It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dear Estranged and Alienated Parents and Grandparents:

Your daughter won’t speak to you and because of that, you haven’t seen or heard from your grandbabies in over six months. You’ve sent them cards and gifts, but heard nothing back. When you try to contact them via phone or text, you don’t get an answer, and you have been blocked on her Facebook and Instagram. What’s a devoted grandparent to do?
I know that what I am about to suggest is probably furthest from your mind, but have you thought about simply respecting your daughter’s wishes rather than ignoring them? I know that sounds counter-productive, but the truth of the matter is that if you believed you had the wolf trying the blow your house down, would you be opening the door to him? Or would you be increasing and improving your defences?
Yes, I know, you don’t believe you are the wolf at the door, you are her parent and the grandparent of those darling children. You love them, you have their best interests at heart, and for some unfathomable reason, your own child has turned her back on you and slammed and locked the door! What can you do?
Whether your goal is access to your own child, the grandchildren, or both, the first thing you need to understand is that you cannot get what you want by further alienating your own child. She is the gatekeeper, the person who grants or withholds access to herself and to those precious grandbabies and without her cooperation, you get nowhere.
Okay, I know that some states have grandparent’s rights in their statutes but taking that route is ill-advised at best. First of all, it will permanently alienate the parent, your child—if you have any hope of repairing the relationship with your child, this will forever kill any possibility of that. Secondly, very few states have these laws and among those that do, the chances of you prevailing are very low—especially if the person you are suing is your own child. Finally, it will take a lot of money for your adult child to defend against such a suit, money that could be better spent taking care of those grandchildren—and that is a fact that will not be lost on the court. If you hope for a reconciliation—or at least to gain access to your grandchildren, then the image you portray is critically important, and presenting yourself to a court as a person who is willing impoverish the parent of your grandkids in order to get your own way is not going to polish your halo.
The first thing you must understand—and understand clearly—is that you are not entitled to a relationship with your grandchildren. You may not like that, you may not want to believe it, but your dislikes and disbeliefs don’t influence the truth of it. You have no right, either morally or legally, to insert yourself into another family’s life. Even in states that provide for grandparents’ rights, those rights are very narrow and circumscribed and the only grandparents who actually have to those rights are those who have successfully had them granted: prior to a court granting you those rights, they don’t exist. For the most part, access to the children of other people is a privilege granted to you by the parents or guardians of those children. And that privilege often comes with rules—i.e., no sweets, no snacks after a certain time, prescribed bedtimes or other things you may dislike or disagree with. The fact that you are the grandparent does not give you leave to disrespect the structure the child’s parents have created and if you do disrespect them—like trying to make a vegetarian child eat meat—the parents may limit or even end your ability to see the children, which is well within their rights.
You need to understand that you are not in control of the household of your adult child nor should you be. A lot has been discovered by doctors and scientists since the last time you and I were parenting young kids. Things we thought were harmless or normal have been discovered to be harmful; things we considered harmful—like “spoiling” a child with “too much” attention—have been found to be beneficial. Your way is not the only way to care for children, it may be far from the best way, and it’s not your call anyway. If you refuse to respect the parent’s instructions not only are they well within their rights to limit or even end your association with the kids, a court will most likely agree with them—and then instruct you to pay the other party’s legal costs.
Having been the parents and in charge for so many years, it may be difficult for you to accept that your children are now in control and you must take instruction from and obey them. You want to remain in control, as you have always been, but you can’t always get what you want: some things are simply beyond your grasp. You can’t lasso the moon, you can’t put Reagan back in the White House, and you can’t change another person to be who you want them to be or make them act the way you want them to act, not even your own adult child.
You can, however, change yourself. I am not saying that it is easy, but you can do it and, if you want to have a relationship with your estranged child and her children, that may very well be what you need to do. Some problems cannot be solved by throwing money, in the form of loans, gifts or lawyer’s and court fees, at them and resolving the issue of the alienated adult child is one of those problems that money not only cannot fix but may actually make worse.
You must also grasp that your perception of a situation or event is not the only one—there may be other, equally valid—in fact, even more valid—perceptions out there than your own. In other words, it is entirely possible that you are wrong about how you are seeing the situation. If you are not willing to accept that possibility, then you will be fighting an uphill battle. Just feeling or believing you are right is not enough: there was a time when we fervently believed in the existence of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus, but later discovered they weren’t real. No amount of believing on our parts, however, conjured them up: we believed with our whole hearts and it wasn’t enough to make it so. And so it is with your perceptions—no how fervently you believe you are right, you may still be wrong and if you want access to your adult child and her children, you need to become intimately familiar with that concept.
You also need to understand that it is very unlikely that your adult child is going to simply capitulate to your demands, so you need to do some soul-searching and determine what it is you really want. Do you want to have your own way or do you want access to your child and/or grandchildren? Think about which is most important to you because they may very well be mutually exclusive: in order to have access to your child/grandchildren you are probably going to have to compromise and, by its very nature, compromise means giving up some of what you think you want. Ask yourself this: what am I willing to give up to just see the grandchildren for five minutes—just five minutes. If you aren’t willing to give up all of your demands and expectations to have just five minutes—and not necessarily five minutes alone—with them, then you want your own way more than you want to see those kids and that is going to work against you.
Perhaps the most important thing for you to understand is that adult children almost never cut off their parents without a) thinking about it for a long time; b) trying to get their parents to understand their issues; and c) trying to get their parents to work with them in resolving their issues. Too often I have had letters from estranged parents/grandparents lamenting their child having cut them off “suddenly and with no explanation” when, in fact, it was neither sudden nor was it unexplained.
Some of these estranged adult children have spent years—literally years—trying to get their parents to address issues only to have their issues minimized, dismissed or even laughed at. The fact that something is unimportant to you in no way means it is unimportant to others: an issue you have dismissed as “petty” may be of earth-shattering importance to your adult child and your dismissal is, at the very least, hurtful.
The most common complaint I hear from estranged adult children is a lack of respect from their parents. Before you get huffy and try to tell me that respect is “earned,” allow me to point out that that is a very disrespectful attitude to take. Everyone one on the planet is entitled to respect until they earn your DISrespect. You have no right to demand respect from anyone—including your children—if you do not give them respect up front.
If you believe that respect must be earned, tell me what have you done to earn respect from your adult kids? Do you even know what you need to do to earn that respect from them? Has is ever occurred to you that if you insist that respect is earned, then you need to earn the respect of others, including your own children, regardless of their age? Respect is a two-way street: you cannot legitimately expect it from others if you won’t to give it to them.
