Narcissistic Family Roles: The Complicated Dynamics of Narcissistic Families

A narcissistic family is one in which the parents are excessively preoccupied with their own needs and desires, to the exclusion of their children’s needs and development. The parents may be so wrapped up in their own lives that they have little time or energy for their children, or they may be so controlling and demanding that the children feel constantly stressed and anxious. In a narcissistic family, the children learn to put the needs of the parents before their own, and they may develop distorted views of themselves and others as a result. There are four main roles in a narcissistic family – the narcissist, the enabler, the golden child, and the scapegoat.

In this blog post, I will discuss what each of these narcissistic family roles entail. I will also consider the impact on the person who is forced into each role and the long term outlook for each member of the narcissistic family.

Narcissistic Family Roles

Narcissistic families invariably have one member who is the centre of attention and who demands constant admiration and approval. This is the narcissist, who uses the other members of the family, including the children, to meet their own needs for admiration and approval, while being emotionally unavailable and never giving anything back.

The narcissist is usually the parent, but on occasion it can also be an older sibling.

The narcissist might have overt narcissistic characteristics, such as grandiosity or lack of empathy. They could also display covert characteristics, such as perfectionism or hypersensitivity. In some cases they might even exhibit a mix of both.

The four main narcissistic family roles

The narcissist is the dominant figure in the family and controls everyone’s actions. They are always seeking attention and validation, and they will go to great lengths to get it, even if it means belittling, criticising or humiliating other family members.

The enabler is usually the other parent, and their role in the narcissistic family is to help the narcissist maintain their control over other family members and to do whatever it takes to please them. They make excuses for the narcissist’s behaviour and try to keep the peace at all costs.

Enablers are often co-dependent on the narcissist and have difficulty standing up to them. Over time they usually end up feeling used, unappreciated and resentful.

The golden child is the narcissist’s favourite child, and they are often given special treatment and privileges that other family members don’t have. The golden child is expected to meet the high standards that the narcissist sets, and they often feel that they cannot ever live up to their parents’ expectations, which can lead to anxiety and depression. As the golden child grows older, they may start to feel like they are living in the shadow of the narcissist and may develop their own narcissistic tendencies.

The scapegoat is the family member who absorbs all of the narcissist’s anger and blame. They are treated unfairly and made to feel like they are never good enough. The scapegoat grows up feeling isolated, misunderstood and resentful.

Other less common narcissistic family roles

The narcissistic family roles I described above are the most common, however there are other less common roles that can occur in a narcissistic family.

The lost child is a family member who retreats from the dysfunction of their environment in order to survive. They may choose to focus on personal interests as a way of coping and finding solace during challenging times. While this can be an effective way of dealing with trauma, these children ultimately still need to process what they are going through.

The invisible child is often a forgotten member of the family, ignored by the narcissist and left to handle the pain and suffering of their traumatic childhood. They have no option but to fend for themselves in order to survive.

Loving parents encourage their children to be kind and close to one another. Narcissistic parents, on the other hand, pit their children against each other and try to turn them into enemies. This is why siblings living in a narcissistic family seldom develop any emotional bonds with one another.

The Unspoken Rules and Secrets of Narcissistic Families

In narcissistic families each family member is walking through a minefield of unspoken rules dictated by the narcissistic parent. Children must adhere to the family legends and mandates issued by the narcissist in order to be accepted.

The narcissistic parent will make the life of any child who does not conform a living hell, sometimes directly and at other times through triangulation or abuse by proxy – using other family members as their flying monkeys.

Everyone is required to submit to the narcissist’s command, no matter how ignorant, capricious, unpleasant, or abusive it may be.

A constant blame game

If something goes wrong, the narcissist will immediately point their finger at anyone other than themselves. Obviously that someone can never be the narcissist or the golden child. Typically, it is the family scapegoat who bears the main burden of the family’s issues, frustration, and unhappiness, as well as the dominant narcissist’s projected self-loathing.

