Adult Children of Vulnerable Narcissists

Adult children of vulnerable narcissists have many things in common. But the impact their their narcissistic parent(s) have on them can vary. To be sure, narcissism always damages. But just how it damages, and how deeply it damages can differ. And how a person learns to cope with the damage differs, too. Moreover, many variables influence the coping strategy a child of a narcissist might adopt.

“Vulnerable” Narcissists and Their Children
Vulnerable Narcissists

Not all narcissists are the same. They come in two primary types: vulnerable and grandiose. And there are even more sub-types. But the main types are the ones mentioned above. When I first wrote In Sheep’s Clothing, and Character Disturbance, we didn’t have or use these terms. And hardly anyone was aware of how broad the narcissism spectrum actually is. (For more on this see: Narcissism Spectrum). But my early clinical research told me there were at least two main types. And, for lack of better labels, I used the terms neurotic vs. character disturbed to describe the the two types. We now us the terms vulnerable or compensatory type to describe the neurotic type.

Vulnerable narcissists are different from other narcissists. They’re actually quite sensitive. And they’re particularly shame-sensitive. That is, they hate looking bad or feeling bad about themselves. That’s what makes them so inordinately concerned about their image. Inwardly, their sense of self-worth can be quite poor. So they might always be trying to prove themselves. Such narcissists actually care what others think. And they want others to think of them favorably. So they actively seek admiration and adulation. Some are covert in their manner of doing this. And they cultivate manipulative (i.e. impression management) skill. Such folks can be quite the charmers. (See: Charming Narcissists Manipulate Well.) But others are so wrapped up in their own needs that they’re insensitive to others. These types try to build themselves up at the expense of others, including their children. And that can take a real toll on a child’s developing self-image.

Adult Children of Vulnerable Narcissists

Children of vulnerable narcissists are often caught in a real bind. Give mommy or daddy the adulation and admiration they seek, and all seems good. Be a positive reflection on them, and you have their favor. But dare to be your true self or declare your own worth, and you might have trouble.

Things can be even worse for children when a parent wants to build him/herself up at their child’s expense. It devastates a child’s self-image to feel demeaned, belittled, or degraded for not measuring up. But sadly, this unfortunate scene can set up a self-perpetuating pattern. As an adult, a child with poor self-worth can unwittingly repeat the same compensatory strategy. They can try to prove their own worth by comparing themselves to and discounting others. Perhaps this is the real tragedy of being parented by a narcissist. You inflict the very damage you sustained. And you do it unconsciously.

Adult children of grandiose narcissists have very different issues. And we’ll be talking about them in upcoming articles.


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6 thoughts on “Adult Children of Vulnerable Narcissists

  1. I used to think the term vulnerable narcissist was an oxymoron. But I can certainly see that in my own relationship with my NM. And how the damage she inflicts is totally a conscious decision. She knows exactly what she is doing. And thinks nothing of it. I have seen her use gaslighting (using mental to be abusive) and the compare herself to me, and of course, she comes out ahead. I have a term I use for that, but I won’t repeat it in mixed company ;-). And I understand what you mean Dr. Simon about how unconsciously because of how I was parented I inflicted the same damage on others. The difference between myself and my NM is that I feel a tremendous amount of guilt over it and while making an amends may not be possible in some cases, I was able to in others, to at least try. And I also know that I could never do that to someone again.

    But it kills me to think that I may have at any point, passed on some of the damage of being parented by a narcissist. A narcissist will never get the spiritual nature of a 12 step program, which again makes me grateful for my recovery.

  2. Is anyone surprised as to just how many of these characters are in this world? Narcissists, sociopaths, abusers, and psychopaths. There are so many!

    I also suspect that once you are victimized by one, the others hone in on you because you’re already wounded, and they sniff out vulnerability like that.

    I also think most of the world supports narcissists, sociopaths, and garden-variety abusers because being a flying monkey is advantageous to them. Or they are fellow abusers and fellow predators.

    I don’t know how victims survive, especially if their original abusers brought in as many other abusers and predators into the picture so it’s a big group stomp.

    1. Dear despondent –
      I totally identify with your user name and comments.
      We live In a nation (and a world) that has incrimentally over the century become a culture of instant gratification – and technology has fertilized & cultivated a ‘me-myself- &-i’ mentality, hedonism, narcissism etc thru ‘indy’ everything, and every media platform available to people to get their 1 minute of fame & being seen – everything from ‘MY space’ to FACE book and now there’s TikTok where people do and say the most atrocious, outlandish, and usually assinine things to be seen for a whole minute or two . . .