But you do respect your adult kids, you tell me. Do you really? If you really want to heal the rift in your family, then you have to understand what has upset your adult child and in order to do that, you have to put yourself in their shoes. Did you tell your daughter, without being asked for your help or opinion, that she was bathing her new baby wrong? Did you say “here, let me show you how to do that”? or did you say, instead, “you look like you’re having some trouble there. Can I help?” The first is disrespectful, the second is not. When you had your grandchildren overnight did you let them stay up past their bedtime? Did you let them eat cookies before dinner? Did you let them do anything that their parents said not to? Then you disrespected your children.
When it comes to their kids, the parents are the final authority even if you disagree right down to your very toes with them. These are not your children and this is not your decision or choice to make. Would you have left your children with people who ignored your wishes concerning your child’s diet or safety or obedience? Would you have been unhappy if you left your child with a family member and that person ignored your wishes in favour of their own? Suppose your family member liked watching porn and despite your admonition “no TV, movies or videos,” he let them not only watch videos, he let them watch a porn vid they found. Would you be upset? Would you let him baby sit again? (Hint: if you would allow it, you lack the proper judgment to be left in charge of children.)
So you shouldn’t be surprised that, when you violate the rules set down by your children with respect to their own children, your kids don’t want you minding their kids anymore.
“But it’s not porn,” you say after letting them stay up past their bedtime to watch a Disney film. Or, “It was just an ice cream and it was really hot that day and little Sonny really liked it,” after the parent told you no ice cream. What if Sonny was lactose intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk or has issues with blood sugar? His parents don’t have to tell you his medical history—that is none of your business. You have an obligation, like every other babysitter, to stick to the dictates of the child’s parents whether you agree or not, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not. Deliberately going against the wishes of the parent of the child is a deep, lasting betrayal, guaranteed to damage the trust that parent has in you. The more often you do it, the more that trust is chipped away and if you have the audacity to try to defend yourself or, worse, try to make the parent feel like they are wrong, you are gouging huge chunks out of that parent’s trust.
You don’t care if the parent trusts you or not? Well, guess what got you into this situation, where you own child won’t speak to you and you can’t have any contact with your grandchildren? No parent worth the title exposes their children to people they cannot trust so if you destroyed your own child’s trust in you through your high-handed, disrespectful and entitled ways, your kid did what every self-respecting parent on the planet will do: cut you and your untrustworthy ways right out of their lives.
Perhaps you think your child is out of line by putting the grandchildren “in the middle.” Actually, it is you who are putting them in the middle by refusing to respect either their parents or their parents’ wishes. No child should have to witness their parents being treated disrespectfully nor should any child be cozened into taking part in behaviours that their parents disapprove of. It is you who are causing the rift by your simple act of believing you know better than the grandchild’s parents and acting like you have the right to override them and their authority. You don’t. And the parents are right to remove their children from being the centre of conflict and not allowing them to be treated like a bone caught between two fighting dogs. You have put those grandchildren in the middle by refusing to accede to their parents’ wishes and/or treating the parent(s) disrespectfully, and the parents have taken them out of the middle by removing them from the field of battle.
So let’s say you have finally—albeit reluctantly—come to the conclusion that it is your behaviour that prompted your child to remove your grandchildren from your life. And let’s further assume that you wish to make sincere amends so that you can see your grandchildren again. What now?
Well, like it or not, your child is now an adult and has an incontrovertible right to decide the conditions of her life—and in this regard, you have no rights whatsoever. None. Repeat that. Aloud. “I have no rights in this.” Repeat it over and over until you truly get it. You have NO rights in this, in your adult child’s life, in the lives of your grandchildren. You have no rights. None. Understanding this and accepting this is the first—and most essential—step in resolving the issue(s) that caused you to be denied contact with your grandchildren.
If you truly understand and accept this, then you also understand that any access to your adult children and grandchildren is a privilege and your adult child (or his/her significant other) is the only person who can grant you that privilege. And because they can grant it, they can also take it away. They have all of the rights here, not you. (And yes, again, I know about “grandparent’s rights” and also know that if you go that route you will never fix the problem that drove your child away, you will just entrench it permanently. See paragraphs 5 and 6.)
So what do you do when you want something from a person who has absolute power over giving it or withholding it? Why, you make sure this person sees you in a good light, right? Because if this person doesn’t, if this person is irritated with you, annoyed by you, afraid of you, doesn’t like you—if this person harbours any negative feelings towards you—the odds of you getting what you want start to slide, don’t they? So you need to be on this person’s good side, don’t you?
Your child is the gatekeeper to your grandchildren. So your adult child is the person whose good books you need to be in. How can you do that after you have already screwed it up so badly?
The very first thing you must do is to respect your child’s boundaries. All of them. Even the ones you don’t like or think are unfair. That includes the present boundaries set down by your child. This may seem counter-productive because respecting that boundary means going along with no contact with your grandchildren, the opposite of what you want.  But if you don’t respect this boundary, you are proving to your child that you are not trustworthy and every bad thing she thinks about you is true.
Next, you have to get over yourself. That means you have to change. And that means starting to take on board the perspective of other people. You have been so busy justifying yourself and trying to get your child to understand and agree with you (or browbeating, guilt-tripping, intimidating and manipulating your child into capitulating) that you have completely missed the fact this this is not a one-way street. Your child is entitled to a position and a point of view and what’s more, she is the one who has the rights, not you! You are so accustomed to being the boss in your relationship with your child you didn’t see that not only did her body grow up, so did her psyche—and she acquired some new rights and you lost some old ones. Catch up—she isn’t ten anymore and you don’t have any rights over her!
Adult children do not just “break up” with their parents whimsically and for no reason. In my experience (with hundreds of people over a five+ year span of time), the vast majority of adult children who sever relations with their parents do it after long months—even years—of agonizing and soul searching. Often times they try to have discussions, they send letters and emails, they try to have conversations on the phone, all without feeling like their parents have heard them or have any empathy for the pain they are feeling. Because, believe me, very few adult children sever ties with their parents without going through a lot of pain en route to the decision. So the odds are, your child has tried numerous times to get through to you to no avail.
So start with the reasons your child stopped contact with you. And don’t claim you don’t know, either. Odds are that you have been told—probably countless times—what to stop doing, what to back off from, what upsets your kid. And the odds also strongly suggest that you have either ignored or dismissed whatever your child said. You have called it “over-reacting” or “childish” or denied it happened or tried to justify or rationalize why it—whatever “it” was—was ok. You didn’t listen and, most importantly, you did not take your child seriously. And then something happened—like you showed up at a party you weren’t invited to, or you presumed to dictate something to your child, or you said something rude or snide or did something sneaky or underhanded—or high-handed and disrespectful—and that was the last straw for your adult child. They stopped responding to you, they may even have sent you a letter that said to just stay away, you might even have received a letter from a lawyer telling you to stay away. Whatever it was, something you did or said was, for your child, the final insult, the final betrayal, and now your child wants nothing to do with you and does not want you influencing her child.
