All children need attention. In addition to their bodily needs such as food and shelter, they have emotional needs for nurturing and love. Babies are hard-wired to get that attention—they cry when they need food, warmth, or other kinds of attention and they are mightily persistent. In a nurturing environment, these babies get their needs for attention met and as they develop, their needs diminish with time. But children whose needs are not adequately met still need the attention that is denied them and as they grow older their needs do not diminish even though they may appear to as the child’s demands may lessen with time. This may occur because either the child learns through repeated disappointment that certain people cannot be approached for nurturance, or the child is punished for such an approach and learns that to need anything is to be bad…or both.
Narcissists have no inclination to nurture: a narcissistic mother can fake it as long as she gets lots of attention and praise for her pretty baby and the cute clothes she dresses the child in, and some are even diligent about such things as bathing and changing and feeding, but there is no emotional attachment behind it. A family member of mine whose pregnancy was a surprise—and not an especially welcome one—once told me that after her son was born, she kept waiting for that “rush of mother love” she had heard about to come over her and it just didn’t happen. She looked at him and just felt nothing. She took adequate physical care of the child, but was completely disengaged from him emotionally.
Mothers like this tend to ignore their children to the greatest degree they believe they can get away with, as long as it doesn’t affect their own acquisition of admiration. Children can be lavished with gifts and toys as a means of neglecting them emotionally (giving them stuff instead of attention) or they can be deprived of everything except those most basic essentials…and a few may be criminally neglected to death. If the child wants or needs anything more than the mother has deemed necessary—and this is critical because the child’s actual needs are subordinate to what the narcissistic parent decides what the child needs, which may be poles apart—she perceives the child as demanding more than his due. Some mothers, like mine, completely ignore a child except in the most basic ways, giving only perfunctory attention to fundamental needs and being punitive when faced with a need—which she perceived as an unwarranted demand—for more.
It should be a no brainer to recognize that a child who actively demands attention is doing so because s/he is not receiving enough…or at least not enough of the right kind. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as there are children who demand an excessive amount of attention not because they have been abused or neglected, but because they have been conditioned to believe that they are entitled to monopolize the attentions of others. Since narcissistic parents often single out one or more children as “Golden Children” who are invariably spoilt and given privileges, goods, and attention denied to the Scapegoat children, it is quite likely in a multi-child household with at least one narcissistic parent that there will be more than one child clamouring for attention, assuming the Scapegoat, or neglected, child has not yet learned to stop trying.
Narcissistic parents are so self-oriented that often they cannot be bothered to investigate a child’s—particularly a Scapegoat child’s—complaints and dismiss them out of hand as “attention-getting devices.” In addition to the problem of the child being deprived of necessary attention by this, she is also deprived of any care her complaint would have elicited from a normal parent. From too-small shoes to toothaches to poor vision to medical conditions warranting a doctor’s attention, children who are dismissed as attention-seekers without having their complaints investigated can be neglected and ultimately end up neglecting themselves because if their parents didn’t think their toothaches or shaggy hair warranted attention, why should they? It is a self-esteem issue, a matter of a sense of self-worth, that was internalized from the value placed on them by their parents when they were children, dependent on their parents’ wisdom, good will, and love.
All children believe, at least when they are small, that their parents are omnipotent. From a completely dependent infancy where our parents’ judgments and activity literally meant life or death for us, we grow up believing and accepting that our parents gave us the care we needed—so if they denied us something, we believed we didn’t need it. Cognitively, however, we may recognize that we do need something, like bigger shoes or a trip to the dentist and if our parents withhold it, particularly if they withhold it from us while giving it to someone else in the family, we begin to learn that for reasons unknown to us, we are apparently unworthy and undeserving, while another child in the family is entitled. If we clamour for the attention we need, we are admonished, shamed, discounted, invalidated, and we come to learn that our own assessments of our needs are inaccurate (even when they, in truth, are accurate) Actions—behaviours—do speak louder than words, so by being neglected by our parents, we learn that we are not deserving of the same treatment as others in the household, that we are incompetent to assess our own needs, and that we are bad and selfish to try to draw attention to our needs or to try to put our need for a trip to the dentist ahead of our GC sibling’s new bicycle.
If, through independent means, we are found to actually need that which we have been clamouring for, it becomes our fault. I had my first fillings at age 13 or 14 as the result of a toothache that drove me to the school nurse. She packed some oil of cloves into the cavity, then called my NM to tell her that I needed dental work. At first NM denied it and said I was employing yet “another attention-getting device” and “refused to be conned” by me into “wasting money on a useless trip to the dentist.” When the nurse insisted, saying she would involve Child Services and have me taken to the County Hospital for the work, NM capitulated. But not without a price: looking in my mouth, I had four visible cavities in my molars. It was pre-fluoride days and I was 14 and had never been to a dentist before! But the cavities were not a result of her neglect of my oral health—oh no, they were my fault for not brushing my teeth often enough. (I had not had a new toothbrush since I was six, so it’s pretty obvious what a priority my teeth were to her.)
Unfortunately, the dentist was a ham-handed brute, the cavities were large, and by the time the teeth were filled, I had developed a life-long fear of dentists to go along with my belief that I did not deserve dental care except in the circumstance of extreme pain. It did not bode well for my dental future. Neglect on the part of parents, whether obvious like the denial of medical attention or more subtle, like the withholding of love and support, can have life-long and devastating negative effects on children.
