Understanding the Child’s Experience

I’ve been asked by several targeted parents to describe the child’s experience. I will try.


Your child loves you. Have no doubt of this. Your child loves you more than anything. You are the world to them. Your child loves you very, very much.

But the world surrounding your child is a crazy upside down world of psychopathology.

Living with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent there is no anchor to reality; up is down, the sky is red, then yellow, then green; truth and reality shift with the whims and pathology of the parent. The child has become lost in an Alice in Wonderland world of swirling confusion.

To understand the child’s experience, we must begin by understanding the pathological core beliefs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent who has captured the child’s psychology.

Narcissistic & Borderline Pathology

While on the surface narcissistic and borderline personality presentations appear different, they are simply variations in the outward manifestation of the same underlying core beliefs within the attachment system. These core beliefs are called “schemas” or “internal working models” of attachment. Both the narcissistic and borderline personality types have their foundational origins in the same core beliefs contained within the attachment system.

The attachment system forms patterns of expectations for self- and other-in-relationship. For both the narcissistic and borderline personalities, the core beliefs regarding self- and other-in-relationship are identical:

Core Belief Regarding Self-in-Relationship: “I am fundamentally inadequate as a person”

Core Belief Regarding the Other-in-Relationship: “I will be rejected and abandoned by the other person because of my fundamental inadequacy as a person.”

Both the narcissistic and borderline personalities share this set of fundamental core beliefs within their “internal working models” of attachment. The only difference between the narcissistic and borderline style personalities is how these internal core attachment schemas are manifested.

The borderline-style personality has no established psychological defense against the continual experience of these core beliefs of primal self-inadequacy and fears of abandonment, so that the borderline-style personality is continually collapsing into irrational hostile-aggressive tirades and tearful episodes of supposed victimization.

The narcissistic-style personality, on the other hand, has been able to develop a fragile psychological defense against the direct experience of these core beliefs through a grandiose self-inflation in which the narcissistic-style personality entirely devalues the importance of others as a means to assert self-superiority and suppress fears of abandonment (i.e., “You’re inadequate, I’m wonderful. And I’m abandoning YOU because of YOUR inadequacy”). If this fragile narcissistic veneer is punctured by criticism, however, the narcissistic personality style will collapse into its borderline core of hostile-aggressive disorganization.

Both personalities have an underlying “borderline” core of primal self-inadequacy and fear of abandonment (i.e., attachment expectations for self- and other-in-relationship), and both have narcissistic features of complete self-absorption.  The difference is just that the narcissistic-style personality has been able to establish a fragile narcissistic defense against the direct experience of these underlying vulnerabilities, whereas the borderline personality-style personality has no inner psychological defense against the continual direct experience of these core attachment beliefs.

With this parental pathology in mind, we turn to the child’s experience.

The Grief Response

When the divorce occurred, your child was anxious and confused.

“What does the divorce mean? What’s going to happen?”

When children are anxious, their brain systems motivate them to “socially reference” their parents regarding the meaning of the situation. 

As a healthy parent, you gave your child an appropriately diffuse and balanced understanding regarding the meaning of the divorce.  Which is the right thing to do. 

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent, on the other hand, gave the child an unbalanced and highly distorted perspective about the meaning of the divorce.

The divorce also made the child tremendously sad about the loss of the intact family. Children love both parents, and no matter how much pain and anger was in the spousal relationship, your child still loves both of you, and still wants both of you to be together. But the divorce ended this. The intact family broke up.  This made the child sad.

When the divorce occurred, the child’s inner experience was one of grief and mournful longing for the intact family structure. This is entirely natural and healthy. The child was also anxious about what the divorce meant. What was going to happen?

In a healthy divorce process, our hope would be that the parents would avoid blame and minimize their spousal hostility toward each other so that the child does not become caught in the middle of the spousal conflict.  We want to allow the child to love both parents.

In a healthy divorce process, parents deflect the child’s questions about the spousal relationship and provide the child with calm reassurances that both parents love the child and that everything is going to be okay.

“Mom and dad can’t get along and we’ve decided to get a divorce, which means that mom and dad will be living in separate houses. But we still both love you very much, and we’re still both going to be involved in every part your life and in everything you do. Mom and dad will just being living in separate houses, that’s all. The divorce is between mom and dad, and it’s not about you, it’s about us. We both love you very much, and everything is going to be okay.”

As a loving parent, you did this.

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent did not.

In divorcing the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, you exposed their core vulnerabilities of primal self-inadequacy and fear of abandonment. By divorcing them, you publicly identified them as being an inadequate spouse and you abandoned (rejected) them because of their inadequacy. That’s a direct spot-on hit to their core vulnerabilities.

As a result, the fragile organization of their personality structure collapsed.