So go back over what has been said to you. Things you discounted or dismissed, things you found absurd or petty. Things you did not take seriously. Take them seriously now. Use the next few months to walk in your adult child’s shoes, to examine your entitlement, your expectations, your perspective. Did you think your child should have been grateful when you bought the grandchild new shoes but she was angry instead? What did you take away from that disagreement? Did you think “She’s spoilt and ungrateful and I was only trying to help and besides, she can’t afford the shoes Sissie wants and I can so what’s the big deal?”? Did you stop to put yourself in her position? What if she was thinking “I already told Sissie she couldn’t have those shoes so she’s sneaking behind my back and you are helping her—and she knows it will work because you have done this kind of thing before, buying stuff for my kid without asking me first. You are teaching my child to be manipulative because you won’t consult with me!” Or maybe she was thinking “I don’t want you to corrupt my child with ‘stuff.’ I don’t want her to value people for what they can give her but for who they are. I want you to let me decide what my child can and cannot have. That’s my job, not yours!”
Go over every instance you can remember—and if your child wrote you a letter about what you have said and done that has upset her, take her every instance—and try to see it from her point of view. Don’t excuse yourself with rationalizations—truly try to see things from her perspective. You gave your grandchild a bicycle and your daughter blew up—did you ask if you could give the child a bicycle? Did the kid say “somebody stole my bike” and you swooped to the rescue? Did you give the parent a chance to tell you that the child has had three bikes stolen because she leaves them on the front lawn, unlocked and unattended? Did you know that she is not allowed to have another one until she demonstrates better responsibility and now you have made your daughter the bad guy because she had to lock this one away in order to go on with the lesson in responsibility she is trying to teach?
Maybe you can’t come up with some reason where you were wrong. My guess would be that means you aren’t really trying. Did your daughter do something you didn’t like and you scolded her like a naughty child? Where do you get the right to do that to another adult? Have you made assumptions—she’s going on holiday so you’ll go to the same place, assuming you are welcome? Did you try to impose your will on her taste for her wedding or her first house or your grandchild’s nursery because you think you know better than she does or, worse, you contributed to the cost? Wrong move—her life, her choices, her tastes, not yours!
Once you have reached a point at which you fully understand why your adult child has reached the end of her rope and cut you off, you should be feeling remorse. And embarrassment. And shame. Because you really were out of line and you really did do things that disrespected her and her autonomy. If you’re not feeling that way, then you don’t really understand and you need to go back to the soul searching and seeking the evidence in yourself and your behaviours that make up the truth of your adult child’s removal of herself and her children from your life. Until you “get” what you did and why your kid is upset with you, you are not ready for the next step, and getting what your kid is trying to get across to you may take professional help—like a therapist—and months…even years…before you are truly ready for the next step. And do not take that next step if you aren’t really ready or you will permanently screw this up.
Once you can empathize with your adult child and you are in a headspace that says “Wow, I don’t blame her for cutting me off—I was awful to her!” you are in the right frame of mind to attempt a reconciliation. Start with a letter and start that letter with your first apology: apologize for disrespecting her boundary with the letter. That should be your very first sentence: “Let me begin by apologising for violating the boundary you set when you said you did not want to be in contact with me anymore. I have spent our estranged time really working on understanding your point of view and it is important to me to tell you that I finally get it…”
Then tell the truth—don’t try to make it sweet and palatable, don’t use euphemisms in an attempt to soften it. “I have been awful to you. I realize that now and I am truly sorry.” You should be feeling shame when you write this, and you should be feeling humility because after you eat a few bushels of crow, you are going to have to swallow that crow along with your pride and ask for forgiveness. And worse, you are going to have to acknowledge that she is under no obligation to either forgive or believe you and if she does either one, let alone both, you are incredibly lucky. Because this is an uphill battle that you created for yourself and nobody can fix it but you—and she has nothing to lose by telling you to fuck off and leave her alone. You have to go into this with that in the forefront of your mind and with acceptance of that in your heart: you screwed this up, you screwed it up really bad, and if there is any coming back from it, it is going to be from the goodness of her heart. You had better hope you haven’t crushed that out of her.
Don’t tell her what you are going to do—that presumes that you know what she wants and in the past that hasn’t worked very well for you, has it? Stick to apologising, giving examples of where you screwed up, what you did wrong, what you should have done, then saying you are sorry and then empathising with the feelings your behaviour provoked in her. Ask for things, don’t tell—stay away from phrases like “talking this out” because that proves you don’t get it—she doesn’t want to talk anything out, she doesn’t need to talk it out and besides, there is nothing TO talk out: if you think there is, you still don’t get it.
Resolving your adult child’s issues with you basically comes in the form of you backing off from trying to run things. You don’t get to tell her what she needs (to talk it out), you don’t get to put your needs (like your need to understand) ahead of hers. You don’t get to put the burden of your understanding on her, either—that is your responsibility. You are no longer at the helm of her life and it is past time for you to get out of the driver’s seat and hand control over to her. If you are not willing to do that, if you find yourself saying or thinking “yes, but…” as you read this, you don’t get it yet, you aren’t ready to approach your estranged adult child, you need to shed some more of your effrontery and eat some more of that crow because if you don’t and you approach your child with a “yes, but...” mindset, I guarantee that you will cock it up and you will not get a second chance to fix this.
So, let’s say you’ve sent a letter and it has been favourably received. Is it all better now? Um, no—you have only just succeeded in getting her to give you an opportunity to prove to her that you have changed. The kind of change she is looking for is permanent—it means, in some ways, that you must become a different person than you have heretofore been. It means you cannot pretend to have changed in her presence, then go back home and bitch about what a bitch she has become or how incompetent she is to manage her affairs or how stupid she is to still be hooked up with that loser husband of hers. It means that you respect her choices even when you don’t agree with them. It means no passive aggressive remarks like “well, I guess is it your choice…” with a disapproving or sulky demeanour or tone. It means respecting her and her choices and loving her regardless of your disapproval or disappointment in choices she makes, especially things political or personal/lifestyle oriented. The only time your disapproval has any validity is if the situation is potentially life threatening, like a drug-fuelled lifestyle in which the children are exposed and even then, your place is not to condemn her, it is to support an effort on her part to change and see to the safety to your grandchildren through proper channels. Beware of using this manipulatively, however, by levelling false charges, because even if the authorities don’t come back on you for misusing the justice system, your estranged adult child will very likely become permanently estranged from you as a result. You will have proven yourself untrustworthy in the worst possible way and it is unlikely you will be able to recover from that.

