‘I never remember being held or told I was loved’: Readers share their stories of narcissistic parents

Family scapegoating ‘typically involves a needy, narcissistic parent whose ego is grounded in portraying a certain image’

Readers share their stories of narcissistic parents. Photograph: iStock

In an article on Wednesday, Emma O’Friel explored the idea of “family scapegoating” – a sort of blame game that can occur within family dynamics.

“Dr Jane Hollingsworth, a clinical psychologist in Virginia, US, describes family scapegoating as typically involving a needy, narcissistic parent (often the mother) whose ego is grounded in portraying a certain image,” she wrote.

We asked our readers, anonymously: do you have a narcissistic parent? Here’s what you told us:

There are no family photographs of me’

I am the scapegoat of my family. One of four kids. Scapegoated from when I was tiny. There are no family photographs of me, I don’t know what I looked like as a baby, no achievements recorded. I never remember being held or told I was loved. My first memories were fear. For years I wondered what the buzzing sound in my ears was – that was the sound of me subconsciously holding my jaw tight in fear constantly from when I was very young. As a child I would stay awake most of the night in fear. I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been and have two kids who I tell every day that they are deeply loved.

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‘I’m still trapped in their web at home’

I am the scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent. I’m in my mid 20s now and still trapped in their web at home because the housing crisis in this country has made renting unaffordable for me, despite having a job with a decent salary. It is a terribly isolating experience which has eroded my mental health to a serious degree and which negatively impacts my relationships outside this household too. Other members of our family, friends and acquaintances view my parent as a model parent, utterly devoted and loving. They could never fathom the reality of the psychological abuse that my parent gleefully chooses to inflict. Every day I wonder how many other adult scapegoat children like me there are around the country, trapped at home, endlessly looking at property ads and hoping to find an affordable escape route out.

‘She favoured my stepsiblings’

When my dad married my stepmother she told me “not to make a scene and ruin her day”. This was only six months after my own mother had died. I was 10 years old. My mother had taken her own life but my stepmother felt shame because suicide was illegal at the time. She told me to tell anyone who asked that my mother had taken the right amount of the wrong pills. She also told my school to tell all the kids in my class not to speak to me about my mother’s death, resulting in extreme distress, shame and loneliness. I blamed myself for my mother’s death. She favoured my stepsiblings and told them to ignore me. I know that I had behavioural problems, but it would have been nice to receive some empathy and unconditional love.

‘I was ignored, dismissed’

I have no memory of ever being shown any affection by my mother. No hugs, no kind words. Even as I went through the usual ups and downs of a young person’s life there was nothing. No comfort if I had a bad day at school, or when I struggled with the changes adolescence brought. Even when I had my heart broken and thought I would die of sadness, nothing was offered in the way of love or reassurance. I learned very young not to look for these things, they were not for me, and I was not worthy of them. I was either ignored, dismissed or shouted at – they were the only responses my mother seemed to have for me. I have two sisters who were not subject to the same treatment and this made it even harder, more lonely.

‘I was othered from the age of four’

Born to my single mother outside of marriage in 1970. When she did later marry into a conservative Catholic family, I was not only the child without a father, I was the shame that could never even be mentioned. She was forbidden to even speak my name by her mother-in-law. I was barred from ever visiting or participating in family events which involved his parents. I was othered from the age of four. The erasure, discrimination and withholding of affection became an escalating marking out of me as the root cause of every problem in what was really a toxic marriage, at a time when abuse of children, physical as well as psychological, was what happened behind closed doors. Without the resilience I had to develop, I would have died long ago. Narcissism was definitely there in my mother and it only escalated the older she became. She did apologise before her own death, but even then it didn’t feel sincere.

‘Her narcissism caused her to neglect me’

My mother was a dietitian and as a small child, I just stopped eating and robbed her of her ability to control by food, her ability to control the narrative and ability to control her image of being a good mother to all who looked in. Her narcissism caused her to neglect me as a child and teenager because she believed that everything was to do with her. When I showed signs of depression as a young adolescent, she marched me out of a child psychologist’s and surmised that I just needed to spend more time with her. She ignored the fact that half of her own relatives had depression and so did I. It went untreated until I had to be hospitalised – she still thought it was all to do with her.

