Narcissistic Family Roles – The Complicated Dynamics of Narcissistic Families

A narcissistic family is one in which at least one of the parents is narcissistically preoccupied with their own needs and desires, to the exclusion of their children’s needs and development. Within this toxic dynamic, various narcissistic family roles emerge, each playing a crucial part in how the family operates.

These roles are not merely titles.

They reflect patterns of behavior, expectations, and interactions within the family structure.

From the ‘golden child,’ who can do no wrong in the eyes of the narcissistic parent, to the ‘scapegoat,’ who bears the brunt of all family issues, these roles significantly impact the mental and emotional health of the individuals involved.

These ‘narcissistic family roles‘ serve as a coping mechanism for the family to function around the narcissist’s needs.

However, they contribute to a highly damaging environment where empathy, mutual respect, and healthy communication are lacking.

Understanding these roles provides a clearer lens to view and navigate the complexities of a narcissistic family, offering a path towards healing and healthier relationships.

There are Four Main Roles in a Narcissistic Family

Expanding on the roles in a narcissistic family, we can identify four main characters: the narcissist, the enabler, the scapegoat, and the lost child.

The Narcissist: This person is the central figure around which the entire family orbits. They need constant attention and validation, becoming hostile if they do not get the narcissistic supply they so desparately crave.

The Enabler: Usually a spouse or partner, the enabler often strives to maintain a semblance of normalcy within the family. They may justify or deny the narcissist’s behavior, inadvertently supporting and perpetuating the toxic environment.

The Scapegoat: The scapegoat is typically a child who is blamed for the family’s problems. They bear the brunt of the narcissist’s anger and are often subjected to emotional and sometimes physical abuse.

In addition to these roles, narcissistic families occasionally have a “caretaker/placater,” and a “mascot/clown”. These roles highlight the various coping mechanisms children in such families may adopt to survive the toxic environment.

unhappy 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.

couple fighting

The Narcissistic Parent

In a narcissistic family structure, the narcissist is the pivotal figure whose needs, desires, and whims dictate the dynamics of the entire family.

Here are some salient characteristics and behaviors of a narcissist in such a family setting:


A narcissist’s world revolves around themselves; their needs and wants always take precedence over others’.

In a family situation, this can mean that they expect their demands to be met without question.

They often disregard the feelings or needs of other family members, creating an environment where everyone else’s needs become secondary.

angry woman

Excessive Need for Admiration

Narcissists have an insatiable need for constant attention and admiration. They constantly seek validation from their family members.

Any failure to provide this admiration or attention can trigger anger or resentment.

This excessive need for admiration can put undue pressure on family members, who may find themselves constantly trying to appease the narcissist.

Lack of Empathy

One of the most distinctive traits of narcissists is their inability or unwillingness to empathize with others.

They will often not even consider the emotions and needs of their family members.

This lack of empathy can make it difficult for family members to form meaningful emotional connections with the narcissist, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

angry man

Manipulative Behavior

Narcissists are known for their manipulative tactics. They may use guilt, shame, or fear to control and influence their family members.

This manipulation can create a toxic family environment where family members feel constantly under pressure to meet the narcissist’s expectations.

Aggression and Abuse

Narcissists can be verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abusive. They often resort to belittling, criticizing, or even humiliating other family members to assert their dominance.

This aggressive behavior can cause significant emotional distress and can damage the self-esteem and mental health of family members.

Unreliability and Dishonesty

Narcissists are fundamentally untrustworthy due to their willingness to do whatever it takes in order to come out on top.

They will lie or distort the truth to maintain their image or control over the family.

This dishonesty creates an environment of distrust within the family, making it impossible for family members to rely on the narcissist.

narcissist does not take responsibility

Denial of Responsibility

Narcissists often refuse to take accountability for their actions. Instead, they tend to blame others, especially their scapegoat, for any problems or failures.

This denial of responsibility can further fuel the toxic dynamics within the family, as the narcissist never acknowledges their role in creating issues.

narcissistic family roles - enabler

The Four Main Narcissistic Family Roles – The Enabling Parent

In a narcissistic family, the enabling parent plays a crucial role in maintaining the unhealthy dynamics.

Either consciously or unconsciously, they allow the narcissist to continue their destructive behaviors.

Here are some key characteristics and behaviors of an enabling parent:

enabling parent

Denial and Minimization

One of the most common traits of an enabler is denial.

They often refuse to acknowledge the narcissist’s harmful behavior or its impact on the family.

This can extend to minimizing the severity of the narcissist’s actions, downplaying them as normal or not as bad as they seem.

This denial serves as a protective mechanism that helps the enabler cope with the situation.

Avoidance of Conflict

Enablers typically avoid conflict at all costs.

They tend to placate the narcissist in order to keep the peace, even if it means ignoring the needs or feelings of others in the family.

This avoidance can lead to further harm as it allows the narcissist’s damaging behavior to continue unchecked.

 the enabler

Justification of the Narcissist’s Actions

Often, the enabler justifies the narcissist’s behavior in order to rationalize what’s happening.

