Dysfunctional Childhood

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on narcissism. This week, I thought I would expand a little more on this topic, with particular reference to toxic and abusive childhood experience. I will follow this up with some useful tips for healing next week.


I am not a qualified therapist or medically trained, but merely share my thoughts from information I have researched relating to my personal experience.


Whilst narcissism certainly played a role in my childhood, my situation is somewhat complex, as my parent also suffered ‘bipolar’ disorder, which has many overlapping features. This mental health illness was never talked about sadly, due to a generation that felt shame; they would go to great lengths to hide mental health illness. 


Therefore, it may not come as a surprise that I was ‘shamed’ for my own mental health problems as an adult. Perhaps, it was uncomfortable because the older generation are less accepting of how mental health has been brought into the open? Perhaps, it is due to guilt? Or, perhaps, since they keep theirs safely guarded in the closet, they are threatened by those who speak openly about it?


I was diagnosed with stress induced psychosis four times in my life, starting in my thirties. The last episode forced me to finally face up to it at the grand old age of 52. I had subconsciously learnt to ‘sweep my illness under the rug’, which I kept secret until my accident in 2019.


I finally acknowledged my mental health episodes I suffered, after breaking my back, and then sharing my story in a memoir to help others. Subsequently, it became a transformational tool for self-healing and removed years of shame and difficulty. I am now an advocate for both mental health and removing ‘stigma’, and an Ambassador for the Back Up Trust (spinal cord charity).



Those with mental health illness or NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) are far more likely to have a scapegoat in the dysfunctional family unit. The process is subtle and insidious, with survivors often not realising how they are suffering this form of psycho-emotional bullying that effects their body, mind and spirit. Or, like myself, they have a vague awareness which they choose to ignore for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’. 

We are brought up in a society that has an expectation ‘to honour thy parents’ even when we ourselves are treated with neglect, abuse, and constant criticisms. We are expected to not expose the truth about our parent’s past, when they do their utmost to expose every little detail about ours to help strengthen their own fragile ego and alienate us. Even going so far as to fabricate stories that will keep us in the favoured position of scapegoat.  


A narcissist most definitely has a voice. The difference is, it is kept behind closed doors and used to put you or others down. 


Where the dysfunctional parent assumes a child to be the family scapegoat, they will favour others to be the favourite or ‘golden child’. I was always the scapegoat, (I was the only girl). If you have a sense of not being good enough or out of kilter with your parent’s expectations, this may also relate to you. 


Psychological Effects on Child

The psychological and sometimes physiological effects of childhood neglect and emotional abuse are very well documented these days. There has been an upsurge in people’s stories as more people come forward with their voice.


A child’s core development requires consistent attachment, mirroring, attunement and positivity to come from their primary caregiver(s) in order to help them establish a safe, stable, cohesive and positive sense of self, and to help them learn secure relational attachment. If instead, the child receives invalidation, frequent insecure attachment experiences, criticism, or even outright hostility from their parent, this has a deep impact on the child that spreads into adulthood.


When a narcissistic parent is confronted with a child who is particularly strong-willed, defiant, or independent (like myself!), they may rage, abuse, or even disown the confrontational, scapegoated child. 

Narcissists can struggle to orientate their focus towards someone else instead of towards themselves. In turn, this child may develop difficulties in their own parenting. A child will feel they were a ‘bother’ to the narcissist, often being palmed off to others to care for them whilst the narcissist frees up their time for themselves.


The moods of a narcissist may be highly variable and explosive in nature if their fragile emotional regulation skills are challenged (which is inevitable with young children); they will try to stabilise themselves through manipulation of the family dynamics, often having favourites, or only caring for young babies who are helpless and defenceless. 


Inconsistency takes it toll, and I have many memories of this, especially in my teens. My parent could be loving and interested one minute, then go for weeks with nothing but hostile reproach and criticism, with alcohol playing a major part. 



Instead of showing consistent support for their children, a narcissist will invert the dynamic for their own validation and esteem, therefore ‘parentifying them’. Having children is often an attempt to fill their empty ‘void’, believing they will seek love and approval from their child. 


With narcissistic traits in the mother, the seeming ‘mother earth’ appearance  can confuse others, including their children. They cannot see the pervasive abuse that takes place, often believing that all she ever wanted ‘was to be a mother’, that she ‘sacrificed’ her life to be a mother, yet the fallout speaks for itself.  A narcissist father has many similar traits, but if your father was controlling, here is a blog post that may relate… 



The resulting symptoms as an adult can be very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mental health will continue to play havoc throughout upcoming generations and your parent may even continue their dysfunctional behaviours with your own children.

There is a whole host of ways that narcissistic/toxic parenting can manifest. It is unique to each individual, but as with any type of healing, awareness is key.

Impact on Later Life

Some of the impacts on later life are

  • Absorbing and believing in dysfunction and destructive emotional templates of what love looks like;
  • Learning that worthiness is dependent on how you act and what you do, not for who you are or for just existing; 
  • Struggling with setting healthy and appropriate boundaries; inability to say ‘no’;
  • Struggling or failing to recognize healthy romantic partners; even being drawn to dating or marrying narcissists themselves; 
  • Seeking validation and unconditional love through relationships; often resulting in co-dependency;  
  • Having a hard time trusting that feelings and thoughts are valid and that your needs will ever be met; 
  • Struggles with self-esteem and maintaining a stable and cohesive sense of self;
  • Coping with emotional pain from a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse through addictive and self-destructive substances and behaviours;
  • Trying to become invisible so as not to draw the parent’s attention of wrath.

Negative Relationships

Do you find that your relationships are short-lived? Are they consistently mired in troubles and conflict? Is there a lack of stability and security? This could be a sign that you had a narcissistic parent. If you have siblings, you may find relationships are marred by competitiveness and envy if you were forced to compete for approval.


The attachment you experience as a child often mirrors how you will attach in the future. It’s not uncommon for children with narcissist parents to shut out the people they care about the most. Or, conversely, they may be clingy and needy, suffocating the person they are with. Some even sabotage love as soon as they receive it.

Flea and Tic Treatment


Children raised by a narcissist or other dysfunctional environment, are likely to pick up at least some narcissistic traits or tics. These are referred to as ‘narcissist fleas.’ Some may become full-blown narcissists themselves, others perpetuate just a handful of the behaviours that can be overcome with awareness and mindfulness.


Take a look at yourself and what triggers you. What do you do that reminds you of your narcissist mother or father? Are you quick to anger? Do you seek attention or control through guilt or manipulation? Do you offend easily or relish in the vilification of others?


The best revenge for the destruction caused by a narcissist, is a life well-lived. Work on mindfulness and peace in your own life, no matter what mess has been caused. You can work to control how you act now, and how to continue your life from this point forward. You can be whole.  

When to seek expert help…

If you experience anxiety, sleep disruption, eating disorders, depression, or other side effects, please seek help. It’s time to work through your parent relationship for the sake of recovery and your future relationships. A therapist can help you to form healthy attachments and teach you how to form healthy boundaries going forward. It is a painful process, but in the long term, freeing. Also, if it is not too late, I would recommend you work through these issues and find clarity before you have children of your own.


Dealing with your trauma will foster a new perspective. You will be able to find your own voice and express yourself before choosing the best path forward. You will feel like you have never felt before.  

Next week…