The Trauma Bond and Healing from Narcissistic Abuse
Posted On June 20, 2020
Narcissistic abuse of children is extremely harmful to their mental and physical health. These kids grow up with mixed messages about who they are and suffer other consequences from never feeling they belong.
This piece will focus on the trauma bond and the healing journey that children of narcissists must endure to live happy lives.
Traits of a Narcissistic Parent
One would think that a narcissistic parent would stand out in a crowd, but this is not true. Narcissists go to great lengths to look and act as good parents in public, all the while mistreating their children at home.
To help in recognizing a narcissistic parent, please see the list below.
- Always needing everything to be about them.
- Brags to others about their children’s accomplishments but not to their children.
- Always blames others for the problems that result from their bad behavior.
- Uses guilt copiously and brags about how much they do for you.
- Utilizes any of three manipulative behaviors, blaming, shaming, and guilt-tripping
- Uses negative comparisons about one child against another
- Places unrealistic pressure on their children to succeed so they will look good
- Manipulates by way of rewards and punishments
- Uses emotional coercion to force their children to measure up to their expectations
The list above does not begin to cover the ways narcissistic parents can harm their children.
The Trauma Bond
A trauma bond occurs because of consistent and ongoing cycles of abuse with an intermittent reinforcement of reward. This treatment creates a powerful emotional bond that is extremely hard to shake, like what happens in Stockholm syndrome.
Stockholm syndrome includes symptoms that occur when a person is held hostage or as a prisoner. People living under the circumstances of punishment and reward develop empathy, sympathy, and love for their incarcerator.
While children of narcissists are not legally held as prisoners, they are incapable of escaping the circumstances under which they live. Like with Stockholm syndrome, adult children of narcissists have become trauma bonded. These adults feel great empathy and protective of their parents, even knowing what happened to them in childhood.
The trauma bond is extraordinarily strong, and few are the people who can break it without professional help.
Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Reinforcement
In a home where one or both parents are narcissistic, the parent practices a pattern of cruel withholding of love mixed with random acts of affection and reward. This intermittent reinforcement leaves the children of narcissists perpetually seeking their abuser’s approval. Intermittent reinforcement also leaves the children to settle for the small crumbs of love they occasionally receive.
Intermittent reinforcement by narcissists hooks children’s brains into bonding with them, much like a gambler gets hooked by a game of chance. Indeed, children become addicted to always seeking rewards from their narcissistic parents because intermittent reward sets off a cascade of chemical reactions in their brains.
Biochemically, the brains of narcissistic victims release copious amounts of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline that are released during trauma. Dopamine is a powerful ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter that affects the pleasure center of our brains. The on and off again love and attention given to children by narcissists flood their brains with dopamine. This flooding causes what is akin to an addiction to the narcissistic parent (Fisher 2016).
Indications a Trauma Bond is Present
There is a quote by Frank Herbert, the author of the book Dune, that is a good fit in this section. “Knowing that a trap exists is the first step in avoiding it.” Trauma bonds are a trap that children form that can hold them back from living healthy lives as adults. Knowing that the trap exists, that one is a victim of a narcissist, is indeed the first step towards overcoming their effects on one’s life.
To fully become aware of the trap of the trauma bond with a narcissist, one must first become aware of the symptoms. Some of the indications of the existence of a trauma bond are below.
Walking on Eggshells. You find yourself trying to please your abuser, who gives you little in return. You walk carefully around the narcissist in your life to avoid ‘making’ them upset or angry.
Letting Go. Although you understand that your parent is abusive, you cannot get yourself to let go of the relationship. Instead, you ruminate over their abusive behavior towards you and engage in blaming yourself for the wrongdoing of the narcissist in your life.
Dependent. Your self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon what the narcissist says of you and behaves toward you.
You Change Your Behavior. You often change your behavior to give the abuser what they want, putting your own needs on the back burner. However, the narcissistic parent does nothing to meet your needs.