They might make excuses for the narcissist, attributing their actions to stress, work pressure, or even past traumas.

By doing so, they inadvertently support the narcissist’s behavior and propagate the toxic environment.

Lack of Boundaries

Enablers often struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries.

They may allow the narcissist to overstep limits without consequences, further encouraging their destructive behavior.

This lack of boundaries often results in the enabler and other family members feeling disrespected or violated.

refusing to listen

Sacrifice of Self and Others

The enabling parent frequently sacrifices their own needs and desires to cater to the narcissist.

They may also sacrifice the well-being of their children by not protecting them from the narcissist’s harmful actions.

This self-sacrifice often leads to feelings of resentment and emotional exhaustion.


Enablers often exhibit codependent behavior.

They may feel responsible for the narcissist’s emotions or actions and work tirelessly to manage these, often at the expense of their own well-being.

This codependency can create an unhealthy cycle where the enabler becomes reliant on the narcissist’s approval or affection.

refusing to see

The Golden Child

In a narcissistic family the “Golden Child” is a specific child who is excessively favored or idealized by the narcissistic parent.

This status can lead to distinct behaviors and characteristics, which are both a result of the narcissist’s influence and the child’s coping mechanisms.

High Achievement

The golden child is often expected to excel in various areas such as academics, arts, sports, or any other field that the narcissistic parent values.

The parent projects their own aspirations onto the child, who then feels immense pressure to achieve and maintain this high standard.

the golden child

Privileged Status

The golden child usually enjoys a privileged status within the family.

They receive more attention, praise, and resources from the narcissistic parent.

However, this privilege often comes with strings attached, as the child is expected to comply with the narcissist’s demands and expectations.

Lack of Authenticity

Given their role, the golden child often struggles to develop an authentic sense of self.

They may suppress their own desires, opinions, and feelings to conform to the image that the narcissistic parent has created for them.

This can lead to identity issues later in life.

Sense of Entitlement

Being constantly placed on a pedestal can lead to a sense of entitlement.

The golden child might start to believe they are superior to their siblings or peers.

This can result in arrogance, lack of empathy, and difficulty in forming equal, respectful relationships.

golden child

Guilt and Confusion

Despite the seemingly preferential treatment, the golden child often experiences guilt and confusion.

They may feel guilty for the unfair treatment of their siblings and confused about their role in the family.

They may also feel trapped, unable to express discontent or dissatisfaction for fear of losing their golden child status.

Emotional Dependence

Golden children may become emotionally dependent on the narcissistic parent.

Their self-worth is tied to the narcissist’s approval, and they may constantly seek validation from the parent.

This dependence can make it challenging for them to form healthy, independent relationships in adulthood.

sad girl

The Four Main Narcissistic Family Roles – The Scapegoat

In a narcissistic family, the “Scapegoat” is a term used to describe a family member who is habitually blamed and criticized by the narcissistic parent.

The scapegoat often bears the brunt of the narcissist’s aggression and disappointment.

This role can lead to a variety of distinct behaviors and characteristics.

Frequent Criticism and Blame

The scapegoat is frequently subjected to criticism and blame, even for incidents beyond their control.

They are often held responsible for the family’s problems or the narcissist’s unhappiness.

This continuous negative feedback can severely damage the scapegoat’s self-esteem and self-worth.

young woman crying

Resistance and Rebellion

As a result of the constant criticism, the scapegoat might develop a rebellious streak.

They may challenge the narcissistic parent’s authority and resist their toxic behavior more than other family members.

This resistance can be a healthy response, but it often leads to more punishment from the narcissist.

Emotional Strength

Despite the abuse, scapegoats often develop an emotional resilience and strength that sets them apart.

They learn to endure and cope with adversity, which can make them more capable of handling life’s challenges as they grow older.

isolation -

Feelings of Isolation

The scapegoat often feels isolated and excluded from the family unit.

They may feel unloved or unwanted, leading to feelings of loneliness and rejection.

This isolation can have long-term impacts on their ability to form close relationships.

Self-Doubt and Insecurity

Continual blame and criticism can foster self-doubt and insecurity in the scapegoat.

They may constantly question their worth and capabilities, leading to anxiety and depression.


Seeking External Validation

Given the lack of validation at home, the scapegoat may seek approval and acceptance from outside the family.

They might work hard to excel in areas like academics, sports, or other social activities to gain positive recognition.

Strong Sense of Justice

Often, scapegoats develop a strong sense of justice and fairness due to their experiences.

They are likely to stand up against injustice and may be more empathetic towards others who are mistreated.


Less Common Narcissistic Family Roles

The Caretaker/Placater

In a narcissistic family, the “Caretaker” or “Placater” is a member who often takes on the role of appeasing the narcissist and maintaining peace within the family.

This role usually involves sacrificing personal needs to cater to the demands of the narcissist.

Here are some of the key characteristics and behaviors of the caretaker/placater:

Peacemaker Role

The caretaker often serves as the peacemaker within the family.

They try to prevent conflicts and diffuse tense situations, often by placating the narcissist or mediating between the narcissist and other family members.