Naturally, my NM did not neglect her own care. She saw her dentist regularly, including for teeth cleaning, and when she needed a doctor, she did not hesitate to go. I suffered greatly from allergies, particularly from fur and feathers, but not only did she keep a big hairy Persian cat, she wouldn’t take me to the doctor for allergy medications (no OTC meds for allergies back then, either). It was not until my constant sneezing and sniffling was an annoyance to her that I got allergy meds…but let her have the first sniffle, and it was off to an ENT to have her sinuses irrigated.
Appearances were everything to my NM. I have what is called a “natural turnout” and if she’d been interested in my taking ballet classes, she would quickly have learned that this is considered a rare and desirable advantage. Unfortunately, she was more interested in making me a singing and/or movie star so my “natural turnout” got termed “duck footed” due to “fallen arches” and for years I had to endure rigid arch supports that blistered my feet, ugly saddle oxford shoes that did nothing for my social standing, grace or comfort, and regular visits to a podiatrist for new supports as my feet grew. It never did cure me of the “duck walk” that my NM found offensive, but it did set me up for years of feet and knee problems in adulthood because I had to learn to pronate my knees and walk on the outsides of soles of my feet.
My GCBro was a robustly healthy child, a bit on the fat side, and until the age of 8 or 10, he wet the bed at night. While I got punished for not pointing my toes straight ahead when I walked (and was intentionally tripped by her to “make me aware” of how I was walking), GCBro was taken to specialists, including a chiropractor, to “cure” his bedwetting. She didn’t want to hear that he would eventually outgrow it, she wanted it fixed and right now. The contrast, of course, being that GCBro was never blamed for his wet bed nor told it was his fault, whereas my “duck feet” were my fault for being lazy and not paying attention to how I walked. (Note: I am not saying GCBro should have been blamed for his wet bed or be faulted for it, only noting that he did not endure the criticism and disdain I did for things equally beyond my control.)
I have always found it curious that NM was so fixated on my feet yet neglected legitimate medical complaints like my allergies, my teeth, my vision (getting my first pair of glasses was almost a verbatim repeat of getting my first fillings, complete with the school nurse threatening her with Child Services and me getting harangued non-stop for the week it took to get my eye appointment). People couldn’t see inside my mouth or through my eyes so it couldn’t reflect on her, and her response to my allergies was to tell me “Stop that goddamned sniffling and sneezing!” as if I was doing it on purpose, thereby reinforcing her schtick of being martyr mama to the Most Defiant Child in the Civilized World.
These children inevitably grow up to be adults and develop into two basic categories: the attention-starved and the attention whore. Sometimes they look confusingly alike on the surface, as both may use similar techniques to draw attention to themselves. But while they may look superficially similar, their motivations are light years apart: the attention whore feels entitled to attention, to people fawning over her, giving her what she wants, to taking what she wants…the attention-starved is just that—starved and desperate for any kind of attention that might validate her existence.
Both might demonstrate the same kind of outward appearance, say blatantly sexual in dress and behaviour, and they may get similar results—lots of male attention. But whereas one is doing it from a sense of entitlement, feeling she deserves the adulation, the other is grasping at crumbs of anything that she might be able to convince herself has a resemblance to affection. Both might engage in affairs with married men, the GC because she believes she is entitled to anything she wants and has no respect for others, including the betrayed wife, whereas the SG believes she must take what she can get when it is available, her own need so deep that it overrides her sense of right and wrong. The GC will feel entitled and will be unlikely to suffer remorse or shame; the SG will likely feel guilty but excuse herself with “But I love him…I can’t help it!” even when faced with incontrovertible facts proving she is nothing more than a temporary play toy. Their behaviours may look the same but the reasons behind them are light years apart.
The attention-starved may come off looking like an attention whore at first because she may display some of the same behaviours. Attention-starved women may also come across as shy or withdrawn or quiet, rather than as party girls. They may have learned that attention is a dangerous thing, that to draw attention to themselves too often can result in negative, hurtful attention. But regardless of whether she comes across extroverted or introverted, there is an element of desperation about her that reeks of deprivation, of having a hole in her soul, of her being a bottomless pit of need. It is to these women that narcissists and abusers gravitate because their very desperation sets them up to tolerate behaviour that well-balanced women—and even their GC sisters—would not stand for.
GC women tend to attract enablers, men who feed their overblown egos. Narcissistic men may be drawn to them due to their flashy, attention-seeking ways but such pairings are bound for conflict when they each expect to be the centre of attention. “Normal” men may be flattered to be the object of an attention-seeking GC, only to find out later that they were being used. Or, they may adopt enabling ways to keep the GC interested.
However they end up, you can be assured that children who are raised in such a way that they did not receive adequate, balanced, positive nurturing and attention will grow up into adults who will engage in unhealthy relationships as adults. They will gravitate towards people who are their opposite number, people who will support their self-image whether that image is one of entitlement or privation. Very rarely does a DoNM, whether a GC or SG, luck into a healthy relationship with a healthy partner simply because healthy partners do not fulfil their inner needs: they find them dull and boring or “too good to be true” and reject them in favour of less balanced partners who can be their yin to their yang. And absent awareness and therapy, they are doomed to repeat their unsuccessful or unsatisfactory relationships, relationships they have been groomed for since the cradle, for life.
Next: No Contact
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.