The Core Characteristic of Emotional Abuse in the Personality Disordered Parent
The healthy parent frequently makes sacrifices and sets aside their own desires (and even needs) in deference to those of their child. The key to this being healthy, of course, is not to always and totally defer to the desires and needs of the child. To do that, as anyone can conclude, is to create a very selfish, entitled, and spoiled child. This trend by parents to overindulge may be, in fact, a large element in why those of us in the mental health field are seeing a marked increase of Personality Disorder (NPD) cases, and in particular, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in ever younger people.
It is generally accepted that the source of adults with Personality Disorder is both genetic and nurture: a close relative likely had PD, and if you were raised as a child in a PD home, there will be a pretty good chance of at least one of the children becoming an adult PD. Of course, personality disorder does not spring up overnight (even though it is not usually diagnosed until a person is an adult). When people with NPD have children, you can be sure that those children have a future of enduring countless acts and countless insidious methods of emotional torture, if not physical and sexual torture as well.
While there are ten different types of personality disorder described in the psychological manual used by mental health professionals called the “Diagnostic Statistics Manual”, these ten are divided into three different “clusters”. It is those in ‘”Cluster B” that are often most problematic for children who have parents with these disorders: Anti-Social, Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders.
The Core Experience for the Child is Emotional Abuse
The intensity, frequency, and totality of being parented by a PD parent is not easily conveyed to those who have not been through it or those who have little knowledge of PD. Though there are some subtle and some significant differences between the Cluster B personality disorders, they do have a great many characteristics and effects on children in common. One in particular might be considered a ‘core’ characteristic: emotional abuse.
It is no exaggeration to state that children of a PD parent are considered by that parent to be a possession, or commodity, to be used in the service of the PD parent’s ego. Whereas the average parent instinctively knows that they are responsible to be emotionally supportive to their child so that the child can grow into a healthy adult, the PD parent demands that the child emotionally support, nourish, and protect the parent. Relationship, support, and deference only can go in one direction: from child to parent.
Whereas the average parent may be proud of their child, and see the child’s accomplishments as a sign of the child’s growing positive self-esteem, the PD parent is threatened by the child’s growing self-esteem, and will do everything they can to ‘steal the credit’, disparage, or discount anything good that the child has done. Essentially, the PD parent sees the child as their total creation, including the child’s successes, talents, skills, and even their good deeds. As such, the child experiences emotional abuse, because not even their self-esteem is legitimately their own.
And, since the child is a total reflection of the PD parent, that reflection must be perfect. Woe to the child who does not ‘toe the line’ and be perfect in grades, sports, performances, manner, or appearance. Often, very harsh penalties are realized by the child from an enraged, ‘embarrassed’ PD parent. In addition, any gift, treat, or activity (think going to Disney) must be constantly and repeatedly be thanked for (and the PD will parade out photos of the smiling, grateful children to have such a great and generous parent).
The kind of total control that PD parents exert and demand over their children is incredibly tight and restrictive, to the point that the child’s natural development as a person becomes impaired and stunted. The normal process called ‘individuation and differentiation’ that helps children grow and become their own person aside from their parents cannot be tolerated by most PD parents. Disallowing a child to grow into a unique individual is emotionally abusive.
When the child of a PD parent attempts to express their individuality, for example, in something as simple as music, clothing, or even favored foods, the PD parent puts a halt to any kind of unique development that is not a direct reflection of what the PD parent wants or approves of. This is not an average parent trying to get their child not to eat junk food or listen to music with foul lyrics, this is a parent who will punish a child for not parting their hair on the side the parent wants it parted on, or force a child to eat their own feces if they had a toileting accident.
Children of PD parents learn that they are never permitted to express any pain or disappointment in front of the PD parent, because the only pain or disappointment that counts in the PD home is the PD’s pain and disappointment.
These children develop incredibly strong powers of the will to suppress their own emotions (both bad and good, because you dare not be happy when the PD is not happy, or be happy about something some other person did for you, or something that the PD did not provide for you as a manipulation). Forcing a child to stifle their emotions as a means of psychological survival is abusive.
The direct control any parent has over resources or activities of the child is a given. Average, healthy parents may restrict ‘goodies’ like candy, soda, or other treats as rewards for good behaviors, or may remove privileges such as going outdoors, watching TV or playing video games if homework and chores are not completed. But the PD parent takes this concept to abusive extremes.
The PD parent may punish ‘back talk’ by forcing the child to drink hot sauce, or arbitrarily demand that the child stop eating the candy immediately, spit what is in their mouth into the garbage, along with the remaining candy. The PD parent may punish and abuse by allowing their own pit-bull to kill the child’s new puppy (in front of the child) because the puppy piddled on the kitchen floor. Children of PD’s do not go on sleep overs with friends, do not go to Church camp, and are only in the activities that their PD parent demands that they be in. The schedule, needs, and activities of the PD parent are always paramount over their child’s. And, even those activities that are educational and good for the child can be simply taken away on a whim, often for no reason at all. These things are emotionally abusive.
The PD parent engages in extreme and constant emotional manipulation to the point that the child begins to believe that they are the ‘problem’ that the PD parent identifies them as. This is accomplished through the PD parent being impossibly unpredictable in moods and behaviors, and by creating intense anticipatory terror of doing something wrong or revealing the truth of the abuse to anyone who could do something about it. This is the totality of the emotional abuse.
There are multiple effects of the emotional abuse on a child victim of a parent PD, including not just emotional, but physical, relational, and developmental damages. Though due to many years of intense behavioral training to ‘keep up impeccable appearances’, if one takes the time to look under the thin veneer that child victims of PD parents usually have, the child can be recognized as bundle of nerves wrapped in incredible self-control.
It is not uncommon to discover children who are having (sometimes multiple) psychosomatic physical issues such as eating issues, digestive problems, severe headaches, dizzy spells, among other physical complaints. Some children, especially teens, may be engaging in self harm behaviors such as hair plucking, skin picking, severe nail biting (to bleeding), and cutting behaviors.
Children who have learned to keep perfect appearances may be obsessive about their grades and their sporting or performing events to the point of becoming very upset and self-punishing for getting less than an “A” in everything. Those children who have given up on trying to achieve the impossibly high bar that the PD parent set may begin to engage in behaviors designed to “piss off” their PD parent, including behaviors such as substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, or petty crime.
Both of the above extreme reactive processes and resulting behaviors tend to make children of PD’s to seem a bit ‘off’ to peers, and most have very few friends as a result. In addition, the PD parent does not tolerate their child having any friends, and actively works to socially isolate the child from peers, the community, and often, from the other biological parent and family members.
Because the child has spent their entire life in the ego-service of the PD parent, their normative relational and personal development often becomes extremely stunted, making their recovery a long road that can take decades of treatment.