Unfortunately, the scapegoat often experiences this shaming treatment for years, and the impact on their self-esteem can be crippling. Despite the fact that the scapegoat is the one who is subject to the most abuse, everyone is on edge since no one is safe from blame and rage.

Children frequently have to make a decision between their parents, siblings, and other family members. Consequently, there are always multiple battlefronts, and if you are not on the narcissist’s side, you will be in the line of fire.

Family members have to uncomplainingly tolerate the narcissistic parent’s deranged, explosive, and potentially violent fury, which might be amplified by various forms of mental illness or addiction.

What is the outlook for each of these narcissistic family roles?

The outlook for each of these narcissistic family roles is highly dependent on the individual. Some people are able to break free from the narcissistic family dynamic and the roles assigned to them by the narcissist, and lead healthy, happy lives. Others might struggle for many years and end up developing their own narcissistic tendencies.

If you are the narcissist:

The first step is to recognise that you have a problem and that your behaviour is impacting negatively on your family members. Once you have done this, you can start to work on changing your behaviour. This will be a difficult process, but it is possible with dedication and hard work.

If you are the enabler:

The enabler believes that they are the only one who can help the narcissist and they feel responsible for them. In addition, the narcissist has usually brainwashed the enabler into a state of learned helplessness. As a result they simply do not have the strength to stand up to the narcissist or to walk away.

That said, it is not impossible to break free from the stranglehold of the narcissist. Working on co-dependency issues is a good place to start. This will help you to break free from the toxic relationship with the narcissist and learn how to set boundaries. It is also important to learn how to communicate effectively with the narcissist so that you can start to express your needs and wants.

If you are the golden child:

It is important to recognise that you are not responsible for meeting the narcissist’s high standards. You are your own person and you should live your life in a way that makes you happy. Work on developing healthy relationships with other family members so you don’t become yet another weapon in the narcissist’s arsenal.

If you are the scapegoat:

There is not much a scapegoat can do to change the role their narcissistic parent has cast them in. Unfortunately the only solution for many scapegoats when they grow up is to distance themselves as much as possible from the toxicity of their family of origin.

It is important to recognise that the narcissist’s behaviour is not your fault. You are not responsible for their anger or their need to control others. It is also important to build up a support network of family and friends who understand what you are going through. These people can provide you with the love and support that you need to heal from the narcissistic family dynamic.

If you are the lost child:

The impact on the lost child can be lessened by maintaining outside interests and hobbies. It is also important to build strong relationships with people who understand and support you. These relationships can provide you with a sense of belonging and help you to feel less isolated from the world.

If you are the invisible child:

It is important to focus on your own needs and wants. The narcissist has likely been ignoring you for many years, so it is time to start putting yourself first. It is also important to develop healthy relationships outside of the family so that you have people to turn to for support. You might also want to consider therapy as a way of dealing with the pain of being ignored by the narcissist.

No matter what role you play in a narcissistic family, it is important to remember that you are not responsible for the narcissist’s behaviour. The abuse and bad behaviour is a choice that the narcissist makes and you are not responsible for their choices. You can, however, take steps to improve your own wellbeing and create a better life for yourself. Seek out support from family and friends, or consider therapy as a way of dealing with the pain of being in a narcissistic family.

It’s important to ask for help

The pathological dynamics in narcissistic families are incredibly destructive and damaging to all members involved. Furthermore, the secretive nature of these relationships often means that those involved are unable to speak out or seek help, leading to further toxic cycles of emotional and psychological abuse.

It is vital for family members who have experienced or are experiencing narcissistic abuse to take steps towards getting the support they need in order to break free from the destructive cycle and create positive change in their lives. It requires strength and courage, but professional guidance and understanding can help provide a safe space to unpack feelings, rebuild self-esteem, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. With the right support system in place, it is possible to move forward in life feeling empowered rather than requiring secrecy or isolation.

For Further Reading

You might also want to check out the following posts about narcissistic families and the impact of childhood trauma:

And finally, this is my story. I was the scapegoat daughter of a narcissistic father.

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