The truth is, most parents from whom adult children become estranged are unwilling to humble themselves in the ways required to create a new, healthy, appropriate and respectful relationship with their estranged adult child. What they really want is to have their cake and eat it too: they want their adult child to resume the role they set up for her when she was a child and they want unfettered and uncontrolled access to their grandchildren. These people believe their estranged adult child is wrong and refuse to even address the possibility that they are the ones who are wrong. They therefore refuse to make any effort to change, instead making attempts to “talk through” an estrangement which is really just a euphemism for getting the adult child in a position where she cannot fight back and then browbeating her into submission and a return to her original role, a role in which you are in control of her life and she remains subordinate to you.
If you are thinking things like “I want my family back” and “things were fine until…” then you still don’t get it and your attempts at reconciliation will be viewed as disrespectful violations of the boundaries she set and unwanted intrusions into her private life. Only when you have given up the desire to put things back the way they were do you have any hope of resuming a relationship with your estranged adult child and those grandchildren because “the way things were” is exactly what hurt her and drove her away in the first place.
And just to be clear, that estranged adult child may well be a son rather than a daughter. And if you blame your daughter-in-law for causing the rift, if you believe that anything other than your own behaviour and lack of awareness of and empathy for your child’s feelings caused the split, then you need to go back to the beginning of this post and start reading all over again.
You broke this and if there is even a hint of a chance that it can be fixed, then it will only happen through you making serious changes in the way you (and your partner/spouse) view and treat your estranged adult child. And if you don’t want to do that, if you think you don’t need to change or it is too much work or you are too old, then what you are really saying is that you care more for your convenience than the happiness and well-being of your adult child and his/her immediate family.
And you know what? That is okay! What is not okay is hurting your adult child with your disrespect. Stick to your own way if you wish, but respect your adult child’s autonomy and leave her/him alone.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Identifying Emotionally Abusive Parental Behaviour