In order to reestablish their structural organization, the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent must externalize onto you their own primal self-inadequacy and fears of abandonment. They must make you the inadequate and abandoned person, and they can accomplish this through the child.

By inducing the child into rejecting you, the child’s rejection of you defines YOU as the inadequate parent (person) who is being rejected (abandoned) for YOUR inadequacy as a parent (person).

The child’s rejection of you allows the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to restore their narcissistic defense against the experience of primal self-inadequacy and fears of abandonment that had collapsed with the divorce. The child’s rejection of you allows them to psychologically expel (project) their core beliefs onto you; you’re the inadequate person (parent), and you are being abandoned for your fundamental inadequacy.

So they draw the child into the spousal conflict on their “side” and induce the child’s rejection of you in order to reestablish their psychological defense against the experience of primal self-inadequacy and to protect themselves from their terrible fears of abandonment (“I’m not the abandoned person – you are. The child belongs to me.  The child is not abandoning me.  The child is abandoning you.”)

From the perspective of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, this is all justified. To them, you are the embodiment of evil and you “deserve” to be rejected because of your fundamental inadequacy as a person (which actually represents their own experience of self-inadequacy which is being expelled from them by projecting it onto you).

You’re to Blame

To initiate the child’s rejection of you, the narcissistic/(borderline) parent first blames you for the divorce.

“Your mom is breaking up our family. She’s selfishly thinking only of what she wants, and she’s not considering our family, or what we may want or need.”

“Your dad doesn’t love us anymore. He’s decided to leave our family to start a new family.”

The child is already sad about the break-up of the family, and under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent this authentic sadness is twisted into anger and blame directed at you for causing the divorce.

You are trying to keep the child out of the spousal conflict, whereas the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is actively bringing the child into the spousal conflict, actively manipulating the child into taking the “side” of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. You’re the bad person who is causing the divorce, causing the child’s sadness.

Eliciting Criticism

The second phase is eliciting from the child criticisms of you, however small, that are then inflamed and distorted by the response these elicited criticisms receive from the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

By responding as if these minor elicited criticisms actually represent severe parental failures on your part, the child is led into falsely believing that these normal-range interactions between you and the child were actually “evidence” of your “abusive” parenting practices toward the child.

Typically, this is framed as your not being sensitive enough to “the child’s needs” (which contains the implied message that you don’t love the child).  The responses of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent to these sought-for and elicited child criticisms of you define you as selfish and insensitive toward the child, and the child comes to believe this.

Believing Falsehood

The child experiences an authentic sadness.

First over the loss of the intact family, then at the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with you. The child loves you and misses you. Once the child’s affectionally bonded relationship with you is disrupted by the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the loss of an affectionally bonded relationship with you makes the child extremely sad.

The child’s sadness is real and authentic.

However, under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is induced into misinterpreting this authentic sadness as being caused by something bad you’re doing as a parent.

When people do bad things to us, they hurt us.

Something about being with you hurts (in actuality, it’s that the child wants to bond with you and isn’t. It hurts because they miss loving you).  

The narcissistic/(borderline) parent twists the child’s sadness into blame and anger, and the narcissistic/(borderline) parent convinces the child that the source of the child’s hurt is your bad parenting. You’re a bad person, that’s why the child hurts.

This makes sense to the child. When people do bad things to us, it hurts us. The child hurts, so that means you must be doing something bad that is making the child hurt. Initially, this is framed as blaming you for the divorce. Then this is expanded to your not being sensitive enough to what the child feels and needs (i.e., the implied message is that you don’t love the child).

Under the distorting influence of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child falls down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, where up is down, the sky is yellow, and truth is whatever anyone asserts it to be.

Your child loves you very much.  The child is simply lost.

The Role-Reversal Relationship

In healthy parent-child relationships, the child uses the parent as a “regulatory other” for the child’s emotional and psychological experience.

In a role-reversal relationship, the parent uses the child as a “regulatory other” for the parent’s emotional and psychological experience.

The emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is unstable.  If the child fails to be who the narcissistic/(borderline) parent wants the child to be, the child is exposed to the collapse of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent into hostility, anger, and rejection of the child.

If, on the other hand, the child can read the inner psychological and emotional needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and respond in ways to meet those needs, then the child can stabilize the emotional and psychological functioning of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and prevent this parent’s collapse into disorganization, hostility, and rejection of the child.

In addition, truth and reality are not fixed constructs for the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  For the narcissistic/(borderline) personality, “truth and reality are what I assert them to be.”

So the child is living in a dangerous world where it is vital to continually meet the ever shifting emotional and psychological needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, and in which truth and reality are not fixed concepts but are continually changing, defined by the moment-to-moment needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

This creates a tremendous anxiety for the child being with the unstable and psychologically dangerous narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The child becomes hyper-vigilant for reading the emotional and psychological state of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent and meeting the needs of the parent to stabilize this parent’s emotional and psychological functioning.  This is the role-reversal relationship.  The child is acting as a “regulatory other” for the emotional and psychological state of the parent.

