Unpredictable Structure & Conditional Love: Personality Disordered Parents

Arrested Development: Season 1, Episode 12. “Marta Complex”
Lucille Bluth gives her adoptive son a glare that solidifies her place
in the Narcissistic Mothers on TV Hall of Fame.

Parents with Personality Disorders

What is it like growing up with a parent with a Personality Disorder?  At best, confusing, disruptive, and upsetting.  At worst, terrifying, abusive, and violent.

The most commonly discussed form of abuse that is discussed is physical abuse, because the results are clearly visible to the eye.  It is hard to argue the legitimacy of physically injuring children.  Yet physical abuse and emotional abuse create the same psychological effects: Complex PTSD.

Parents with Cluster B Personality Disorders (Anti-Social, Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic) are classified as being excessively dramatic and self-interested.  Due to the extreme rigid and black-and-white thinking that comes with Personality Disorders, parents with such disorders come across as dysfunctional dictators.  They take you on a guilt trip while treating themselves to a power trip.  They refuse responsibility and rewrite the past to suit them (gaslighting).  In their fictional version of events, they will paint themselves as the martyr or play the victim, always skirting all responsibility.

Personality Disordered parents can be egotistical, attention seeking, and lack proper emotional empathy.  They can be excessively hateful, holding unnecessary grudges and seemingly permanently defensive.  Parents with these types of disorders sometimes have addictive behaviors in addition to their personality disorders.  Addiction is a much larger topic than I can properly address in this post, but it is worth noting that addiction is not limited to drugs and alcohol; addiction can be to any number of things not normally seen to be as addictive, including television, food, or attention.  While parents with Cluster B Personality Disorders sometimes engage in physically abusing their children, the more common form of abuse is emotional. 

 Emotional Abuse

For all the damage it causes, emotional abuse gets discussed very little.  Emotional abuse can take the form of neglect, contempt, manipulation, emotional incest, isolation, and using the child as an extension of themselves.  Emotionally abusive parents undermine their children’s identity, confidence, and future.  They deny their children the attention they rightfully ask for, emotionally neglect and socially isolate their children, and withhold basic needs like food and clothing.

Parents with these disorders will sometimes violate boundaries without concern, and at other times be very secretive.  They are hyper critical of their children and frequently make demeaning comments, sometimes played as a “joke”.  They can appear to have two personas: the cruel and abusive person inside the home, and the friendly and caring facade outside the home.  Everyone who doesn’t live with you doesn’t see the abuse happen. Given the near universally acknowledged hierarchy of trusting adults over children, it becomes very easy for these kinds of parents to create an image of their children as “troubled”, throwing themselves into the role of concerned caretaker and paint their children as problems.  My father regularly referred to me as “Problem Child” as though it was my name.

Personality Disordered parents project their own emotional turmoil onto their children.  They overreact, becoming excessively angry, yell and threaten.  They may even seem to take some joy in scaring their children.  One aspect of emotional abuse that is often overlooked is the way inappropriately sexual conversation can damage a child.  Emotional Incest is a term used to describe when a parent uses a child in place of an intimate relationship, relying on them as emotional support and using them as a second parent to any other children.  Emotional Incest may or may not involve overtly sexual discussion, but either way, it is an extremely upsetting position for a child to be put in.


The highly polarized black-and-white thinking of these kinds of parents leads them to give many ultimatums.  They pigeonhole people they meet, labeling them only as extremes on a continuum: good or bad.  Two terms that are nearly always used when discussing dysfunctional families reference two ways personality disordered parents (with their black-and-white thinking) tend to classify their children — golden children and scapegoat children.  

Golden Children

Golden children, as the name suggests, are the favorites.  But being the favorite of a disordered parent does not make for an easy life.  People with Cluster B Personality Disorders, particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder, do not properly see other people as individuals.  Personality Disordered parents use their golden children as an attention supply and see their golden children as an extension of their own self-perceived perfection.  Their “love” for their golden children is conditional on the children living up to the parents’ delusional version of perfection.

Everything that golden children are given seems to come with strings attached.  They are frequently “parentified” by their dysfunctional parents, used as emotional support in place of the other parents.  The other parent may be absent completely, enable the dysfunctional behavior of the disordered parent, or be a scapegoat to the disordered parent, as much trapped in the abusive household as the children.  Dysfunctional parents attempt to force their golden children live the way they demand.  Their engulfing favoritism of the golden child can sometimes take the form of envying their own children, and competing with them over intelligence, appearance, or ability.