Ever wonder if what your NParent(s) did to you was really abusive? That wonderful paper entitled Emotional Abuse, Practice Guidance for Children’s Services1, referenced in my last blog entry had another very interesting section about identifying emotionally abusive parental behaviour. I am certain you will find familiar parallels between the examples contained in the paper (below) and your own experiences with narcissistic parents and authority figures. My comments appear in violet.

3.1 It is possible to identify examples of emotionally abusive parental behaviour.

Rejecting the child.
This may be active rejection, telling children they are unloved, and unwanted, or passive rejection, which is ignoring or failing to communicate with the child in any way and the absence of any demonstration of affection. Example from CP Listing of passive rejection: ‘the children, aged six months and two years, have to sit in darkness and when anyone visits they are always ‘asleep’. The mother ignores them until it is time for her to feed or dress them as if she were taking them out of a box.’
Active rejection—telling you that you are unloved or unwanted (or a mistake or an accident or a burden)—is hard to take but easy to grasp. Passive rejection, however, can be a little more difficult to recognize and easier to wish away with denial. People who habitually ignore you, walk away when you are talking to them, who turn away from affectionate gestures (like refusing an embrace or kiss), are rejecting you no less than those who tell you bluntly that you are not welcome in their lives.
With children the forms of passive rejection can be legion: discarding a child’s artwork (especially if another child’s is displayed), forgetting important things with respect to the child like dental or medical appointments, birthdays and other special events. A rejection can be as simple as repeatedly not attending events that are important to the child like sporting events or awards ceremonies or performances like school plays, choir or band concerts, awards ceremonies. Passive rejection is manifested more through failure to act than overt behaviours that clearly hurt. The parent who cannot be bothered to pick a child up from the bus stop, provide adequate supervision or bestir himself to do something supportive of the child is, by definition, passively showing disinterest in the child: rejection.

Denigrating the child.
The child is repeatedly told they are bad, worthless and is blamed for the problems in the family. The child may be humiliated and ridiculed both in isolation and in front of others, in particular, peer groups. Survivor statement: ‘I was well-built as a child and my father would say “you’ve a backside like a cow”. Once he took me to a potato weighing machine for a public weighing and subjected me to ridicule.’
The denigration does not have to be directly spoken. In fact, narcissists love “plausible deniability,” so it is not uncommon for the child of a narcissist to learn about how her parent is denigrating her through third parties. It is not uncommon for a parent to mount a smear campaign against the child, even a young child. Ascribing negative motives to a child’s age-appropriate behaviour and continuing this behaviour over the years creates an image in the minds of others of a child who is a sore trial to parent and elicits sympathy and admiration for the long-suffering parent.
There are, of course, children who are more challenging than others to raise. A compassionate, loving parent, however, will not denigrate the child to others. Except in appropriate circumstances (parent-teacher meeting, psychological assessment, etc.) such a parent will focus on the child’s strong points and positive aspects. He is artistic or likes to read or knows everything about dinosaurs, for example. A child need not be present to be affected by parental denigration because the parent’s negativity about his child creates an expectation in the minds of others, an expectation that will be transmitted to the child through the way he is treated.
Denigration of a child to his face, however, is devastating. My late husband, Charlie, grew up believing he was stupid because his mother told him he was. Charlie was, in fact, dyslexic and his dyslexia had never been appropriately addressed. Because he believed he was stupid, he made little effort in his life. I noticed that anything he heard—like on the news—he was capable of having an intelligent discussion about but he didn’t seem to like to read. It didn’t take long to discover the source of the problem and before long Charlie was understanding that he was not stupid, he simply had a treatable condition. I bought him books written at his reading level to get him reading, and began to teach him things like critical thinking and deductive logic—he grasped them quickly and became an erudite critic of political gamesmanship.
And then one Christmas Day we were at his brother’s house for dinner and his mother waved a bunch of legal papers he needed to sign with respect to an inheritance. He declined, saying he would take it to a lawyer for review. She went ballistic (he was no longer blindly compliant with her wishes and she didn’t like that at all) and told him “You are stupid! If you don’t sign these papers right now, you are stupid! Stupid!”
He went white. The shock on his face was obvious—he was stricken. He was 44 years old and his mother was calling him stupid in front of the assembled family and his fiancĂ©e (me). He just sat there, mouth agape, saying nothing. So I said “He’s not stupid and don’t call him that!”
And she replied “I am his mother, I will call him anything I want!”
Parental denigration of a child hurts, whether the child is still small or an adult, whether the child actually hears it or picks up on it from the way others treat him, whether it is true or not. It harms a child’s sense of self, it makes him feel incompetent as a human being, a feeling that hampers a child’s ability to succeed in life.
And parents who do this do it for their own gain, whether it is to excuse suspicions against them (are the child’s grades poor because he is stupid or because the parent gives no academic support or interest? If the child is stupid, the parent is off the hook) or to garner sympathy from those who feel badly for the parent of such a difficult child. But in no case does denigration of a child benefit that child.

