The Narcissistic Family Structure

NM:  I can’t believe [recently-deceased spouse] NF would have spoken against me…

There are five “roles” within a Narcissistic Family structure:

  • The head parent/spouse – Will be an overt N with a virtual God-complex within the home, or a covert N who controls the family using an overt N spouse as a shield.  Usually a Malignant Narcissist who may take extreme measures to maintain the status quo.
  • The secondary parent/spouse – A weaker-willed enabler/codependent of the overt N, or the overt N thug and scapegoat of a covert N who will set up the secondary as the public head of the family. The Overt N may also be a Malignant Narcissist, though not as consistently malicious as the Head N.
  • The Golden Child – A common term referring to the preferred child within a family.  Anointed as such by the head of The Family.
  • The Scapegoat – The child who bears the brunt of any family turmoil.  Will often have the most expectations placed upon him/her.
  • Other children – In families with more than two children, the non-GC/SG children can usually move up and down the spectrum between GC/SG.  If a GC(less likely) or SG separates from The Family, one of the other children will be placed in that role.

These roles are present in a variety of family configurations, whether they are one- or two-parent families.  A single-parent household could have an overt or covert N in the parental role.  SOs can fill the secondary parental role as needed.  Within two-parent families either partner is capable of occupying the head role as an overt N, while the mother is more likely to fill the covert N head role due to society making it easier to hide behind the roles of mother/wife as opposed to father/husband.  This leads into an important point: Malignant Narcissists will publicly work within societal customs and roles to achieve and maintain control over their families and others close to them.  Ever heard “I don’t believe a mother would be capable of that,” “You know, you’re supposed to honor your parents,” “How could you separate from your mother,” and so on?  Societal customs empower parental abusers.

The golden child(or GC) will often be the offspring with whom one or both parents have a codependent relationship.  The parents will often live vicariously through the GC.  Any perceived wrong done to the GC outside The Family is seen as an outrage and any perceived accomplishment–no matter the significance–will be promoted as an outstanding achievement to be admired by all.  The GC is the most likely of the offspring to become a full-blown Narcissist because they’re used to having faults excused or ignored, claiming the majority of attention and having wants indulged at the expense of others’ needs within The Family.

The role of GC isn’t necessarily determined from birth.  It can be, as is seen in traditionally sexist families where the first-born son is automatically the GC.  Sometimes the head of The Family tests the children to identify the most conformist and aggressive personality amongst them.  This child is most likely to be groomed as they mature.  Aggressive conformity within The Family structure while outwardly submitting to the head N is the most desirable quality in a potential GC.  In situations where the GC is the opposite gender of the head N, the child may be gradually placed into the secondary position, displacing the same-gender parent in the family hierarchy set by the Malignant Narcissist.  This may raise some questions from perceptive observers, but many on the outside may see the GC as simply being “a good son” or “a good daughter.”

The GC is not exempt from the abuse doled out in a Narcissistic Family.  From an early age, the child may be abused physically and mentally to effect conformity and to instill a punishment/reward mindset connected to conformity and controlling the other children.  This control can range from acting as a covert N and telling lies about the other children, especially the scapegoat, to destroying and stealing possessions to outright physical domination.  The GC’s loyalty is also constantly tested along with that of the other children.

The role of scapegoat is largely self-explanatory.  This is the child everyone dumps on, yet is expected to look out for and be responsible for everyone else in The Family.  Blame for the actions of other family members will often be shifted onto the SG in some way.  Everything about this child is critiqued and frequently criticized.  If the SG is praised or given a position of greater power within The Family it is usually for a manipulative purpose and can be revoked at any time.  They are usually the people-pleasers inside and outside of The Family.  Submission to authority is often linked to forestalling conflict in a SG’s mind, so they will often tolerate unhealthy environments for lengthy periods at work and in public out of fear of retaliation.  Fortunately SGs are also usually the first to recognize the dysfunction of The Family and are more likely to get out after much stress and conflict.

The Narcissistic Family is a hierarchy beginning with the Head Malignant Narcissist at the top and running through the secondary parental figure to the GC, other children and finally the SG at the bottom.  The GC may eventually take the #2 position, especially if the GC is the opposite gender of the Head N.  The worst conflicts will come as a result of two changes to this order:  1. The death or separation of the enabler or shield parent, and/or 2. The attempted separation of the SG.  These create the most serious Narcissistic Injury to the Head Malignant N, as the partner and SG are the two main focuses of the N’s efforts.  This comes from the dual high of dominating a peer and dominating a child in the way only a parent can as a societal superior.

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5 thoughts on “The Narcissistic Family Structure

  1. This is an excellent post. It exactly portrays the family dynamic in such a clear and concise manner. It is imperative that more people looking into this type of family dynamic can see the abuse and strive to interject because at the heart of it are children subjected to daily trauma without so much of a blinking eye from others.

    I am grateful to have found you and your observations because it means that there is hope that ‘outsiders’ do and can see exactly what is going on.

    All the best to you, Anne

    • Thank you for your comment. I believe there are many more N families than anyone would like to admit. People are willfully blind to it either because they don’t want to confront their own family’s dysfunction or because they choose to take the socially acceptable approach of believing parents over children/adult children.

      I want to get the message across that others do sometimes see what is transpiring or that something “isn’t right,” but don’t reach out to offer advice because it’s taboo to interfere in family relationships on behalf of offspring.

      Making new connections is often the best way to break from a Malignant N’s orbit. While it may seem that they have everyone fooled, after one has escaped they can usually look back and realize the N has an extremely limited influence and purposely restricted the child to that small circle of supporters and co-Ns.

      I like “The Walking Narcissist” title, by the way.

  2. This is an amazing post. It’s very clear and (unfortunately) very true. I am an outsider narcissistic family survivor. Sadly still in a court with the GC, hence all of ‘the headquarters’. Thank you for posting.

  3. This article describes my family almost perfectly. I escaped…and I am the SC. The conflict of my leaving is still ongoing. I refuse to return to them and the insidious and cruel games they play. My father is the Head Malignant Narcissist, My mother is an enabler with Stockholm Syndrome. My older sister is the GC and the most treacherous narcissist in the family. She has obvious signs of Malignant Narcissism but no one will do anything about it and she covers well….the lies she has told about me has discredited me to all of our extended family. My husband watched this go on as long as he could and then we decided to brave what we knew would be severe conflict and we moved away….far away. I love my parents but I am not sure how much of that is a programmed response. I am terrified of being in their presence because I know too well the games they play. So I am here trying to solve this and live my life for God, Myseyeti-packlf and my own family. So far so good….thank you for this article…I think after experiencing this for my entire childhood and young adult years, I just needed it to be validated. God Bless You.

  4. Spot on. Sometimes when the abuse is sexual as well as physical the GC role can fluctuate. Good child, Bad child all to drive a wedge between the abused and any help or understanding from their sibs.

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