Scapegoat Children

Scapegoat is a term used to describe someone who is unfairly blamed.  The title could not be more accurate for scapegoat children.  As Personality Disordered parents project their fantasized qualities onto their golden children, so do they project their self-hatred onto their scapegoat kids.  Scapegoats are criticized, humiliated, shamed, and frequently called names.  Dysfunctional parents abandon their scapegoat children emotionally, by ignoring their needs, minimizing their thoughts and feelings, and may even physically isolate their children.

Disordered parents have the kind of contempt for their children that makes them scapegoats because they see their scapegoat children as extensions of their repressed self-hatred.  They will find any excuse they can to punish a scapegoatchild, creating household rules out of thin air in order to justifying berating the scapegoat.  The unpredictable structure that comes with this kind of parenting is extremely confusing for a child: nothing they can do satisfies the parent, they lose hope that they will ever be appreciated or loved.  The rage that a dysfunctional parent feels towards their scapegoat children may come from their own repressed self-hate or envy of something about their child.

Only Children

Only children do not have siblings to be compared to, and end up playing the role of both scapegoat and golden child, with the disordered parent flopping between them seemingly randomly.  Sometimes the disordered parent casts their co-parent in the role of scapegoat or golden child opposite their only child.  Only children of dysfunctional parents experience many things that both scapegoats and golden children experience.  The dysfunctional parent may manipulate the children against their other parent just as they manipulate scapegoats and golden children against each other.  Personality Disordered parents routinely break the trust of their children, betraying their confidance and sometimes blackmailing them.  The atmosphere in a household with a parent disordered in these ways is extremely oppressive.

Personality Disordered parents will take it upon themselves to undermine their scapegoat children and golden children with similar motivation.  The central goal is to keep their children attached to them in some way, feeding off the emotion they elicit like emotional vampires.  Scapegoat children are undermined to assist in brainwashing them of their incapability.  Golden children are undermined to keep them dependent on the parent who feeds on any attention their children can bring them.  When children do not live up to the unreasonable ideas their disordered parent has created, the parent may swap golden children and scapegoat children, attempt to guilt trip their children, fly into excessive rage, and in some cases disown their children.  

A bit on Narcissists Specially

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the disorder from Cluster B that I can most discuss in detail, as I have had Narcissists around me my whole life.  As I described in my Personality Disorders 101 post, Narcissists are created when they, as a child, suffer a kind of narcissistic injury.  The narcissistic injury splits the person’s understanding of themselves into their facade personality, which is perceived to be perfect but is frequently anywhere from obnoxious to abusive, and their underlying knowledge of themselves where their self-hate is repressed and wrongly projected onto others.  To maintain these two contradictory perceptions of themselves, Narcissists need a narcissistic supply to feed into their facade of perfection and delusion of grandiosity.  When this idealized version of themselves is threatened or compromised (that is, when someone starts to see them for what they really are), Narcissists will go into a narcissistic rage.  Just as Narcissists need people to feed off for a narcissistic supply, they need people to rage at.  [3]

For the Narcissistic parent, the golden child is seen as a means to this narcissistic supply, and the scapegoat child is used as a receptacle for the narcissistic rage.  The mainpulation and attempts to control the golden children comes from the Narcissist’s desire to control  and perfect their own image.  They will rewrite the past with themselves as the martyr, doing no wrong.  At the same time, they repress the parts of themselves that they know are unlikeable, claiming that they never did abusive things or have no memory of saying hurtful comments.  The rage directed at scapegoat children is truly terrifying.  Just as Narcissists try to stifle the things in themselves they dislike, they try to extinguish the scapegoat children’s sense of self: killing them psychologically.  This is one of the ways that the death-like feelings of hopelessness and helplessnes from Complex PTSD develops.

Growing up with a parent with a Cluster B Personality Disorder is a complicated and difficult experience.  It can sometimes feel like growing up with dysfunctional children as roommates, rather than having parents at all.  In future posts, I’ll write more about this childhood experience, the issues of only children, scapegoat children, and golden children, and the “other parent” in these kinds of dysfunctional families.  I’ll of course come back to Narcissistic Personality Disorder again: I plan to talk about Narcissists in other positions of power (teachers, bosses, etc.) as well as discuss the concept of emotional vampirism more.


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