Inducing fear/promoting insecurities.
The child is exposed to activities engineered for adults or adolescents of an older age, e.g. frightening funfair rides, horror films, fearsome adult computer games. Terrorising the child by holding them hostage, killing or injuring a loved relative or pet in front of the child and making severe threats. Creating insecurities by, for example, frequently leaving young children with different, strange carers. Encouraging children to believe that ghosts and monsters exist and then putting them to bed with the light off with comments that the ghosts/monsters will get them. Locking children in cupboards/dark places. Threatening to abandon the child. Survivor statement: ‘My father would make stabbing movements towards our eyes saying “I could kill you”. He stuck cigarettes into himself and cut himself in front of us saying he was indestructible.... He would sit there with a knife waiting for one of us to move.’
Parents induce fear and insecurity in children two ways: overtly and covertly. Some parents do it consciously and with full awareness, others do it without consciously realizing that their actions can emotionally cripple the child. When faced with the result of their actions, many of these parents will shield themselves with denial and blame the child. A few will acknowledge the harm of their actions and actually change.
The examples above show overt and conscious behaviours that can induce fear and insecurity in a child but the covert ways are no less damaging. Moving frequently so a child cannot put down roots, develop friendships, and become a part of a community of peers can create insecurity. Forcing a child to dress differently, to look different from his peers—keeping a teen girl in childish dresses or not allowing a teen boy to wear his hair in the latest teen fashion—alienates the child from his peers and creates social insecurity. Threats need not be overt to create fear—a chaotic home environment can spark both insecurity and fear. A substance-abusing parent or other household member can invoke fear and insecurity, as does a member whose lifestyle leaves him prone to visits from the authorities.
Even homes that look perfect from the outside can foster fear and insecurity in children. Some parents ascribe to rigid and punitive disciplinary beliefs while others are so laissez faire that the children are not secure in the knowledge that their parents will protect them. All of these situations are abusive because they create fear and insecurity in the child, and insecurity inculcated in the child early in life stays with the child.

Deliberately creating mental anguish, especially by maliciously denying the child something others in the family have, or vicious teasing/bullying. Survivor statement: ‘when it came to birthdays and Christmas, the other two (his brothers) had presents and parties. I was lucky if I got a card.’
I remember, one Christmas, finding a sealed white envelope among my Christmas gifts. My brother was excited about his fishing gear and gasoline-powered model airplane while I sat morosely with plastic bags of cheap cotton socks and tacky, ugly underpants. I opened the envelope and found an odd bit of money, like $1.42. This, my mother explained, was the difference between what she spent on him and what she spent on me—she was giving me the difference in cash to be “fair.” I sat there looking at my pile of cheap and sleazy Kmart undies and a few other equally disappointing gifts, then at my brother joyfully playing with exactly what he had requested for Christmas, and it didn’t feel fair to me at all.
Then my mother put her hand out for the money, saying she would keep it for me until I needed it, and I knew I would ever see it again. Did she do this deliberately to torment me? I will never know. Did it have that effect? Yes. I felt picked on, singled out, and unloved.
Some parents torment a child deliberately because it amuses them or because they think they are teaching the child some kind of lesson. Withholding dessert from an overweight child while giving it to her sisters is a form of torment in which the parents think they are doing the right thing: withholding calories from an overweight child and demonstrating to her that if she loses weight, she can then have dessert like her slimmer sisters.
Tormenting a child is abusive, whether it is deliberate or not. My mother used to stick her foot out when I walked by her chair and when I tripped over it, give me a dirty look accompanied with “Way to go, Miss Graceful,” as if I had tripped over my own feet (something she accused me of regularly). We were not allowed afternoon snacks and my mother was notoriously stingy at the dinner table (plus she was an awful cook), so I spent a good part of my childhood hungry. One afternoon she took out a tin that said “Peanuts” on the side and handed it to me to open. When my brother moved in to take it from me, my mother waved him off—a surprise to me that should have been a warning. When I finally wrested the cap free a coiled spring, covered in a reptile-print fabric, leapt out of the can making me shriek and then cry. Both my mother and my brother got a good laugh about this, and they both tormented me for my tears, my brother calling me a “big baby,” my mother saying I had no sense of humour and couldn’t “take a joke.” Nothing was safe in my mother’s house, not even the cans of food, and I was the family joke.

