way he is.
The child absolutely must have a relationship with his caregiver, so he must accept the terms that are offered.
So, believing it’s your fault is actually quite an adaptive belief during an abusive childhood. Even though it’s a false belief, it allows you to survive and maintain some form of relationship with those upon whom your life literally depends.
However when this false belief persists into adulthood it causes all sorts of serious problems.
It often does persist at a deep level, perhaps in disguised manifestations, unless trauma recovery work is undertaken.
Part of the way children defend themselves from overwhelming experiences is to candy-coat the memories, so they are more pleasant, or put the memories out of conscious awareness using a myriad of protective devices called defense mechanisms.Pia Mellody Facing Codependence 2003 (p128)
Forms of Maternal Narcissistic Abuse
When people mention child abuse, most people think of sexual or physical abuse. But there are many other ways a child can be abused and scarred for life.
Overt abuse is visible, while covert abuse is less obvious, sneaky, and deniable. The narcissistic mother is a specialist in covert abuse.
Most Adult Children of Narcissists report how difficult it was to deal with covert abuse because nobody other than them could see what was really going on, and they strive for validation from others as a result.
Covert abuse is crazy-making.
Narcissists spend virtually all of their energy on creating a desirable mask or persona for public consumption, They are very good at this, and the mask is generally convincing.
Children who are abused at home may be told by people outside the home how great their narcissistic parent is.
Nothing could be more disempowering for the developing child.
He learns to habitually squash every instinct he has to recognize and resist abuse. Everybody’s telling him he’s lucky to be treated so well.
A mere complaint about his awful situation just earns him shame, punishment, and a reputation as an ingrate.
His first-hand perception of what’s going on is not reconciliable with what he’s being told by everyone around him. How can he trust his basic perceptions and instincts about people?
The son who is a recipient of such abuse & mass-scale invalidation will grow up to doubt himself. The good news is that all the hunches he’s had about his family his entire life, but that he dared not utter, are probably spot on.
He’s not crazy or ungrateful at all.
In a way, all abuse is emotional abuse, since the primary damage of any form of abuse is emotional.
Mellody writes: ‘Emotional abuse is probably the most frequent kind of abuse. It happens through verbal abuse, social abuse, and the neglect or abandonment of dependency needs’ (Mellody 2003 p177).
Public humiliation is a form of covert emotional abuse favored by Narcissistic Mothers.
Withdrawing love, however, is her favorite weapon.
The constant ruptures in relationship are almost never repaired. This is distressing for the son.
“I was wrong. I’m sorry” is something sons rarely if ever hear from narcissistic mothers.
Narcissistic mothers undermine the value of their son’s thoughts and opinions. They also confuse them to maintain control and avoid accountability.
Not listening to a child voicing an opinion is one subtle but efficient form of intellectual abuse.
“I never said that!” is a common refrain sons of narcissistic mothers hear regarding things their mothers absolutely did say.
Or she may try a different tactic when being held accountable: “You take things so literally, you don’t understand context, you dont understand people, you dont get it, you can’t read between the lines.”
She conveniently overlooks the fact that she’s distorting what the actual lines were in the first place.
Here’s an example of how confusing and undermining intellectual abuse can get:
A narcissistic mother pulled her bright young son aside and said the following to him in a hushed tone (as if to help him prevent his dirty secret from being exposed):
“Now son (disappointed sigh), apparently you took an IQ test at school and scored extremely high. (sighs, shakes head) Now, people who have these kinds of IQ scores become very, very bad people if they know what their score is. So your father and I have decided not to tell you your score.”
- Were the son to trust his own reasoning skills (IQ) he would become independent and discount Mom’s nonsense – she would no longer be able to control him
- So mom shames the son about his mind and implants self-doubt about it
- This inhibits the son from realizing, valuing or trusting his intellect and becoming independent from the mother.
All of this can be thought of as gaslighting.
Gaslighting is the conscious and intentional undermining of a person’s grip on reality or confidence in their perspective (when in fact they are perceiving things accurately) so that they may be more easily manipulated.
It is perhaps the most insidious and sinister form of abuse. If you’ve determinedno someone is gaslighting you, don’t take a thing they say at face value.
Denies the child’s right to his own spiritual development, beliefs, and experience of a higher power.
Being active in church and play-acting as a devoted servant of God is a typical example of covert spiritual abuse by the Narcissistic Mother.
Any form of beating or touching that sends the message that the child’s body is not valuable, worthy of respect, or their own property. Some physical abuse is also sexual abuse.
Covert physical abuse can happen by inflicting the child with unnecessary physical pain, like an itchy woolly sweater.
This covers but extends beyond overt sex. A mother being seductive to her son, or walking naked in front of him, are forms of sexual abuse. Teasing the child about sex, exposing them to inappropriate sexual content or information, etc., are also forms of sexual abuse.
- In How to Recover From a Narcissistic Mother, we look at ways to recover from abuse.
The narcissistic mother sees her children as an extension of herself and doesn’t recognize their right to be separate human beings. As a result, the NM abuses her children by failing to respect their boundaries, and treating them like objects (or possessions) rather than human beings.
Effects of Narcissistic Abuse on Sons
The main damage done by abuse is that the overwhelming emotions triggered by the abuse cannot be expressed, recognized, and processed at the time they occur.
Many victims of abuse report that the abuser didn’t allow them to show their emotions especially as they were abused. One common example is the child being denied the right to cry during or after the abuse.
Or, the child just zones out during the abuse because it’s too much to be present for.
This is the essence of a trauma; an overwhelming negative emotional experience in which one feels helpless to take any effective action regarding it. The experience can’t be fully experienced or processed at the time, so it “gets stuck” in the brain / body and comes back to haunt you until you resolve it.
