Roles in the Narcissistic Family
When a narcissistic parent or parents have more than one child, they are assigned different roles within the family unit. These roles may swap and change at the whim of the parent, depending on mood or circumstance. If they have only the one child, that child may have to play more than one role. Here are some of the typical roles in the narcissistic family.
Depending on the parent this is the head of the family. This person is either an overt narcissist who controls everything with a sense of entitlement and intimidation, or a covert narcissist who uses, usually their partner, as a shield and to do their dirty work for them. Either way they will take extreme measures to keep a sense of control over thoughts, feelings, behaviours and achievements over their partner and children. Image is everything to them.
This is usually a weak-willed person. They are generally co-dependent partner of the narcissist who will do anything to appease them. They do nothing when the narcissist is in a rage and accept as normal any humiliation dished out to them, whether in fear or with a nervous laugh.
The Golden Child
This child is seen as an extension of the parent and treated as the favourite. They live vicariously through the parent, and vice versa. They can be manipulative, employing bullying tactics towards their siblings and others when there’s no one around to catch them. There are a lot of expectations on the child to be perfect in order to make the parent look good.
The child is often chosen for exploitation and can do no wrong – until they do. The child is seen as perfect, a reflection of the parent so anything wrong they do is seen as something wrong with them. The Golden Child is not immune to abuse. The parent will either blame others or emotionally humiliate the child. The child learns from an early age that image is everything and this follows them into adult life with little or sense of their real selves.
As adults they must look the best, have the best cars, computers, houses and so on. Their childish bullying tactics continue in private when there is no one around to witness, whist showing a kind, caring, decent image to the world believing no one will believe their victims. They live within a very narrow emotional bandwidth.
The Scapegoat Child
Where the Golden Child can do no wrong, the Scapegoat Child can never do any right. This child is often called the black sheep of the family and labelled as a troublemaker who doesn’t conform. It is their role to carry the shame of the narcissistic family as they get blamed for everything that goes wrong.
They are made to feel unaccepted and stupid, the butt of a lot of jokes aimed to humiliate them. Spending their childhood trying to get approval from the parent, it is never enough. They can never meet the parent’s expectations the way the Golden Child does. Any successes or achievements are attributed to others or compared unfavourably to the Golden Child.
Unlike the Golden Child however, this child is more authentic and honest regardless of how neglected or abused by the parent they are. Given that they are considered a trouble maker and a clown no matter what they do, they are more prepared to take risks as they feel they have little to lose.
As adults scapegoat children find it easier to get away from the narcissistic parent. They can also develop a sense of self, though not always a healthy one. The adult will either carry these labels with them and live an unfulfilled life as a loser and feeling unlovable. Alternatively, they may realise being labelled as a black sheep really meant they didn’t fully believe the lies.
The Caretaker Child
This child is the rescuer of the family. They cannot tolerate conflict and will sacrifice everything, putting the needs of others before their own in order to avoid emotional turmoil. They have no idea of how to get their own needs met so focus on others’ needs instead. When there is upset, they jump into rescuing and pacifying mode.
As an adult the Caretaker Child is a people pleaser, defined only by what they can do for others. They are only comfortable when they give to others but do not know how to receive. Relationships feel more like projects as they only know how to ‘do’ rather than ‘be’. They tend to live unfulfilled lives sacrificing everything for others.
These roles are given by the parent or parents and can change from child to child at the whim of the parent. The roles are for benefit of the parent, not the children, but there are other roles and characteristics in the narcissistic family. The children may take on one or more of these behaviours within their roles.
This child never receives praise or blame. They are ignored. The narcissistic parent has no interest in them as they have no use for them. Nothing is expected of them so, more often than not they don’t even try. They will receive just enough care to conceal the level of neglect.
They tend to become withdrawn and live in a private world of their own imagination. As an adult they become very independent as they feel they have no one to rely on.
The child takes on the role of the parent and becomes very responsible at an early age. They are perfectionists and aim to hide the family dysfunction by trying to be and have the best. The belief is that this will show the world they are the product of perfect parenting. They are often critical and judgmental of others. However, they cannot take any kind of criticism themselves as it shows a side of themselves they would rather not see.
The mascot takes responsibility for the emotional well-being and public image of the family. They become entertainers to reflect attention away from the shame and pain the family feels. Often they lack assertiveness and having never developed a healthy sense of self struggle with feelings of emptiness. They support the family, as a way of worshipping the narcissistic parent. In a sense they become a closet narcissist, basking in the glory of others.
The manipulator is abusive and selfish. They have a sense of entitlement and are both callous and opportunistic. The manipulator operates in a way that is shrewd and devious, never admitting to anything and does enough to please the parent to get away with the abuse of the others. They use other’s weaknesses against them to get what they want, even if it is just sadistic pleasure. This is a role carried on in adulthood.
As adults it can be difficult to break away from the roles learned in childhood. This is normally because boundaries were never allowed or respected. The narcissistic parent often tries to maintain control over their children’s adult relationships, either overtly or covertly and try to put grandchildren into the same roles as their own children. This can be difficult for the adult children’s partners. If the children have grown up to be in co-dependent relationships with their parents, they have difficulty accepting there might be something wrong or something better. The roles and behaviours learned just to survive in childhood now get played out in adult life.
Recognising there is a problem is a good healthy place to begin. In counselling and psychotherapy, working through current issues in work roles, relationships and self-defeating behaviours, it is possible to understand what informs and lies behind current difficulties. With that understanding it is possible to learn to grow and develop. Learn how to respectfully and confidently communicate and reinforce boundaries. Take responsibility for yourself whilst allowing others to take responsibility for themselves.
“I am not what happened to me – I am what I choose to become” Carl Jung
This article was written by sentientcounselling