Inappropriate/inconsistent expectations/roles.
The child may be expected to support the parent, care for siblings or themselves (when they are too developmentally immature to do so), or perform tasks beyond their developmental ability. E.g. having to stay off school to look after an ill or disabled parent, change nappies, feed and supervise younger siblings and take them to school, make hot drinks for parents unsupervised, clean up after siblings/parents. The child may be given confusing messages, which they cannot understand because parents have inconsistent expectations or respond unpredictably. Example from CP Listing: ‘A girl aged six years has to clean herself up if she is sick or wets herself. She has to look after her parents and is the household drudge.’
Children often lack perspective and they are, by nature, narcissistic. As such, a child’s view of her position in the household is necessarily biased: what an adult would see as a child’s chores that are an acceptable contribution of labour to the household the child may see as being made the household servant. Revisiting the situation in later years, when the child has grown, will more than likely provide the necessary perspective.
That said, there are households in which the children are taxed with jobs and roles that are inconsistent with their age and physical development. Expecting a teen-aged child to mind his smaller siblings after school is an age-appropriate task; expecting an 8 year old to mind her 6 year old brother is not. Expecting a teen-aged child to do some meal prep tasks, including baking cookies or cupcakes is an age-appropriate task; expecting it of an 8 year old is not. Expecting a teen-aged boy to mow the lawn on a Saturday morning is both age and physically appropriate; expecting it of a 10 year old is not. And yet there are households in your town and mine that place the burdens of maintaining a household on the shoulders of young children. Certainly when both parents are working children may need to take a larger role in housekeeping but that does not excuse assigning work the child is too young or physically immature to do.
Worst, however, are the parents who parentify. They thrust onto young children burdens the parents are unwilling to take on themselves. In some cases the parents may be stupefied by drugs or alcohol but in others it is simply entitlement or opportunity: they have a kid to do it so they don’t have to. This is inherently wrong: children deserve to have a childhood free of the burdens and anxieties of adulthood and it is the parent’s job to provide that.
Parentifying can be taken to a dangerous extreme. When the mother has an abusive ex, for example, and she sends the children to answer the door when he shows up. Instructing the children to send him away, to lie and say she isn’t home, to put themselves in the middle between her and the threat, using them as a shield to protect herself. This is wrong, it is potentially dangerous for the children in the moment, and dangerous to the children’s developing minds, causing them to grow up thinking they are responsible for others even when those others are capable of being responsible for themselves.

This is the opposite of the above and taken to extremes, deprives the child of opportunities to develop friendships, activities and access experiences that would promote their development. The child is ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ and is not allowed to engage in messy play or get dirty in case they catch germs. Case example: A boy aged eight soils and wets himself in school because he does not know how to go to the toilet on his own. He is always dressed in very warm clothes, which he cannot take off even for P.E. He is not allowed to go swimming with the school in case he catches cold. He cannot stay for school dinners or eat while in school in case he chokes.
The children of narcissists seldom deal with over-protection, in its purest form, but many of us deal with enmeshment, which is its kissing cousin. In both cases the child can grow up feeling incompetent to care for himself in even small ways because the N parent is refusing to relinquish sufficient control to allow the child to learn age-appropriate self-care.
Also peculiar to the narcissistic parent is a kind of selective “over protection,” in which the child is prevented from age-appropriate learning opportunities and even denied age-appropriate social development while, at the same time, the parent overburdens the child with responsibilities that are beyond the child’s abilities. For example, I was minding my younger brother when I was only eight, expected to bake a cake twice weekly and clean the house including mopping and vacuuming. None of these tasks were appropriate to my age, size, and/or development: my brother was bigger than me, the cake required the use of a gas oven that had to be lit with a match (and I singed off my eyebrows more than once in that task), the mop and bucket were literally too big for me to manage and so was the clumsy old vacuum. That same parent, however, kept me without a bra until I wore a B-cup, dressed me in little girl dresses, wouldn’t let me shave my legs or underarms, or wear make up or high heeled shoes. A year with my father and step mother took care of the grooming issues but back in my mother’s house at age 16 she refused to let me learn to drive—and at no time was I allowed to have money or a bank account. So, basically, she was exploitive where it suited her and “overprotective” such that I could not successfully become independent. Because it impeded my age-appropriate development and it was an on-going issue, it was abusive.

Isolating the child.
This includes both social isolation and segregation within the home. Example from CP Listing: ‘the girl, aged 12, has to put her nightdress on straight after school so she cannot play with friends and is ashamed if anyone visits’.
This means keeping a child from associating with her peers, like not permitting her to play with friends, have sleepovers, join her friends after school at the mall or go to the movies with them. It means isolating the child not only through such restrictive practices but also by isolating the child by making them “different” so that she is shunned by her peers. This includes not allowing the child to dress similarly to her peers but also keeping her culturally ignorant: not permitted to watch TV shows that are popular amongst her peers or read magazines and websites that are part of the child’s age-relevant culture.
Isolating within the home not only means specifically removing the child from the rest of the household by sending him to his room when he is not engaged in work, but it also means creating an environment in which the child feels unwelcome amongst the rest of the family or even fearful of being with the family. If the child is picked on by a sibling or another member of the household and the parent does not intervene, if the child’s presence triggers other members of the household to send him to fetch and carry, like a servant, if the child has not been protected from abuse by one of the family members, the child may voluntarily withdraw in the interest of his own safety. This is creating an environment in which a child becomes isolated due to lack of support.
As a child I quickly learned that the safest place for me to be was out of my mother’s sight. If she didn’t see me she wasn’t reminded of me and if I wasn’t on her mind, I wasn’t likely to be pressed into service or treated to one of her diatribes about my hair, clothes, weight, posture, grades, or taste in boyfriends. It was just safer all around for me to stay out of sight.

