New research published in The Journal of Psychology investigated the relationship between narcissistic parenting and the practice of scapegoating their children. The findings reveal that those with mothers who had grandiose or vulnerable narcissistic traits as well as those with fathers who had vulnerable narcissistic traits are more likely to see negative psychological outcomes due to scapegoating.
Narcissism is a personality trait that has long been associated with a grandiose sense of self. However, recent empirical research has begun to acknowledge a vulnerable manifestation of narcissism, characterized by feelings of inadequacy and incompetence hidden behind a defensive sense of grandiosity. Both types of narcissism share the critical features of entitlement and antagonism, but the additional symptoms distinguish between vulnerable and grandiose types.
Individuals can demonstrate what is considered a normal amount of narcissism or a pathological amount. Studies have shown that children who have one or two parents with grandiose narcissistic traits can develop challenging psychological disorders as adults. When parents are grandiose narcissists, their children are at risk for developing anxiety and depression.
But the role of parental vulnerable narcissism in children’s mental health has not been researched as extensively. However, due to the congruent origins of the two types of narcissism, it is likely to have similar consequences.
Scapegoating is another construct that has been investigated in the context of its impact on children. It refers to the phenomenon by which members of a group “unfairly blame one member of the group for the difficulties and problems encountered by other individuals in the group or by the group itself” (Rothschild et al., 2012). Scapegoating can significantly impact children’s mental health and lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A family scapegoat is a common phenomenon in narcissistic families; Martina Vignando and Boris Bizumic aimed to investigate its relationship with perceived parental narcissism and the symptoms of anxiety and depression in emerging adults. The study surveyed 504 Australian adults (average age 22.38, 59.72% female, 38.09% male), using a path model to test perceived parental narcissism, presence of scapegoating and levels of anxiety and depression, controlling for demographic variables, and participants’ own narcissism.
The results indicated that perceived paternal grandiose narcissism was a direct predictor of anxiety and depression, while perceived maternal vulnerable narcissism, paternal vulnerable narcissism, and maternal grandiose narcissism had indirect effects on anxiety and depression through scapegoating. The more intense the scapegoating, the higher the anxiety and depression.
These findings indicate that scapegoating may be the connection between parental narcissism and adverse psychological outcomes in emerging adults. In response to these findings, Vignando and Bizumic posit that “the experience of being targeted as a scapegoat by family members in childhood significantly predicted increased symptoms of anxiety and depression in young adulthood, and greater anxiety symptoms were a potential additional repercussion of scapegoating.”
Interestingly, while higher perceived maternal grandiose narcissism predicted more scapegoating, this was not the case for similar behavior by fathers. This suggests that individuals who grow up in a household where mothers are perceived as grandiose narcissists are more likely to be blamed for the family’s challenges.
Overall, the study findings provide evidence to support the clinical literature on narcissistic families, which often include stories of a family scapegoat. Moreover, the study’s results suggest that scapegoating is an essential mechanism connecting parental narcissism with anxiety and depression in emerging adults.
The study’s limitations include the use of a non-clinical sample. None of the participants had official diagnoses, making conclusions about the consequences of narcissistic parents less reliable. Additionally, the study used self-report measures, which may be open to bias. Finally, the study utilized a cross-sectional design, making cause-and-effect conclusions impossible.
The study’s findings have implications for clinicians who treat narcissistic parents, as therapy should include attempts to reduce scapegoating of family members as a mechanism to protect children from harm.
The study, “Parental narcissism leads to anxiety and depression in children via scapegoating”, was authored by Martina Vignando and Boris Bizumic.