This series has focused on narcissism and narcissistic abuse of children and how their past inhibits their present. However, some questions need answering, including the most common, “Why did she/he act that way?”
This article is purely scientific and does not, in any way, excuse the behaviors of narcissistic parents and the abuse they perpetrate against their children. All adults are entirely responsible for their actions, no matter the extent of their illness. This article will attempt to answer the question above. Also, we shall talk about the scope of the damages done to the brains of children of narcissists.
First, A Recap on Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a condition where people have an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep-seated need for attention and admiration. Those living with NPD show a distinct lack of empathy for the feelings and needs of others
Narcissists love to exert power over those they can easily control and rarely if ever, admit to their faults. Dr. Sandy Masterson, in her book What Is It About You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, relates seven descriptions that identify a narcissist.
- Narcissists harbor a great deal of shame but are unable to connect with it and process it in a healthy fashion. As a result, narcissists act without shame.
- Magical Thinking. Narcissists think of themselves as perfect, i.e., the ideal wife, husband, and parent. They employ magical thinking to rationalize away any harm they do by placing the blame on their victims.
- Narcissists have an over-inflated sense of greatness and importance. To maintain their self-view of importance, they diminish and degrade others.
- Narcissists imagine themselves as great people, yet they envy what others have or have accomplished. They may, for example, envy their daughter for her relationship with a boyfriend and try to interject themselves into the relationship.
- Narcissists feel and expect favorable treatment and will practice two-faced standards, even going so far as to break the law because they think the law does not pertain to them.
- Narcissists exploit others without regard to the rules or the feelings of others. Deep down, they believe that people are expendable and that they deserve to have all their needs, no matter how harmful, met.
- Lack of Boundaries. Narcissists do not respect other’s space and see themselves as part of others. They might be “hooked at the hip” with a daughter or son living vicariously through them.
It is evident that narcissists are very harmful to those around them and have few redeeming qualities.
Emotional awareness is the aptitude to recognize and understand the emotions inside a person and those around them. Emotional awareness is a huge part of emotional intelligence, which simply put means that one can learn from and make decisions based upon the emotional needs of others (Gu et al., 2013).
If one has a high emotional intelligence level, they can learn rapidly and ponder upon emotions that are felt by others and react accordingly. However, narcissists live lives devoid of empathy, respect, and caring for others. Their emotional intelligence level is near zero as they dominate over others, significantly harming them.
Narcissists have something missing in their ability to empathize and care about the needs of others. They walk all over the people they should love and have no respect for the feelings of others.
The Anterior Insula’s Part in Feeling Empathy
Before going forward, it is vital to understand that while brain changes influence the behavior of narcissists, damages done during their upbringing also play a role.
There is a region in the human brain that is considered the seat of compassion and empathy, known as the insular cortex. The insular cortex is deep in the cerebral cortex, a region made of folded gray matter (the wiring of the brain) that plays an enormous role in conscious awareness (Hagman et al., 2008).
The insular cortex is divided into two spheres, the larger anterior insula, and the smaller posterior insula (Udin et al., 2017). For our purposes, we shall examine the role of the anterior insula.
It is through the activity in the anterior insula that emotions are recognized, not only of one’s own but of others as well (Lerner et al., 2015). While this may all seem very technical, it is vital to understanding why narcissists are so into themselves and have no empathy for others.
fMRI Studies and the Brains of Narcissists
The anterior insula is not the only region of narcissist’s brains that are not normal as gray matter, in general, is affected. Gray matter consists of connective tissue that is covered with an insulator known as myelin and acts as the wiring connecting the brain so its structures can communicate.
In a study conducted by Universitätsmedizin Berlin, researchers utilized a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device to test their theory that the gray matter of narcissists is not correct. To experiment, the scientists analyzed the brains of 34 subjects, 17 people known to have the diagnosis of NPD, and 17 who were not.
Their findings were fascinating. Not only was their anterior insula and white matter abnormal, but also their cerebral cortex (the thinking and reasoning part of the brain) had abnormalities as well. They noted in their research that all these structures are involved in the processing and generation of compassion for others (Schulze et al., 2013)
The reason we examined the brain changes in narcissists isn’t to allow them off the hook, but rather to further negate any thoughts one might have that the abuse they suffered at the hands of these people was their fault.
It absolutely was not.