Not recognising or acknowledging the child’s individuality or psychological boundary.
This involves denial of the child’s unique attributes of temperament and personality. The parents try to actively mould the child into meeting the parent’s emotional needs. The parent may have complicated misperceptions of the child and attribute feelings, wishes and motives to the child that belong in the parent or in their history. If the parent has an enduring, serious mental illness, they may actively involve the child in their misperceptions of the world about them. Although fabricated or induced illness falls within the definition of physical abuse it is a variant of this example.
The biggest incidence of this, I think, is parental projection. That can work several ways: 1) the parent projects his tastes onto the child; 2) the parent projects his behaviours/beliefs onto the child; 3) the parent perceives the child’s insistence on his individuality as defiance and rebellion.
In the first instance the parent’s projection can be as petty as insisting a child dislikes a vegetable the parent dislikes and as weighty as trying to force the child into a career path that was the parent’s dream. A blue collar worker may insist his child become a doctor because that is what he wanted to do; a doctor may insist his child follow in his footsteps or become a sports star because that was his dream. Regardless of what tastes the parent projects onto a child, whether it is food, fashion or a career path, the very fact of the projection dehumanizes the child because it tramples and ignores the child’s own tastes and desires.
In the second instance, the parent assumes that the child’s beliefs are the same as his are or were at the same age and therefore imputes onto the child the same behaviours. I experienced this as a teen when my mother would accuse me—and even punish me—for things that had never even crossed my mind. Many years later I learned from my uncle that my mother had frequently sneaked out of the house after her parents had gone to bed and she went to roadhouses and hung out with a fast crowd. Recalling her own misbehaviour as a teen, she assumed I was doing the same and punished me for it.
Other parents may assume the child shares their political or religious beliefs and values and signs the child up for such things as religious camps or political volunteer work. It doesn’t occur to such a parent that the child may hold other views and the child has either not expressed a contrary belief out of fear of retaliation or the child’s opposing views are denigrated and not accepted. “Oh, you don’t really believe that! How could you even think that is okay?”
In the third instance, the parent is so entrenched in his view of his child is an emotional and psychological clone that he treats the child’s overt insistence on individuality as a full-scale rebellion. An artistically-inclined child, for example, is signed up by a parent for soccer camp and the child’s refusal to cooperate (or simply to become a “star”) is treated like treason against the parent and possibly even the family.
What these all have in common is that they deny the child his actual personhood. The child and his real likes and dislikes, talents and interests, desires and dreams are trampled by the parents’ headlong rush into vicariously fulfilling their own ambitions through the children who are viewed as little more than conduits to the parents’ realization of aspirations heretofore denied them. This obliterates the child as a separate individual and makes him the extension of his parent(s) and this is abusive.

Corrupting the child.
This refers to parents who mis-socialise the child by actively involving them in criminal activities, or encouraging them to assault/abuse others. Example from CP Listing: ‘the boys were taught that they should fight the police and hit girls. They were encouraged to steal from shops. In the foster-home they were surprised the foster carers were buying items rather than stealing them.”
When we think of corrupting and mis-socialising a child we think of criminal activity as noted above. But there are other ways of mis-socialising and corrupting a child.
Young children are like little sponges. Whatever you soak them in, they absorb. A parent can corrupt his child by teaching him to disrespect others through teaching him racism, sexism, ageism. A parent can corrupt his child by teaching him entitlement so that when he grows up and joins the real world, he doesn’t know how to compromise and negotiate with others. A parent can corrupt a child by teaching him cynical and even untrue views of the world, by inculcating him with beliefs that impede his ability to integrate with the world he finds when he goes out into it, by teaching him specious beliefs over science, by teaching him entitlement due to his colour or nationality or religion or anything else. Such parents corrupt and mis-socialize their children by failing to give them the tools they need to succeed in the greater society outside the parents’ own personal enclave. This is abusive because they fail to prepare the child for the world as it is, not as the parents want it to be and now the child suffers because he doesn’t have the tools necessary to compete and succeed.

Exposing children to domestic violence.
Domestic violence is terrifying to experience and terrorizing to witness. Even if you, yourself, are not the perpetrator of domestic violence, by allowing your children to be exposed to it is still just as abusive as if you were perpetrating the violence yourself. Exposing children to domestic violence, whether you are the perpetrator, the victim or a bystander is abusive to the child.
While we do not have control over the behaviour of others, keeping children in an environment in which domestic violence occurs is still abusive. If, for example, you live with your parents and your father hits your mother and your children see this, you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If you believe an abuser’s promises to stop and you stay after he breaks that promise, you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If your partner or some other person abuses you—not just physically but emotionally as well—you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If you scream and call people names, throw things at them, threaten them or hit them, you are exposing your children to domestic violence.
What does a child get from this exposure? At first the child is frightened. They fear for themselves both directly and indirectly: will he hurt me? Who will take care of me if he hurts Mama? As time goes on, children can become inured to it, an unhealthy attitude in itself. Most of all, however, children learn that this is what a relationship looks like, sounds like, feels like. They grow up to become abusers themselves or to choose abusers for partners because this is what they know.
Any way you slice it, exposing children to any form of domestic violence is abusive.

It is interesting to read through these behaviours and see people and incidents from our own lives: with the exception of domestic violence, in one way or another, I could see my mother in every one of these behaviours and, if you count her beating me as domestic violence, then she even exposed us to that. But parental behaviour, to be abusive, does not have to be physical, it simply has to be detrimental to the emotional development and well-being of the child and to be a regular feature in the child’s life.
We ACoNs often question ourselves, wondering if what we endured growing up was normal or whether it was abusive. We have little experience with normal—indeed, normal is not easily quantified as normal can manifest in a bewildering variety of ways—and so we may not know how to recognize it opposite, abnormal. When abusive parental behaviour is commonplace, we tend to normalize it in our minds and from there, define “abusive” as anything we think is worse than what we endured. And this makes our definition of “abusive” very, very subjective.
But there is now an objective definition of emotional abuse, and part of identifying it involves recognising, analysing and identifying parental behaviours that result in the abuse of a child. Emotional abuse if often overlooked or down played but, in truth, it can be much more devastating to the developing psyche of a child than physical abuse.
Now you know.