How do narcissistic parents create narcissistic children

Narcissistic mothers

How does narcissism affect upbringing and can the (self-) destructive consequences be overcome? A guest contribution by Ulrike Hinrichs

People with narcissistic disorder have often had a stressful childhood and split off their injuries. Narcissism is a so-called spectrum disorder, the degrees of expression are different. With this post I would like to explain the influence of narcissistic mothers on their daughters and give creative impulses from the destructive legacy. This is not about indicting the mothers, but about supporting daughters.

Narcissistic mothers have a highly damaging influence on their daughters, from which the children often suffer throughout their lives. Narcissistic mothers compensate for their low self-esteem with overestimation of themselves and fantasies of omnipotence. They devalue people and thus upgrade themselves. They evaluate, control, manipulate, are jealous and compete with their daughters. Narcissists don't mind boundaries. And above all, they are hardly capable of empathy. Narcissists cannot empathize with people because deep down they feel a lack, an insatiable hunger, as the American psychotherapist Susan Forward describes it. This void cannot be filled.

Forward finds an impressive metaphor for the "hunger ghosts" from Asian mythology, “Creatures with excessive bellies that long to satisfy their hunger, but with tiny mouths and thin necks, never get satisfied.“[1] Therefore, narcissists resort to brutal means to enhance self-worth. They devalue, insult and destroy others. As mirrors of their mother, daughters receive special treatment. Often the mother's own unreflected shadows are projected onto the daughter. The wounds of maternal-narcissistic behavior lead to poisoned roots. They are stuck deep inside like a stubborn weed.

As an art therapist, I believe in the supportive power of artistic expression, which can show the unspeakable and bring new impulses into old patterns. The artistic-creative process can intuitively support women in bringing the toxic messages and injuries into the air so that the wounds can be exposed and healed in the first place. Because one of the most serious consequences of a narcissistic upbringing is that you no longer feel yourself and do not trust your perceptions.

A dilemma for narcissistic daughters is that the family often appears stable to the outside world, but there is no congruent communication between mother and daughter. There is no resonance relationship, no authentic being in contact, no being related to one another. [2] Resonance implies vulnerability, the ability to make oneself vulnerable. [3] But this is just not possible for narcissists. Narcissistic personalities require a high degree of control over their own feelings and the feelings of their children in order to maintain their created self-image and family image. Everything has to be perfect, mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. There is also the tacit agreement that this narcissistic family dynamic will not be discussed, let alone conveyed to the outside world, according to the psychotherapist Mc Bride, who compares it to the beautiful apple, which is perfect on the outside, but confused on the inside. [4]

Daughters of narcissistic mothers learn very quickly to suppress their own feelings and instead orient themselves to the sensitivities of the mother. There is no way for narcissistic daughters to develop their personality freely; they act like a remote-controlled toy, like a puppet. They work as well as they can in the hope of avoiding their mother's rejection. But they will never be able to achieve the mother's approval. The daughter learns to no longer trust her own feelings and abilities. It's a creeping, toxic process.

Nazist mothers act lovelessly, sometimes even brutally. When I cried and sought consolation as a little girl, I would regularly hear sharp sentences from my mother like "Come on" or "Pull yourself together". There was no consolation and no hugs. Instead of "I love you" she said "Nobody can take it with you anyway". The behavior of the mothers is devoid of empathy. Lack of compassion is one of the main characteristics of narcissism. Because narcissistic mothers would have to go into resonance with their own feelings for this, which they cannot do because of their own injuries.

I remember my pet, my turtle, which I loved very much. She was my ally, my consolation giver. After it died, my mother threw the animal in the garbage can and laughed as she told me. Many of those affected report similar stories. This emotional brutality in word and deed is almost unbearable for children. You feel guilty and passed out. Because of their dependence on their mother, there are feelings of insecurity and powerlessness up to fear of death, as the children fear being abandoned because of their alleged wrongdoing. The narcissistic mother views and shapes her daughter as a same-sex image, as her expanded self.

As long as the daughter behaves according to the mother's ideal, there can also be benevolent messages. Deviations by the daughter from the desired behavior are punished, for example with withdrawal of support. These incalculable ambivalences lead to great uncertainty among the daughters.

As the child of a narcissistic mother, those affected feel trained and trained. You feel great fear and insecurity. There are also mothers who become physically violent. In this way the child learns to suppress its own needs and to align itself with the mother's mood with very fine antennae. Because often one glance is enough to realize that mother's mood has changed unfavorably. The messages are sent in a subtle way, they work like a secret code. The dynamics of manipulation, devaluation and evaluation are often not visible from the outside. The mother's behavior is passive-aggressive, so that she can deny at any time that she said or meant something like that. Constructive arguments, criticism and discussions are taboo. If they appear, the impulses are nipped in the bud. Because the mother is always right. Narcissists can hardly bear to be criticized. A child adapts sensitively to the mother's often hidden demands and feels what she wants and needs. These subtle messages also include evaluations by comparing them with others. Children disconnect from their feelings and learn to perceive the very subtle moods and sub-tones.

Another sign of narcissistic treatment is reversal of the relationship. Narcissistic mothers often allow their daughters to care for them while their children are neglected. In order to maintain their exaggerated self-image, narcissistic mothers even compete with their daughters, one of the most difficult issues for daughters who want to develop in their femininity. Narcissistic mothers either dismiss a partner of the daughter or flirt with them themselves. As a teenager, a time of approaching the adventure of love, one cannot classify this behavior of the mother at all. Something is wrong, but you don't know what it is. As an adult daughter, these mechanisms are better recognized, but they continue to have a disturbing effect. Envy as the sister of the competition is also a very pronounced symptom of narcissists. If the daughter is the center of attention to the detriment of the mother, then it will happen that the narcissistic mother takes back attention by destroying the situation.