      I too am overwhelmed into despondency when considering ‘adults’ these days, and moreover – what will our grandchildren be like ???. . . (I’m kind of thankful I don’t have any grandkids)
      I often sense that the future holds a Mad-Max type society of raging angry deviants hellbent to exact their resentments & revenge . . . .

  3. Excellent article, thank you. As an adult child of a vulnerable narcissist father (mother by proxy) I can say the damage that’s done is devastating, it wasn’t until about 2 year’s ago that I learned what narcissism was, but after learning about it in all it’s different forms my whole life made perfect sense. I cannot imagine how many children have fallen victim to drugs, suicide and other self destructive things due to growing up with a narc parent(s). I believe narcissism is truly the root of all evil, and I thank God for giving me the strength to keep going. I’m fortunate resources and information about this subject are plentiful, 15-20 years there was nothing. Lord I pray you have mercy on the souls of those who didn’t know, and became self destructive.

  4. I have an adult daughter (almost 30) who is, according to everything I e read – a vulnerable narcissist. (Her father was also a narcissist, and very abusive – he was in & out of her life but mostly out)

    She exhibits totally uncalled for anger and rage in the most casual situations. Mostly, she is very defensive, picks apart every little thing I say, and takes everything highly personal. She is constantly bragging and almost glorifying herself and any extreme ideas she has. Achievements she should take genuine pride in seem to get dismissed by her for unrealistic plans she talks about ad-nauseum.

    My part in creating her behaviour is that I am fully on the spectrum for Asperger’s, something I only learned about 10 years ago thru extensive testing. It explained issues I’ve had my entire life almost since birth – but Asperger’s did not even begin to be a diagnosis for females until the 80s and I am now over 60..
    Unfortunately, part of the problem is I can come across very rigid & unfeeling (unempathetic) ‘Mr.Spock-like and extremely logical & literal. I also still cannot read social cues very well, and do not register eoples facial expressions correctly. A sperger’s presents many gifts too – I’m a voracious ‘learner’ with a strong work ethic and have learned many skills – but within those gifts comes the literal mind sets & what people call ‘perfectionism’ but I think of as just finding the best way to do something efficiently & correctly. I think 100% in pictures.
    Unfortunately I was over 50 years old before I learned how I think, & realized how maddening this is to children . . . most children feel respected & intelligent bc I talk to them like adults – but not kids who live with you day in & day out – I see now it was way too much for them to process.

    Anyway – while I have two pretty brilliant, very highly skilled adult kids, they are also very emotionally stunted. In short, I was not a sweet, loving mommy type.

    It is impossible to go back and change the past, but I have consistently been learning about how people think in general, and most specifically about my kids, and working on making amends for my mistakes.
    Meanwhile, my age 30 daughter and I seem to catastrophically clash more frequently . We now cannot work together or even have any sort of chat. She blames me and reads negativity into nearly every thing I say. It’s now to the point that it’s like walking thru a land mine just talking to her on the phone – and it seems very strange to actually dread being around my daughter and not even want to see her – but I’m starting to feel that way.
    She is often – even publically – rude & obnoxious towards me – but will be overtly nice to me when she wants or needs something. She will later apologize for hatefulness but always with very lame excuses which I quietly accept.

    I have apologized countless times for ‘hurting her feelings’ – but at this point, especially witth such extreme outbursts of rage & high levels of sensitivity, shes displaying more out of control & childish behaviour no parent, boss, partner or friend would or can tolerate. I have not raised my voice to her since she was teen – but I have sure wanted to.

    Also, I’ve shared my diagnosis with my kids – not as an excuse for their childhood – but as an explanation – also apologized for general errors and specific things – asking their forgiveness.
    I also asked them to feel free to bring up anything that still bothers them and I will listen objectively , apologize and never make excuses for it.
    After 9 years – my over-40 daughter finally felt safe enough to ‘test’ this and aired some things. I think she finally felt better afterwards at least about those things.
    But the 30year old is suffering greatly physically already has had a heart attack and has HBP and is an alcoholic.

    I finally contacted a therapist bc even after intense reading and study – I still don’t know exactly what actions to take – totally avoiding her seems wrong. Trying very hard to communicate with her is futile.

  5. Cheryl
    I sure hope you can find someone to speak with who has experiences Asberger’s and adult children and the issues that come with it.
    It would help if they’d educate themselves on Asberger’s, and get some therapy into how it has affected them and what they can do to go through life in a loving way with you now.
    My daughter studies narcissism because her father is overt narc. She has traits as well she’s picked up in dealing with him.
    There comes a time when the adult needs to keep blaming parents on all their life issues. She has a brain and can seek help and understanding of Asberger’s. That’s on her.
    I wish you the best. Keep posting and reading.
    Many of us have some support to offer, and often times experience and understanding and great tips how to cope.

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