Syndromes, Semantics, and Protecting Our Kids

As a follow-up to the recent discussion on narcissism, I find myself curious about emotional abuse. While one does not automatically involve the other, some of the more damaging behaviors of the narcissistic personality do constitute abuse, though they may be so subtly plied we wonder if we’re imagining the negative spin.

Inching into the realm of emotional abuse, initially we begin to think there’s something wrong with us – we’re mistaken to feel demeaned, dismissed, or devalued.

We must have heard incorrectly. We misinterpreted. So we shake off the feeling in our gut, the early warning signs, and concentrate on the charm that comes as part of the package.

Bad Behaviors by Any Name…

I am specifically interested in the link between narcissism and emotional abuse. Both are terms that are highly charged, and no doubt overused in pop culture psychology, a fact which leads me to wonder about syndromes and semantics, the way we pick up on words and concepts relying on partial or interpreted variations, and jumping to (convenient) conclusions when it comes to those we’re talking about.

Who will deny we live in a label-happy society?

Still, whether we’re disturbed by behaviors that seem inappropriate or “diagnosing” without a license or training, does that make our awareness of harm any less real? Shouldn’t we know more about what’s going on and why? Shouldn’t we sensitize – or in some instances – de-sensitize our children to the potential impacts?

This leads me back to the desire to understand emotional abuse, which we often encounter in those with narcissistic tendencies.

And why do any of us care?

We fall in love with narcissists, we marry narcissists, we parent with narcissists, we divorce narcissists, we are children of narcissists, our children may be narcissists, we work with and for narcissists. Shouldn’t we be able to identify one of the most insidious of their tools? And even if those who are skilled in manipulation don’t meet the criteria for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder diagnosis, don’t we still want to protect ourselves and our children from emotional abuse? Don’t we want to model something other than emotional puppeteering for our children?

Defining Emotional Abuse

Sure, sure. We live in a time when people claim painful and abusive childhoods left and right. We write about them. We talk about them. Theoretically, we do both to understand, to move through the pain, and to become better functioning adults as a result.

It’s not like there’s a spectrum of emotional abuse (that I’m aware of), a sort of doctor’s pain scale that runs 1 to 10 as a means to communicate the degree of physical pain we may be in. Then again, much like the doctor’s pain scale, your 10 may be my 7; your 5 may be my 8. Likewise, one person may be significantly less affected by certain words or behaviors than another person – with a different nature, upbringing, and inner world.

In case you’re uncertain, the definition of emotional abuse is one person subjecting the other to behaviors that result in psychological trauma.

Turning to Psych Central, signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Humiliation… discounting… judging, criticizing
  • Accusing and blaming… unreasonable demands or expectations, denies own shortcomings
  • Emotional distancing and the “silent treatment,” isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect

There’s helpful detail at Psych Central, so be sure to take a look.


You may be on the receiving end of merciless teasing, cutting sarcasm, groundless accusations, a barrage of questions delivered in the form of interrogation in order to intimidate or ridicule. There is name-calling or more subtle undermining of your actions or skills, disregard for your feelings, and frequent statements that you are wrong.

There are “consequences” for not acquiescing to the wishes of the emotional abuser. These may take the form of the silent treatment (as mentioned above), dredging up negative emotional triggers as a way of further shredding confidence, or withdrawal of any form of affection.

Can’t we all say we’ve been on the receiving end of some of these behaviors at one time or another? Is calling it “abuse” justified, or is it manipulation that we recognize and tolerate on a temporary basis, adjusting expectations accordingly?

Is calling it abuse versus bad behavior a matter of semantics? Is it a matter of how we are impacted by the situation?

Narcissism and Emotional Abuse

You can easily see the overlap in what comprises emotional abuse and the narcissist’s bag of tricks. Likewise, you can imagine the anxiety and uncertainty that may result. At the very least, you doubt yourself as the years go on. You may begin to believe what you’re being told and “shown” – that you have no judgment, you’re inferior, you’re over-sensitive.