The consequences of such childhood experiences are diverse and can be summarized as follows:

  • Disconnection from one's own feelings, numbness,
  • Inner emptiness,
  • A lack of (basic) trust, a lack of security, great existential fears,
  • Problems with your own space (setting limits),
  • Loss of one's own sense of time (consequences of outside control),
  • Feelings of guilt when pursuing one's own interests
  • Relationship problems, destructive relationship patterns,
  • Helper syndrome,
  • lack of self-worth / self-love,
  • Performance orientation versus self-sabotage,
  • Self-harming behavior,
  • Control and perfectionism,
  • Danger of own narcissistic traits.

A great strength of daughters who grew up under narcissistic mothers is that they can perceive very precisely, vibrations, moods, taboos, the unspoken. The daughters were trained to care for their mother "Not to cause grief"so as not to stir up their anger. And this gift, if the daughter has recognized her, can also be used for herself, for self-healing. First of all, this includes the great challenge of first feeling again and learning to trust your own feelings. When we really feel the burdensome feelings within us, they become guides for the soul. Feeling means that one must first allow and perceive the pain of the past. It is helpful to do this under professional guidance from psychotherapy.

Artistic processes can support this path (see also my article Art, Nature and Health). Brown compares art among all the categories that man creates as the one that most closely resembles being human. “It is our nature to be imperfect. Having uncategorizable feelings and emotions. Making or doing things that sometimes don't necessarily make sense. Art is simply something completely imperfect "says Brown. [5]

As the daughter of a narcissistic mother, however, you've just learned to be perfect. First of all, therefore, it is important to recognize one's imperfection and to learn to love. Therefore it is not about "perfect" painting, but about artistic expression beyond evaluation. Creative work is self-expression and helps in self-healing, as I have described in detail in my book "Art as Language of Intuition". [6] This universal language works beyond reason. On the one hand, artistic creation works - and that may seem banal at first, but it is not - on the physical level. Holding the pen, swinging the brush, moving the hand, the whole body leads us back to feeling. In artistic creation we also go into resonance with colors, shapes and often completely unnoticed with the buried themes and the pain. The creative expression revives the frozen feelings. Intuition expressed in art enables sensitive hunches of what wants to be seen. As a practical example, I would like to show the idea of ​​artistically implementing your own photos of children.

Approaching the troubled past can succeed by approaching our childhood artistically. Delving into childhood can be emotionally challenging. Looking at yourself in a photo from childhood that has captured a moment that touches us often reactivates the troubled situation. For the task you intuitively look for children's pictures from old photo albums. Which photo magically attracts me when I go through the albums? You can be guided intuitively and simply take the photo that is touching you. It will be the right one (trust!). The subsequent artistic implementation is not about a real image of the photo. Rather, we try to resonate with the younger self that shimmers through in the photo. The default photo often restricts our view. How should I paint my hand, shape my mouth, how do I create a resemblance?

We can overcome this perfectionism with a few tricks, because it is not about a copy of the photo, it is about establishing contact with a feeling. Photos show a frozen moment of the living. This holding on, however, is more of a standstill. [7] Only the contact via the (imperfect, very individual) artistic expression brings the picture back to life with feelings.

In principle, any material is suitable for implementation. Watercolors, for example, are a good way of doing this. Because the water colors run into each other so that we have to get involved in the surprising and the unwanted. You can even deliberately incorporate stains and flaws into the work by spraying on the paper with the paintbrush soaked in paint. The “artistic appreciation” of these spots in particular often has a fascinating effect. They can be surrounded by gold or highlighted in some other way. Because it is also an appreciation of our imperfection as a human being. You can also set accents with a black fine liner. This allows certain areas to be emphasized and emphasized. White or colored fineliners support this process.

And then we let ourselves be surprised, what has come about? What associations, thoughts, memories come when I look at my work of art? This is me. What connects me with this younger version of me? What's on my mind What is surprising, interesting?

For example, I was very surprised and shocked by the childhood picture I had painted and shown in the header at how brutal the scene is. The teddy looks like it has been slaughtered, blood is running out of its body, the child's hand looks chopped off. Now many people tell me after such painting actions that the expression was not intended, but was due to poor painting skills. And I could say that now. Because I couldn't get my hand “right” while painting, and the lower body of the teddy was also unsuccessful. I didn't deliberately paint the scene so brutally. It has developed accordingly in the course of intuitive painting. But I firmly believe that these supposed inabilities are not coincidences, but that something should be expressed in the same way intuitively. Such images work on a completely different level, the feeling, unconscious side of us. They have nothing to do with rational explanation and reasoning. You make contact with the imagery of the soul.

Let yourself be surprised and guided by the power of art. And so I close the post with a quote from George Addair: "All you ever wanted is on the other side of fear!"


Ulrike Hinrichs heads several art therapy-oriented groups, including on the subject of shame in the women's counseling center Biff Harburg and the women's images project.


[1] Forward, Suzan (2015), When Mothers Don't Love, Goldmann

[2] Rosa, Hartmut (2016, p. 55) in detail on the concept of resonance. Resonance. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

[3] Rosa (2016, p. 62)

[4] Mc Bride, Karyl (2017), Will I Ever Be Enough? ”Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, Probst Verlag

[5] 01 (2017, p. 164). Vulnerability makes you strong. How we give up our protective mechanisms and get rich inside. Munich: Goldmann.

[6] See my book of the same name: Hinrichs Ulrike (2019). Art as the language of intuition. The holographic approach in art therapy and art-analogous transformation processes. Switzerland: Synergia.

[7] Also Rosa (2016, p. 59)