The Brains Narcissistically Abused Children
Narcissistic abuse is the psychological, sexual, financial, and physical abuse of others by a narcissist. Children of narcissists also, like their parent(s), form brain damage from maltreatment.
When children suffer at the hands of a narcissistic abuser, some crucial brain regions are affected, including damage to the hippocampus and amygdala. These changes lead to devastating effects on the lives of these children.
The hippocampus is essential for learning, and the development of memories and the amygdala is where emotions like fear, guilt, envy, and shame are born. Overstimulation by an abusive parent(s) of these vital areas in the brain leaves the child with a shrunken hippocampus and amygdala. Because these regions are smaller than average, the child will grow into adulthood with a sincere lack of the ability to handle their own emotions, especially those of shame and guilt.
The damage to the amygdala of the victims of narcissistic abuse become trapped in a permanent state of fear and anxiety and react badly to environmental triggers that remind them of the violation by the narcissist. This means that victims of narcissistic abuse are constantly alert to the danger that does not exist now.
This hypervigilance leads children of narcissists also leads to panic attacks, phobias, and other panic disorders that significantly inhibit them from living full and productive lives.
This article has been very technical, and for some, perhaps unsettling. Again, just because narcissists have damaged brains does not alleviate them from the consequences of their actions. Narcissistic parents damage their children’s brains and cause enormous amounts of sorrow, grief, and fear.
We hope that we have begun to answer the question, “Why does she/he act that way?” While being a narcissist may not be a chosen way of life, it is worth noting that most narcissists never enter treatment because they cannot concede that their bad behavior is their fault.
Narcissistic abuse is never, ever the fault of those who are its victims. This is especially true when those being harmed are kids. Remember that, please, remember that.
“The big lesson here is this: deal with life as it is. Do not get stuck in protesting reality for what it “ought to be.” If you give up the demand that life and the people in it be something other than what they are, you will find creative solutions to every difficult situation.” ~ Henry Cloud
If you or a loved one are living in the despair and isolation that comes with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please, come to us for help. The CPTSD Foundation offers a wide range of services including:
- Daily Calls
- The Healing Book Club
- Mindfulness, Prayer, and Meditation Circle
- Support Groups
- Our Blog
- The Trauma-Informed Newsletter
- Daily Encouragement Texts
All our services are reasonably priced, and some are even free. So, to gain more insight into how complex post-traumatic stress disorder is altering your life and how you can overcome it, sign-up, we will be glad to help you.
Gu, X., Hof, P. R., Friston, K. J., & Fan, J. (2013). Anterior insular cortex and emotional awareness. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 521(15), 3371-3388.
Hagmann, P., Cammoun, L., Gigandet, X., Meuli, R., Honey, C. J., Wedeen, V. J., & Sporns, O. (2008). Mapping the structural core of human cerebral cortex. PLoS biology, 6(7).
Hotchkiss, S. (2008). Why is it always about you?: the seven deadly sins of narcissism. Simon and Schuster.
Lerner JS, Li Y, Valdesolo P, Kassam KS. Emotion and decision making. Annu Rev Psychol. 2015; 66:799–823.
Uddin, L. Q., Nomi, J. S., Hebert-Seropian, B., Ghaziri, J., & Boucher, O. (2017). Structure and function of the human insula. Journal of clinical neurophysiology: official publication of the American Electroencephalographic Society, 34(4), 300.
My name is Shirley Davis and I am a freelance writer with over 40-years- experience writing short stories and poetry. Living as I do among the corn and bean fields of Illinois (USA), working from home using the Internet has become the best way to communicate with the world. My interests are wide and varied. I love any kind of science and read several research papers per week to satisfy my curiosity. I have earned an Associate Degree in Psychology and enjoy writing books on the subjects that most interest me.
I would like to join.
I’m not sure what you would like to join but you are very welcome. If you need financial assistance please go to cptsdfoundation.org/scholarship
What research citation supports the statement that children of a narcissist parent have brain damage ?
Narcissistic abuse of children is child abuse and child abuse causes dramatic neurological changes. Here is one paper that supports this fact:
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2003). The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 12(2), 293-317.
There are many more.
How do I protect my son from his narcissistic father. In the last couple of weeks there’s been a drastic change affecting his memory. I couldn’t figure it out at first. It was his facial expressions that were breaking my heart. I called to report my son being abused. Twice of FaceTime and because he’s a great liar. Nobody believes us. I don’t know what to do anymore. I feel helpless. I’m in the process of filling protective restraining orders, but I’m terrified that the court won’t believe us. He thinks it’s a joke and laughs, while he’s lying of course. I can’t believe how heartless he is, it’s his son.