Childhood and adolescence can be one trauma after another for sons of narcissitic mothers. Plus, mom never modeled to them how to regulate their emotions or soothe themselves when upset. So they have few coping skills.
This is the recipe for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Covert abuse is particularly harmful as there is little chance to deal with something that is so hidden.
Many victims of abuse in their childhood, in particular children of narcissists, show in adulthood the symptoms of what is known as codependency.
Originally, codependency referred to someone close to an alcoholic, for example, the enabling partner, who was seen as dependent on the alcoholic’s addiction without being the abuser themselves, hence the term co-dependency, since both the alcoholic and the codependent were seen as dependent on the same addiction, one actively and the other passively.
But today it is understood, in fact, that the codependent is addicted to the substance abuser in the same way the abuser is addicted to the substance. The concept now extends not only to any substance or compulsive behavior addiction but also to narcissism.
Although some prefer the term co-narcissism, codependency now also refers to someone dependent on satisfying a narcissist.
The difference between a narcissist and other addicts (some are both) is that the narcissist is dependent on a narcissistic supply rather than a substance or an activity. With a narcissist, the codependent is more than a facilitator, and even more than a supplier, they ARE the supply. This gives new relevance to the term codependency since the narcissist and the codependent depend on one another.
- Dependent on giving e.g. taking care of an addict or narcissist
Addict or narcissist
- Dependent on receiving external supply, either substance, activity, or induced emotions such as envy
While all SoNMs may not be codependent, they were groomed to provide for the Narcissistic Mother and will therefore show some of the symptoms of codependency.
Pia Mellody sees five core symptoms of codependence
- Codependents feel either better than (grandiosity) or less than (low self-esteem) others, but not equal to others.
- Mellody explains that codependents rely on external factors to determine their self-esteem (which makes it ‘other-esteem’) and therefore depend on what others reflect back to them.
- Boundaries are either nonexistent, damaged, or like a wall keeping anyone away, and preventing any intimacy with others.
Owning Our Own Reality
- Codependents don’t always know who they really are, what they really feel, and aren’t always aware of their behavior, nor are they objective about their body.
- Codependents are either too dependent or counter-dependent, they can get confused between what they need and what they want, or be unaware of their own needs and desires.
Black and White Thinking
- Things easily get out of proportion.
- Codependents tend to think in black or white, have either extreme feelings or no feelings at all, take extreme measures in reaction to a problem, etc.
The heart and soul of codependence lies in the difficulty codependents have knowing what their feelings are and how to share them. Codependents seem to have the most difficulty experiencing feelings moderately; they feel little or no emotions, or have explosive or agonizing ones.Pia Mellody Facing Codependence 2003 (p37)
Boys don’t cry. Sons of Narcissistic Mothers were given many reasons to cry but never the right to.
Defending yourself from experiencing your emotions is like shutting down your heart. Sons of narcissistic mothers are at high risk of having a dead heart.
Of all the feelings repressed by sons of narcissistic mothers, shame could be the deepest one. John Bradshaw writes:
If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they will act shameless and pass their toxic shame onto us. There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself […]
One of the devastating aspects of toxic shame is that it is multigenerational. The secret and hidden aspects of toxic shame form the wellsprings of its multigenerational life. Since it is kept hidden, it cannot be worked out. Families are as sick as their toxic shame secrets. […]
When parents are shame-based and needy, they are unable to take over the mirroring narcissistic function for the child. Furthermore, the fact that the parents are shame-based is a clear signal that they never got their own narcissistic supplies.
Such parents are adult children who are still in search of a parent or an object who will be totally available to them. For such parents, the most appropriate objects of narcissistic gratification are their own children.John Bradshaw Healing the Shame that Binds You
When parents are shame-based and needy, they are unable to appropriately mirror their children, to reflect back to the child who is actually is and what he’s feeling. Sons need a lot of attuned attention and unconditional positive regard from their mothers, we all are born hard-wired to expect this.
But narcissistic mothers are adult children who are still searching for a parent or an object who will be totally available to them. They desperately want unconditional adoration because they never got it from their parents when they were children.
For such parents, the easiest supply of this narcissistic gratification is unfortunately their own children. They may have even had children for this reason.
But children need mirroring and echoing. These come from their primary caregiver’s eyes. Mirroring means that someone is there for them and reflects who they really are at any given moment in time. In the first three years of our life, each of us needed to be admired and taken seriously.
We needed to be accepted for the very one we are. Having these mirroring needs met results in what Alice Miller calls our basic narcissistic supplies.
There is hope. If you are reading this, it means that you have lifted the veil of denial that keeps most Son of Narcissistic Mothers away from any chance of recovery.
If you are reading this, chances are that you are either the son of a narcissistic or otherwise uncaring /abusive mother or closely involved with a Son of a Narcissistic Mother. You may also be worried about the fact that you or your partner might be narcissistic.
The short answer is that a narcissist either knows that they are (conscious) or is in such denial (unconscious defense mechanism) that they would never even consider the possibility of being one.
So your self-doubt is evidence that you were lucky not to inherit your mother’s illness.
That said, you will probably have some things to work on, including some traits you may find difficult to accept in yourself, especially if they remind you of your mother. But acceptance is essential in order to recover, accept and like/love ourselves.
Recovery is a process that takes some of us from black-and-white thinking to seeing things in shades of grey, and then, hopefully, in color.
Certified Trauma Recovery Coach
Jim brings a blend of personal experience and professional expertise to his work. Having navigated & continuing to navigate his own journey of recovery from CPTSD, he now serves as a puzzle master & voice of experience for fellow travelers on their own path to healing.
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