‘She pitted her children against each other’

My mother is a covert narcissist. When I was growing up she was very good at keeping up a public image as the perfect mother and her need for praise as such was much more important than actually being a good mother to her six children. She pitted her children against each other and ruled by division, treating each one differently, harbouring resentment amongst them. I was a scapegoat but to a lesser degree than my oldest sister who was very beautiful and creative (narcissistic parents are jealous of their children) and she was ignored and given subtle and not so subtle put-downs until she developed depression, gained weight, gave up work for decades and became a narcissistic parent herself.

‘I see it as a scorched-earth policy on my soul’

I lived and live as the family scapegoat. It has been a battle for survival since my early teens. I see it as a scorched-earth policy on my soul. I am still uncovering its effects. My mother’s abuse included ritual humiliation in front of family members including in-laws and friends. I am now in my early 60s and I live in a twilight world of depression regret and shame. I hope in an almost childish hopeful way I will recover from my familial emotional gulag.

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My father (a child abandoned by his parents) knew my mother’s treatment of me was unjust and inappropriate but went along with it because when she was giving me a hard time, she wasn’t giving him one.

‘My father was clueless’

I was scapegoated about the age of 14, I’m 55 now. My siblings rejected me on my mother’s direction, my father was clueless. I left [home] under very insecure circumstances when I was 17 for my grandma’s house and explained the situation to her. She said I was too sensitive. [Today] I am a very content but damaged man living in the UK with fantastic friends around me. I will never go near my biological family under any circumstances and will be more content to die alone.

‘Their narcissism disables true reflection’

I have been estranged from my family for years due to scapegoating in circumstances of both narcissism and alcoholism. The ideal solution of course would be for the narcissist to come to terms with their pathology, but this is a paradox because their narcissism disables true reflection and also often erases any capacity for shame. There are a lot of narcissists out there and people so often underestimate the damage that they can cause.

‘My older sister was the golden child’

I was a victim of scapegoating at the hands of my father. My older sister was the golden child. She could do no wrong and from an early age assisted my father with tormenting, provoking and teasing me to the point of tears. I now know he deliberately drove a wedge between us. I learnt during years of therapy that a narcissistic parent doesn’t want the children to be close. It’s divide and conquer.

‘The damage has been extreme’

Endless bullying and belittling, all the time, all day every day. A father who punished me endlessly, was controlling to a terrifying degree, given to extreme rages and raging, or who would give me the silent treatment for days on end. I wasn’t allowed to cry and any attempt at standing up for myself was labelled aggressive. The entire extended family bought into it. The damage has been extreme and long lasting.

‘The tactics were predictable’

My husband was the scapegoat and was treated with contempt; this was in stark contrast to his sibling who was put on a pedestal. The mind games are discreet but chip away at one’s sense of self over time. There is a constant feeling of walking on eggshells as you never know how you may slight her. All special occasions were overshadowed by her need for attention, something she relished in, it didn’t matter if it was bad attention or not. The tactics were predictable – overt favouritism of siblings to cause deliberate tension between them. The triangulation of siblings into her warped narrative, one that was ever changing. It cultivates a family system where there are no authentic relationships. It’s horrifying to witness and unfortunately it drips down to grandchildren.

‘On the surface I have a good life’

I am 45 years old and I am the scapegoat of my family. On the surface I have a good life – I work as a teacher in a secondary school and have active social life. However, I feel an intense sadness of the way my mum’s mental health has destroyed our family. It is approaching six months since I have had any real contact with my mum and dad and have very limited contact with my older brother. I didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter with them and three of our birthdays. My mum has narcissistic personality disorder and my dad enables her. My brother has taken the easy route and chooses not to acknowledge any issues within our family dynamics. My parents fell out with me over a minor issue and have made no attempt to patch things up. I made some attempts in the beginning to try to make the peace despite the fact I did nothing wrong. I’m now trying to move on with my own life in what I guess is now a no-contact situation. They are both now in their mid-seventies and I’ve had to begin to accept the next time I see either of them could be in hospital or they may die without me seeing them again.