This constant need to maintain peace can be emotionally draining.

the peacemaker


One of the defining traits of a caretaker is self-sacrifice.

They frequently put the needs and wants of the narcissist and other family members before their own.

While this might seem noble, it often leads to neglect of their own emotional and mental well-being.

High Empathy

Caretakers typically possess a high level of empathy.

They are sensitive to the moods and feelings of others, which allows them to anticipate and respond to the narcissist’s demands.

However, this heightened sensitivity can also make them more susceptible to emotional manipulation.


Suppression of Personal Feelings

Caretakers often suppress their own feelings to avoid triggering the narcissist.

They may hide their sadness, anger, or frustration, leading to an internal build-up of emotions.

Over time, this repression can result in anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

Need for Approval

The caretaker often seeks approval from the narcissist.

They may strive to meet the narcissist’s expectations, even if it means compromising their own values or desires.

This need for approval can stem from low self-esteem and a fear of rejection.


Difficulty Setting Boundaries

Caretakers often struggle to set and maintain boundaries.

They may allow the narcissist to overstep their limits without asserting themselves.

This lack of boundaries can lead to feelings of being disrespected or violated.

Caretaking in Other Relationships

The caretaker role often extends beyond the family.

Caretakers may find themselves drawn to relationships where they can continue their caretaking behaviors, in the process finding themselves in codependent relationships.

This could be in friendships, romantic relationships, or even professional settings.

 the clown

The Mascot/Clown

In a narcissistic family, the “Mascot” or “Clown” is a family member who uses humor as a survival strategy amidst the toxic environment.

They often play the role of the entertainer, using humor to deflect tension and conflict within the family.

Here are some of the key characteristics and behaviors of the mascot/clown:

Use of Humor

The most defining trait of a mascot is their use of humor in stressful situations.

They often crack jokes, make funny faces, or perform antics to lighten the mood when tensions rise in the family.

This humor, however, can sometimes be a mask for their pain and discomfort.

narcissistic family roles - the clown

Attention Seeker

The mascot often seeks attention from the family members, particularly the narcissistic parent.

They come to believe that being the center of attention through humor is the only way they can receive validation or approval.

Emotional Distraction

The mascot’s humor serves as a distraction from the emotional turmoil within the family.

By making others laugh, they shift the focus away from the family’s problems, providing temporary relief for everyone, including themselves.

Difficulty Expressing Emotions

Despite their jovial exterior, mascots often struggle to express their true feelings.

They may hide their sadness, anger, or fear behind a smile or a joke.

This suppression of emotions can lead to internal stress and anxiety.

sad clown

High Energy

Mascots generally display high energy levels.

Their lively and animated nature often makes them the life of the party.

However, this constant need to entertain can be exhausting and emotionally draining.

Struggle with Seriousness

While humor can be a useful coping mechanism, mascots often struggle to deal with serious situations appropriately.

They may use humor to avoid confronting their feelings or dealing with difficult circumstances, which can hinder their ability to resolve problems effectively.

Risk of Substance Abuse

In some cases, the mascot may be at risk of substance abuse.

The constant pressure to entertain and hide their true feelings can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including alcohol or drug use.

sad clown

The Unspoken Rules and Secrets of Narcissistic Families

Living within a narcissistic family often involves navigating a complex labyrinth of unspoken rules, expectations, and secrets.

At the heart of this family dynamic is the narcissistic parent, who dictates these rules and expects unwavering compliance.

The Narcissist’s Command is Supreme

In a narcissistic family, the narcissist holds the ultimate authority.

Their word is law, and every family member is expected to conform, regardless of the irrationality or harm their commands may cause.

This authoritarian rule creates an environment where fear and obedience reign, suppressing any form of individuality or dissent.

The Unspoken Rules and Secrets of Narcissistic Families

Maintain the Family Image

One of the primary unspoken rules in a narcissistic family is the preservation of the family’s outward image.

The family is often portrayed as a picture-perfect unit, with the narcissist at its helm.

Any evidence to the contrary, such as conflicts, emotional distress, or abuse, must be carefully concealed from outsiders.

Triangulation and Abuse by Proxy

The narcissistic parent may employ tactics like triangulation or abuse by proxy to maintain control.

They could manipulate other family members, also known as ‘flying monkeys‘, to enforce their rules and punish those who defy them.

This strategy not only allows the narcissist to exert power indirectly but also creates division and mistrust within the family.

flying monkeys

No Room for Individuality

In a narcissistic family, individuality is often suppressed.

Each family member is expected to fulfill a specific role that serves the narcissist’s needs.

Any attempts to deviate from these assigned roles or express personal desires can be met with severe consequences, leading to a loss of self-identity among the family members.

Silent Compliance

Silent compliance is another hallmark of a narcissistic family.

Questions, criticism, or open defiance against the narcissist’s rules are strictly forbidden.

Family members learn to suppress their feelings and agree with the narcissist to avoid conflict, further reinforcing the narcissist’s control.

woman whispering

Final Thoughts About Narcissistic Family Roles – 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.

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