Here is the ONE thing every child of a narcissistic parent should learn.
And it has nothing to do with forgiving.
We struggle with belonging, don’t we? It’s a very common complaint I hear in support groups where we, as victims of emotional neglect in childhood, hang out. We feel like outsiders in the world, because naturally, we were outsiders in our own families. Some are scapegoated, other become “golden children”, but nonetheless, we all feel like we’ve never had space for expressing our authentic selves. That’s why we long for belonging, way into adulthood. That’s what EVERY child of a narcissistic parent, regardless of their role in the toxic dynamic (scapegoat, golden child, invisible child, etc), have in common.
It runs deeper than a normal human need, too. Oh boy… If I had a euro for every time a well-meaning friend tried to make me “feel better” by saying my need for belonging is normal, I’d be rich. No, it’s nothing like a normal need. But would I blame those who had a healthy childhood for not being able to understand just how desperate I am for belonging? No. I won’t blame them. I understand it’s the sort of thing you need to have a lived experience in order to really “get”. They never will. And that’s okay.
Even if every human being on planet Earth feels like an outsider every once in a while… this does not (and cannot, EVER) compare to the sheer magnitude of what we feel, as children of abusive parents. It would be like trying to compare the momentary hunger a rich kid feels before the biggest meal of the day VS the hunger a very poor child is chronically suffering from, ever since they can remember. Both things are hunger! Both things make your stomach hurt and make weird noises — but at the same time, their magnitude is different, and they’re almost impossible to compare.
This is what made me have the realisation of a lifetime:
Childhood is actually a privilege.
This may sound crazy now in the 21st century, because we’re all under the illusion of prosperity — especially so if you have a roof over your head, your basic needs met, enough education to be able to read, and access to the Internet (therefore, I’m assuming every one of my readers can relate here. Same, by the way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be writing this article).
Usually, when we hear tales of people “growing up too fast” because they needed to work in order to help their parents make ends meet, or having to walk miles and miles barefoot to school, or [insert hardship here], it comes from our grandparents and great-grandparents. Doesn’t it? A lot of us grew up hearing those inspirational stories, which usually end with a remark of how “today’s youth have it so easy”. We’d all like to think that these problems stayed in the past, and now we all lead more comfortable lives regardless of social class.
In part, it’s true: we all have access to electricity, for instance — with the rare exception of isolated tribes in Africa and South America. Our grandparents and great-grandparents weren’t so lucky, even in places as prosperous as western Europe. Our standard of living has improved somewhat as time went by and certain conveniences became more accessible. Another contributing factor was the criminalisation of child labour in most developed countries, so that children now by and large are only allowed to go to school and play.
This is all to say: yes, we lead “easier” lives now, in comparison to 3–4 generations ago.
But does that necessarily mean all children are allowed to, you know, be children? Does that necessarily mean all children are spared from things like parentification and emotional abuse? While it’s fair enough to say that our physical needs are important… Don’t emotional needs also play a role in a child’s overall health?
Children are no longer forced to work…for money. What about unpaid work, though? A lot of us grew up looking after our siblings, in want of a mentally healthy parent to fulfil that role. Children are no longer forced to grow up too quick in order to help adults make ends meet… but where is the law to protect them against being used as an emotional support object for a narcissistic/psychopathic parent? I myself went through that, mother only had me in order to save her marriage — then proceeded to use me against dad when things still didn’t work out. I was never a person in my own right. I was a tool. And let me tell you: during all these years of emotional torture, and utter confusion (because my caregiver, the very person who should build me up was actually breaking me down), I can say with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t have been any different in case I had started working from an early age. In fact, I’d love that. It would have been a welcome distraction. In want of it, I hyperfocused on school, and spent as long in there as I possibly could, because things were so much worse at home.
You see, I’m not saying all the progress we have made as a society in order to protect and safeguard our innocent children was in vain. Of course it wasn’t! But I’m saying it’s unfinished. And unless we strive to improve on it, more and more generations will keep growing up having an illusion of childhood, but not the entire experience of it.
In fact, as we stand now, few people — very few — can confidently say they had a childhood. And it’s the kind of privilege that has nothing to do with race, gender, social class, religion, culture, anything like that. It has to do with mental health. Not only access to it, but destigmatising it, and demystifying parenthood, and holding abusive parents accountable. Nothing else can help address that. Until we start collectively focusing on these areas, the problem will keep happening.
If anything, there is some belonging in the fact that we all didn’t have this privilege.
This is a bit of a morbid realisation, and maybe it won’t help everyone the same way it helped me when I first had it. Nonetheless, it’s worth acknowledging. No child of narcissistic parents has had the privilege of childhood. It’s something that has been denied to all of us, regardless of background, regardless of our individual circumstances.
It isn’t by chance that we tend to be mistaken for “old souls” — to which I always feel like replying “well, no wonder, sherlock”. It’s quite obvious that when you’re left to your own devices (even if this abandonment only happens on an emotional level), you grow up fast. And although it’s a sad story, it’s something we can all sort of bond over — whether it’s a victim from a humble background, or a child of a millionaire. Narcissists come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life, but seem to operate according to the same script, and abuse their offspring in exactly the same way.
This also adds another layer of relatability to my communication with the Picts, as a medium. Childhood was considered a privilege for them, too, and very few Picts got to enjoy these early years of life — for different reasons than modern children of abusive parents (because they lived in dangerous times, with a lot less comfort than us), but the outcome was quite similar: growing up, losing their innocence, very fast. Funny how we find commonalities in the weirdest places, with people who lived many centuries ago. It goes to show that sometimes the idea that we are happier than people were in the past isn’t as true as we’d like it to be (although it isn’t entirely false either — but it’s complex). Some open-mindedness to learn from ancestors goes a long way.
Love it or hate it, the moment you realise this — that childhood is still a rare thing only afforded to a minority of people today — it eases the burden somewhat. When you grow up internalising the message that you’re broken, or a misfit, or “a problem” to your parents… Perhaps it helps to finally realise that none of that is actually true, because this entire problem has its roots in a deeper societal flaw that extends way beyond your own individual family. A flaw that needs our urgent attention, if we hope to spare the next generations from the same suffering we’ve been through.