‘He had witnessed the nastiness’

By the time I was 10, I felt my mother treated me as if I was not to her liking. She herself was considered beautiful. I looked like my father, then. I was quiet and insecure. My elder sister looked like my mother and was treated as if she was the jewel in the crown of the family; I thought she was, too. When my sister was praised or complimented I was always pleased for her, because she was nice. I just felt that I fell far short of expectations, and tried not to attract attention in case I drew it on myself, and would be criticised. My brother, my mother’s favourite child who is 12 years younger than I, asked me what my mother had against me. I was very taken aback. I didn’t realise it was obvious to others. But apparently he had witnessed the nastiness, which continued all through my life.

‘I had to change or remove myself from it’

Thank God I only have one mother because I barely survived her. If we bring this dysfunction into the mainstream, it helps people suffering emotional abuse within their own family system to see the wood from the trees and make sense of it. It also makes others more aware that this goes on in some families. It took me 36 years to realise that this familial cycle of abuse (and enabling and collusion from other members) would never change and I had to change or remove myself from it. The fear of being judged by society, simply for valuing and saving myself and walking away from abuse, affects me every day.

‘I no longer have a relationship with my parents’

It has been my experience all my life, but it is something that is exceptionally difficult to describe and my parents will never acknowledge. I have come through this thanks to the support of wonderful friends and a counsellor who has been with me for 25 years. I no longer have a relationship with my parents ... realising that I am unable to change how they see me, and stopping trying, has been a big relief.

‘I still doubt my own account of things’

My mother belittled my clothes, my academic achievements and made me out to be a monster. When she tried to hit me and I blocked the blow, she cried, claiming that doing so hurt her arm. She tried to rent my room out from under me and make me move to the attic. I never want to deal with her again, she was a volatile vindictive figure all my life and I feel a lot safer without her. The shadow still hangs over me though – I still doubt my own account of things and feel like I’m the problem whenever I have difficulty with people because of having been treated like a pariah by the person who is meant to be the biggest source of security in your life.

‘I had an eating disorder as a teen’

My mother grew up in a dysfunctional family. She left hospital the day I was born and went back to work less than two weeks later. I don’t think she ever bonded with me. She was a horrible, controlling, punitive, critical, physically abusive and explosive parent. My father stepped aside and never intervened. I had an eating disorder as a teen, from years of complex abuse. I managed to get out and get through college but had many dysfunctional relationships and difficulties knowing what I wanted to do with my life for at least a decade after. Covid allowed me to not see my family in any form for almost four years. I saw my parents for the first time at Christmas 2022. It finally hit me I needed to cut them out of my life entirely.

‘It tears the life and soul out of a family’

Unless you have experienced this first hand, it is very hard to fathom how the people that “love” you can behave the way they do. It tears the life and soul out of a family, siblings, grandchildren etc. I have distanced myself from my family as a result of it and just hang out on the sidelines, it protects my mental health and stops the incessant questioning of myself over others repeated toxic behaviour.

‘Our private life was hell’

This really echoes with my childhood. We were a big family and my mother was well loved and was involved in the church. Our public image was one of unity and love. What a joke. Our private life was hell. She had her favourites and her victims. I was her black sheep. All forms of abuse followed. She died many years ago and I still have nightmares.

‘I now understand that I am worth loving’

My mother was constantly irritated with me throughout my childhood. She hit me, dug her fingernails into my skin, threw objects at me, cut me with a breadknife and when I would go, upset to my father, he would get me to apologise to her for upsetting her. I grew up knowing that I must be a dreadful person who did not deserve love. Through the support of gorgeous friendships, a loving husband and his extended family and plenty of good psychotherapy, I now understand that I am worth loving.

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