Any advice…..please help, I would love to hear how some got free from it.
It sounds like you are doing all the right things. If one judge refuses to give you an order of protection appeal their decision. I sure hope you and your son find peace soon.
I am so sorry to hear this 🙁 I have a 1 yr old and his visits with her get longer and longer every month, I am terrified he is going to cause brain damage because he treated his 5 yr old son so poorly when we were together. Going through the court now, he was able to get joint custody, and he’s trying for 50/50. It has completely ruined my life, it’s all I ever worry about. Let me know if you figure out any solutions♡ [email protected]
I just read your article and was wondering about the spiritual development of narcissists and if they have any moral instincts, and if so, would those instincts be a source of inner battles?
The very nature of narcissism may preclude being able to answer both questions as narcissists do not believe anything is wrong with them. Morality as we see it may be radically different from their point of view but even those that exist may not set off any inner battles. It is so difficult to understand how a narcissist thinks unless you are a narcissist yourself. I’m not an expert these are just my thoughts. Perhaps someone who is an expert will answer this question better? Shirley
I would like to join I have been diagnosed cptsd And any help would be awesome
Go to the contact us page and drop us a line. Someone will get back with you shortly. Thank you! Shirley
Same, I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve tried so hard and learned so much but the pain of it all still feels so crippling some days. I’ve never been treated with such utter contempt and disregard by someone I loved so dearly. Time has helped come to grips with the reality of it all but it still hurts down to my soul. I need more help but I need to be strong for everyone and I can barely take care of myself anymore. I need to live again but I can’t push myself anymore It’s all been too much and too hurt too deep…
I’m so sorry for your pain. It must be awful. I have no sage advice except to point you to a mental health professional who can help you think your way through this. That is very unpopular advice, but it is all I can do. Please, take care of yourself. We will be thinking of you. Shirley
I would like help how do I go about it
Im a 57 yr old women who has been looking for answers to try to find any kind of reason or resolution to the soul destroying misery ofmy childhood and beyond. This artical has answered so much for me. It was a complete revelation. Just to see it in black and white. Thank you. Clarification at last
I’m so glad we could help! Shirley
How do i go about getting some help with this for my sister and i. Can you please give me some advise about the best way to go about achieving this. Thank you
CPTSD Foundation is gathering names and information of clinicians who treat CPTSD that can help you and your sister. Go to the contact us page and send an email telling them what you need and they will get back with you.
Thankyou so much for your help.
You are welcome. Shirley
My narcissistic mother disowned me and my children when we moved away. She bit my young son. She told my daughter she was fat. My mom blamed me when she was robbed twice. She ruined my life. Luckily I always clung to my dad. Mom is now living in a Memory Care facility with Dementia. My younger sister is caring for her, and my mom is constantly blaming her, throwing things, she hates her life, thinks she’s in a prison, she hangs up on us, cries all the time saying we made her sell her house. I cannot take care of my mom. I don’t want to even visit her, is that wrong of me?
No, it’s not wrong. You may want to consider if your conscience will allow you not to visit at least once. It’s okay to stay away, but for YOUR sake, not hers, you must do what your heart tells you is right. Shirley
How sad I am involved with such a person my life is ruined I cannot get him to see what he’s done I’m afraid and most of all I hate myself for wanting to get a restraining order I wish God didn’t make these ppl it’s not fair for them or ppl that live them I hate this world and it’s sad that ppl have to live with this is order it’s so sad my heart is broken for all who live with this I hope you can get better you could be wonderful I hate that I will never understand how to deal with life having that is it scary or a normal feeling for you ppl cus being a monster is awful and that what you ppl are spirituality…” Monsters” You destroy Ppl who care and love you
My daughter was in a relationship with a guy who is a real Narcissis and he controlled her in every way. she left him after two years but they had a child and the Family Court in England allowed him to have 50/50 of their young daughter. The judge was an idiot who refused to hear or read any of her evidence. So much for British Justice.
