How to Set Adult Boundaries with Narcissistic Parents
By: Christine Hammond, LMHC
When adults realize they were the product of a narcissistic parent, it can shock them into a state of grief. Instantly, they go from idealizing the narcissist to grieving their lost childhood and the God-like image of their parent. Suddenly, the parent is transformed from larger than life to a deeply insecure human being. With the rose colored glasses off, the adult struggles to rewrite their history without a narcissistic perception.
It is not an easy process. It requires time to recall events and alter them to a newly discovered reality. It entails massive energy to reprogram the negative words and competitive actions of the narcissist. It necessitates motivation to complete the process until a new level of healthy is achieved. But now that this process is finished, what new boundaries can keep the adult from falling back into old habits?
1. Think before speaking. Before visiting or speaking to a narcissistic parent, the adult should remember the parent is a narcissist. It might be helpful to review some of their glaring characteristics so expectations can be more appropriately set. Once a person knows a lion is a lion, they should not expect a lamb. Thinking about the conversation before it begins allows the adult to plan accordingly. Boundary = I’m going to set reasonable expectations.
2. Remember, it is all about them. It helps to have an expectation that the conversation will turn towards the narcissist. While the initial question may be about the adult, it very quickly switches to the narcissist. Adults should expect this and keep answers short and sweet to avoid giving away too much information. The narcissist will only use the additional data against the adult at a later date. Boundary = I’m not going to give away information.
3. Refuse to be interrogated. A typical tactic of narcissists is to overwhelm others into a state of heightened anxiety so they are less able to think straight. Adults fall into this trap easily as the narcissistic parent groomed them through intense interrogation as a child. This is about power and control for the narcissist. As soon as the narcissist begins, the adult should slow down their breathing. Then answer the question they wish the narcissist asked instead of the one that was asked and immediately follow it with a compliment. This disarms and distracts most narcissists. Boundary = I’m going to be treated like a peer.
4. Reject verbal assaults. Another typical narcissistic tactic is to verbally assault anyone they believe is a threat. The adult might find themselves a target for an aggressive (“You are lazy”), passive-aggressive (“Your sibling is so successful”), or guilt ridden (“I invested so much in you”) comment. This is about comparison maintains the narcissist’s superior status. If the adult becomes defensive, the narcissist has won. Rather, the adult should ignore the comment or say “that’s not appropriate” and again offer a distracting compliment. This prevents the adult from acting like the narcissist. Boundary = I’m not going to act like a narcissist.
5. Be free of victimization. When all else fails, the narcissistic parent becomes the victim as a way of guilt tripping the adult into submission. Their “wow is me” routine is customized to match the weakness and vulnerability of each adult child. It is generally effective or the narcissist would stop this behavior. It helps if the adult child views this sequence like that of a two-year-old temper tantrum. The more positive or negative attention that the two-year-old receives, the more the performance is repeated. The key here for the adult is to ignore the narcissist’s conduct entirely. Just like a two-year-old, it will take several attempts before the new reality sets in and is not repeated. Boundary = I’m not going to cave to manipulation.