Addicted. As the child of a narcissist, you feel the need to have your parent validate and approve of everything you do. You continue to look toward the narcissistic parent for comfort only to be met with more abuse. You are addicted to being poorly treated and playing the narcissist’s game.
Defending the Abuser. You find yourself keeping the bad behavior of your narcissist secret and defending it to others. Even when others like family or friends try to warn you of what they see, you defend by claiming your relationship is a good one and that you are happy.
Self-Sabotaging Behaviors. One might begin to engage in any of many self-harming behaviors, including substance abuse, cutting, or developing an eating disorder. You might also find yourself dissociating away from the pain and shame caused by the narcissist.
The list above is not all-inclusive as there are many symptoms children of a narcissistic parent exhibit.
The Healing Journey to Overcome Narcissistic Parents
Healing from narcissistic abuse that occurred in childhood is an arduous and complicated road. However, if one wishes to live a full and happy life, then you must begin to work on the issues caused by the narcissist.
It may be necessary to maintain a distance and have no contact with the narcissistic parent. This may seem harsh, but until you get your sea legs, it may be the best thing you can do for yourself. Beware, the narcissist in your life will become infuriated by your standing up for yourself. Still, they will get over it in time. Remember, their focus is on themselves, not you.
Below we will discuss four of the steps to moving toward emotional independence and healing.
- Acknowledge the abuse that happened. This is perhaps the most painful part of healing. No one wants to admit to themselves that their parent did not love them but used them for their own ends. However, it is vital to recognize that your parent did not treat you well. Acknowledging narcissistic abuse happened gives one the power to knock down the barriers that have held you back for so long.
- Prepare yourself for some strong emotions. The trauma bond with a narcissistic parent is toxic, and breaking that trauma bond will set you up for a boiler room of emotions. These emotions might include:
It is imperative to remember that these strong emotions will pass as you gain more insight into who you are without your narcissist’s influence.
- Set firm boundaries and stick with them. If you do not have the privilege of distancing yourself from your narcissistic parent, it is vital to set impermeable limits with them. All through childhood, the narcissist has walked all over any boundaries you may have tried to set. Now is the time to build some barriers over which the narcissist or anyone for that matter may not cross. This step is scary as children of narcissists want to please their parents, but keep reminding yourself you cannot please them. Setting firm boundaries is essential to move toward independence.
- Seek professional help. Do not be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional for advice dealing with the emotional damages done by a narcissistic parent. The emotions that may overcome you when healing will be intense and could lead to substance abuse, or worse, suicidal thoughts. With the help of a competent therapist, there is no reason you cannot heal and achieve a sense of peace in your life.
As one might see, recovery from narcissistic abuse is not fun, nor is it for the faint of heart. Nor does healing from the life damages done by a narcissistic parent happen overnight. It takes time and self-care to accomplish healing and become who you were always meant to be.
Using Positive Affirmations
To change one’s thoughts about themselves after narcissistic abuse and to escape a trauma bond is extremely difficult. One way to defeat the negative self-talk that will fill your mind while healing, try practicing the use of positive affirmations. To utilize these crucial statements, stand before a mirror, and repeat the following statements:
- I am capable
- I am worthy of respect and dignity
- I open my heart to learning to trust again
- I know my truth, and no one can take that away from me
- It is okay not to be okay
- All my emotions are legitimate
- Every day I am healing more
- I am at peace with myself
- I accept myself with all my flaws
- I am exactly where I should be considering where I came from
- Right this moment I am safe
- My needs and desires are just as important as anyone else’s
- I trust my inner voice
- I am enough
While it may seem silly to tell yourself these things, if you do it enough, they will sink in and become prophecies of your new life. Look yourself straight in the eyes when you repeat these affirmations. After all, you genuinely are worthy.
“Although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the feeling of being beautiful exists solely in the mind of the beheld.” ~ Martha Beck
Fisher, H. (2016). Love Is Like Cocaine – Issue 33: Attraction. Retrieved from: http://nautil.us/issue/33/attraction/love-is-like-cocaine