Hi I’m so terribly sorry to hear that your daughter didn’t get a judge who took her concerns seriously. I and my sister in law are in the same predicament at the moment. Her ex husband has applied to court and i am about to start mediation with mine. If you have the time could you please tell me what evidence was presented to the judge? It would be very helpful to us. We are also mothers who are desperate to protect our children from the negative impact of their fathers’ narcissistic behaviours. If she doesn’t already, please refer your daughter to Kim Saeed’s articles about narcissism. They have been brilliant in helping me to heal. I hope they can be helpful for her too. Please tell her to be strong for the sake of her child and don’t give up trying to protect them as much as possible. Keep documenting everything. I hope one day she will get a judge with understanding and humanity who will give her full custody and protection from that monster. All the best for the future
ok hc before you start bashing fathers im gonna tell you i am the father of 2 that was abandoned by their mother so she could” have her freedom” and not be bothered by her kids. Im raising them on a disabled veterans pension while she pursues other avenues.like clubbing to sunrise and soaking the system.Its not always the dad who hits and runs!!!
I agree. Women can be narcissistic too. My mother was a narcissist and so I can empathize with you, John. We must not forget the male victims of this disorder. Shirley
I wasn’t bashing fathers John. If you read my comment again you’ll see that i put ‘their fathers’ as i was referring to these 2 particular fathers, not every single father in the world. I’m very sorry to hear of your situation. I am well aware of mothers behaving just as cruelly as i unfortunately have had to deal with my own narcissistic mother. I have only found relief many years later as i no longer live with her and i am constantly educating myself about narcissism. I hope your children know that they are no less because of their mother’s selfishness and I’m glad that they have at least one parent who cares about them. All the best for you and your family
Flynn, what a horrible thing to say. She was sharing her experience with her husband and her daughter and her life. It was not about you at all. Only a narcissist would say something like that. Hmmm,
Hi there, thanks for the explanation.
I’m looking for the reference about the brains of the abused children, do you have it somewhere?
Thank you for writing. Here is a link to get you started.
Please tell me if there are any treatments for a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Here is an article about the treatment for narcissistic personality disorder. However, the narcissist must want treatment and seek it out. \
It says if you need help sign up but I don’t see where to sign up?
Sign up for what? I am more than willing to help you, Shirley
What do you need from us? We can only help if you tell us what you need. Shirley
Iam trying to get a brain scan how could I from abuse
While the changes to the brain from childhood trauma can be seen on a brain scan, it is difficult if not impossible, for now, to prove that the changes were caused by abuse. A brain scan will only prove that you could have brain changes. I’m sorry. in the future using a brain scan WILL prove trauma occurred in childhood, but not today. Shirley
Thankyou for the highly informative and insightful article.
I was once married to a narcissist lady for thankfully less than 2 yrs.
She had told me her dad was “The biggest narcissist in the world”. However after all the stories were told, I believe that her mother was the strongest narcissist, and the one who influenced her and her 2 brothers the very most. Lately I have been researching the actual brain scans and the nueralogists analysis of both a narcissist’s and a victim’s MRI.
My question for you: have you seen verified instances of a truly clinical narcissist that has broken the cycle after reaching adulthood? If so how?
I’m afraid I have not found any information on that subject. Keep Googling, especially look in Google Scholar. Shirley
I can’t believe what im reading! My mom is a narcissist. Im an only child and was abused physically and emotionally all my life at the hands of my mom. I development a Seizure Disorder when I was 35 with short term memory problems however, being abused is unforgettable.. Thank you for helping me understand where and how I developed some of my problems.
I believe I’ve suffered from narcissistic abuse and need help but sont know where to find it
You need a therapist. Here is a link to a great resource to find one in your area.
You can also get help and insight by attending one of CPTSD Foundation’s programs. They are reasonably priced and if you cannot afford to attend, there is a scholarship program.
Good luck on your journey. Shirley
This is a very informative post. It’s important to have a plan when dealing with a narcissistic co-parent in custody disputes. If you want to know more about this, head over to what kind of questions do you ask a narcissist in child custody? where you can find all the information you need.
Labels are a powerful tool that help us categorize and understand the world around us. By assigning labels to people and things, we can quickly make sense of complex information and communicate more effectively with others. However, it’s important to be mindful of the potential negative impacts of labeling, especially when it comes to mental health. Resources like https://us.calmerry.com/blog/stress/acute-stress-disorder-everything-you-need-to-know/ can provide valuable insights into the ways labels can affect our mental health, and how we can mitigate these effects to promote greater well-being.