Surrender

When the child surrenders to the will of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is freed from the tremendous anxiety.  The child’s surrender into being what the narcissistic/(borderline) wants the child to be stabilizes the emotional and psychological functioning of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent. As long as the child is who and what the narcissistic/(borderline) parent wants and needs the child to be, the child is safe from the parent’s collapse into hostility and rejection of the child.

Indulgences

And in return for the child’s psychological surrender to the will and needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child is granted indulgences.  With a more narcissistic-style parent (typically, but not always, the pathological father), the child will be granted material indulgences and adult-like privileges.  With the more borderline-style parent (typically, but not always, the pathological mother), the child will be granted affectionate indulgences surrounding their idealized “perfect love” for each other.

But neither type of indulgence is love.  The narcissistic granting of material indulgences and adult-like privileges is actually a form of emotional and psychological neglect and an expression of parental non-involvement.  The borderline granting of hyper-affectionate bonding is actually to meet the borderline-style parent’s needs to be the idealized and totally adored “beloved,” in order to eliminate the parent’s fears of abandonment. 

The granting of indulgences to the child is not about the child, it’s about the parent.  The narcissistic-style parent doesn’t want to be bothered.  The borderline-style parent wants to be the center of the child’s universe, never to be abandoned by the child.

Fusion

So what does the narcissistic/(borderline) parent want from the child? 

They want the child to be a complete narcissistic reflection of the parent’s own psychological state. 

They want the child to be a totally fused reflection of the parent’s own psychological world.

When the child psychologically surrenders the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, the child enters a fused psychological state with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  The child surrenders authenticity for psychological fusion. 

This state of psychological fusion actually feels good… somewhat.  It’s like an experience of hyper-intimacy, it’s just that this hyper-intimacy is being purchased at the price of authenticity.  So sometimes the child may actually believe that he or she is sharing a loving relationship of perfect mutual understanding with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent . 

Yet there will always be echoes deep inside the child of loneliness and self-alienation. And there will be the grief and sadness of missing you.  Always there will be the grief and sadness of missing you.

Guilt

But in surrendering to the psychological will and needs of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent, your child has betrayed you, betrayed their beloved.

Your child loves you very much.  Your child has betrayed you.  This produces profound guilt.

The child must defend against this tremendous guilt, and they do so by making you “deserve” to be rejected.  It’s your fault.  You don’t love them enough.  You don’t… You didn’t… You never…  It’s your fault.

You “deserve” to be rejected. 

And the narcissistic/(borderline) parent is fully supportive of this interpretation of the child’s rejection of you.  You deserve to be rejected because you’re the inadequate spouse – person – parent, who is being rejected (abandoned) because of your inadequacy as a spouse – person – parent.

You failed to appreciate the narcissistic glory of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  You rejected and abandoned the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.  You “deserve” to be punished, you “deserve” to suffer.

In this shared false belief, the child is able to avoid the guilt of betraying you and the pain of losing you.

Your Child Loves You

Your child loves you with all their heart.  You are the world to them.  They are lost.  They are living in a psychologically dangerous world of ever-changing truth and reality.  They must do what it takes to survive in the dangerous psychological world of living with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

We must be able to protectively separate the child from the pathology of the narcissistic/(borderline) parent before we can restore the child’s authenticity.

I hope this helps in understanding the child’s experience.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Psychologist, PSY 18857

4 thoughts on “Understanding the Child’s Experience”

  1. This makes sense when I think about the state I was in when I was married to my ex. I wish I knew how to help my daughter. She got away from her dad. She seems to want to be near me, then complete contact is gone again. Thank you for helping with such information. You are so appreciated.

  2. Dr Craig, This blog spoke to absolutely every aspect of what is happening to me. This was exactly what my ex husband did to myself and my now 20 year old daughter. My question is what can I expect will be the outcome of my relationship with my child. As you have recommended, I have only communicated with ” authenticity, compassion and gentle kindness ” every 2 weeks with her, with no response from her.!How can I help her to bridge this gap between her father and I???

  3. Very intesting read. What do you do now that the courts ruled in favour of the dad ,seeing through the mothers npd . Now I’m the step mother who has encouraged my step daughter to connect with her mom and she and 3 counsellors disagree one being the person who did the views if the child report .all don’t believe it is in the daughters best interest to connect with the mother who is now blaming us for doing the very same thing she has done for 13 years? The judge gave her no secured access and no overnight acess due to My step daughters fears of her mother. It’s like the narcissism never ends and people with personality disorder cannot help but blame. This continues to damage the relationship .

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