Voicelessness and Emotional SurvivalRichard A. Grossman, Ph.D.

The “When Push Comes to Shove, Mini-Titanic Narcissistic Parent Poll”

Do narcissistic parents love their children?  Most narcissistic parents feed, shelter, and provide basic necessities for their children.  But do they do this out of love?  Evolutionary psychology suggests one possible way to explore the question of love in narcissistic parents.  In a matter of life and death, would a narcissistic parent choose to die and have their child live, or vice versa?   To try to root out a possible answer to the question of narcissistic parents and love, I created a survey on the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival Message Board called “The When Push Comes to Shove, Mini-Titanic Narcissistic Parent Poll”.

Here is the poll question:

“Imagine the following scenario:

You are in a motor boat on the ocean, alone with your narcissistic parent.  You are 8 years old and your parent is 40.   Suddenly, there is an small explosion in the boat.  No one is injured, but it is clear that the boat will sink.  There are no lifejackets, but there is a lifeboat.  Unfortunately, the lifeboat will hold only one person.  (If  two people try to get in or hold on it will sink).  Therefore, it is obvious that only one person will survive.  What would your parent do?  

1.  Tell you to get in the lifeboat and row to shore, and say: “I love you.”
2.  Tell you to get in the lifeboat and row to shore and say “I’m a hero because I’m saving your life”
3.  Get in the lifeboat and say: “I’m doing the practical thing—you wouldn’t have been able to row to shore anyway”
4.  Get in the lifeboat and say “you’ve always been a disappointment anyway” and tell everyone on shore you died in the explosion
5.  Get in the lifeboat and laugh as you go under

Let’s consider the choices for a minute before looking at the survey results.  If we consider one measure of love to be putting a child’s interests before one’s own, without doubt, choice 1 reflects this characteristic.  Choice 2 may have an element of love–but narcissism begins to creep in around the edges.  In Choice 3, self-survival begins to trump the child’s survival.  In the remaining two choices, according to this definition, arguably there is no love.

I posed this question to both adult children of narcissistic parents and adult children of non-narcissistic parents.  (Keep in mind these limitations of the survey:  whether or not a parent was or was not narcissistic was based on the opinion of the respondent–there was no external validation.  Nor was there validation of whether the parent would actually respond in this way.) 

The results for adult children of narcissistic parents can be found here.  The results for adult children of non-narcissistic parents can be found here.

The results for the adult children of narcissistic parents suggests narcissism is a spectrum–there were some parents placed in each of the five categories.  But half of the parents were placed in Choice 3–where parents’ self-survival trumped their children’s survival.   Respondents may have perceived some parental love, but self-preservation was more important.  Or perhaps, no love was present and respondents perceived their parents would have simply rationalized their choice.

The results of the poll on adult children of non-narcissistic parents were not a surprise:  the vast majority of parents were deemed capable of putting their child’s interests above their own.  This is normal parental behavior.  (If you’re wondering why one adult child of non-narcissistic parents chose choice 5, I did too.  Was the parent psychotic or suffer from some other psychiatric disorder?)

This non-scientific survey using one “element” of love suggests:

1) Narcissistic parents consider the survival of their children to be less important than non-narcissistic parents.
2) Most narcissistic parents have at least a somewhat diminished capacity for love–as defined by this measure. 
3) The more severely narcissistic the parent is, the more diminished their capacity for love, and
4) The most narcissistic parents do not love their children.

If children of narcissistic parents experience a lack of love from an early age, what are the long-term consequences?  Because of the resulting diminished sense of security–or a perceived threat to their own survival–some children must build substantial defenses in order to reduce the resulting stress.  These defenses may interfere with trust,  intimacy, and appropriate relationship selection later in life.  Furthermore, if these defenses fall apart due to loss or life trauma, there is nowhere, psychologically speaking, for these people to turn.  Anxiety, depression and other psychological symptoms are likely to ensue. Luckily, finding an effective long-term therapist can make a significant difference if a person is faced with this situation.

For more on finding an effective therapist for the aloneness that often results from having a narcissistic parent, see: Voicelessness and Emotional Survival:  Notes from the therapy underground.