It may seem counterintuitive, but this solidifies your dependence on the person who is dishing out the abuse.

When it comes to the narcissist – the individual who lacks empathy, who exhibits a need for excessive admiration, who aggrandizes his accomplishments, who belittles others in the process – emotional abuse does not necessarily come along with the bargain.

The gentleman I described recently met every criterion for NPD, yet he was not emotionally abusive to me. Perhaps I can say as much because he wasn’t subtle at maneuvering others to do what he wanted. Consequently, I knew he was trying to get his way – a bit like a child – and arguing with him was simply more trouble than it was worth.

Using my mother as another example – and I could also tick off every item on the narcissism checklist – her words, actions, and absence of actions were especially cruel and confusing to a child. I could also tick off at least half the detailed mentions at Psych Central’s coverage of emotional abuse. Perhaps most confusing of all was not knowing whether I would get agreeable and appropriate behaviors from her, or the nasty and vindictive side. Strangely enough, consistently ugly behavior would have been easier to swallow than never knowing what was coming next.

In my opinion, this element of surprise is one of the most powerful tools for the emotional manipulator. You crave the approval of your parent (or partner), all the more so as esteem is further damaged. It’s so much easier to see the person as “all bad” or “all good.” And processing the inexplicable inconsistencies, which is hard enough on an adult? How can we possibly expect a child to make sense of it?

Children of Narcissistic Parents

My real concern, as a child of a narcissist and as a woman who married a person with many of the same tendencies, is for my children.

Will the child of someone who takes pleasure in belittling others pick up the same habits? Will that child become a people pleaser instead, to his or her eventual detriment? What other fallout will there be from the twists and turns of this kind of early life labyrinth? Will there be oversensitivity to certain behaviors or types of relationships? Lack of sensitivity? Anxiety, fear, depression?

Perhaps these are the concerns that many of us have – those who were raised around these behaviors, understand the power of emotional manipulation, and whether we categorize anything as a syndrome, a symptom, or sensationalizing bad behavior, we want to do what’s best for our kids.

We want to keep them out of harm’s way, keep them from learning these negative behaviors, keep them from seeing this sort of interaction as “normal” or even acceptable. If they have already mastered these same tactics, we want to respond appropriately – if we still can.

This leaves me wondering as well. If there is a spectrum of responses to a narcissistic and emotionally abusive parent – responses that range from mirroring that same (learned) behavior to becoming the polar opposite, which I might consider the highly sensitive person or even the “easy mark,” how do we prevent these extremes from occurring? If we see signs in our children of extremely low self-esteem, callousness and indifference, or use of the very same tactics with friends or siblings – then what?

And would we even be aware of these behaviors? While young children may not be adept at hiding who they are, by the time a child matures into a teen, it can be pretty easy to maintain distance, to pull the wool over a parent’s eyes, or to tell ourselves – “it’s just adolescence.”

Helping Kids Deal With Emotional Abuse

Those of us who have danced to the damaging tune of an emotionally manipulative parent or spouse want to break the cycle, not only for our own well-being, but for our children.

So how do we do that? How do we help kids recognize, understand, and deal with emotional abuse – or at the very least, manipulative behaviors?

We may recognize “bad behaviors” and decide to keep our kids away from them.  That may not be possible, and few situations are so simple – whether parents are married, separated, or divorced.

As in the case of my own mother, along with the destructive emotional manipulation there were lessons I consider extremely helpful in life – a passion for learning, the importance of working hard, and oddly enough, her absence of empathy paved the road for my abundance of that same quality. I might add that what I know about good parenting is informed by doing things differently from the way she did them.

Would I change certain things if I could?

Absolutely. But it’s not within my power to refashion the past. What is within my power is to look at the present and the future, my own children – and perhaps yours – and continue posing questions. The only answer I’ve ever come up with was to be the compassionate vessel when my children were confused or in pain, to attempt both caring and detached “explanations” of what they were experiencing, and to make enough space for love in the way all children need it – while providing as much security and consistency as possible.

Has it been enough?

I’m not sure I’ll ever know.