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Children of parents with dark triad personality traits may be seen as merely a tool or possession.

The so-called dark triad personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — manifest in people as excessive self-love, a manipulative attitude, and a lack of empathy.

It’s unclear how many people have these traits, but various studies and estimates put the number at somewhere between 1% and 10%.

People with DTP traits are often reported to have an obsession with themselves and struggle to see the point in other people’s feelings. Because of this, their relationships are often abusive and controlling. Romantic partners can be manipulated, used, and tricked into believing they are crazy before being abruptly devalued and discarded.

A common question that comes up is whether the offspring of a person with DTP traits would be treated any differently than the person’s romantic partners. In other words, can a real narcissist ever truly love someone?

Narcissists ‘can never really love anyone’

According to Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and therapist who specializes in people with DTP traits, the answer is no.

“Narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths do not have a sense of empathy,” she told Business Insider. “They do not and will not develop a sense of empathy, so they can never really love anyone.”

This doesn’t change when they have children. There’s no primal instinct to protect and encourage their child because the child is not seen as a separate entity, but merely a tool at their disposal.

“DTPs tend to see children as an extension of themselves and a possession,” Neo said. “So rather than saying, ‘I’m going to nurture you so you can grow up to be the amazing person you’re meant to be,’ [they say,] ‘You’re supposed to grow up and do this so that you’re my trophy.'”

This is very different from the environment a child in a healthy family would grow up in. Instead of being nurtured and taught the ways of the world, a child of a parent with DTP traits can grow up without a sense of self.

“‘I can check your phone. I can do anything I want to do. I can just barge into your room, basically not respecting your sense of property,'” Neo said of what people with DTP traits believe. “There are no emotional boundaries either. So the children grow up not really sure about what boundaries are.”

The child may be expected to fill all kinds of functions they shouldn’t have to. For example, narcissists tend to be very unhappy people with low self-esteem, so they may unload a lot of unnecessary emotional baggage onto their children, who are used as a listening ear for the parent’s problems and a source of emotional comfort.

This continues over the years, and Neo says some of her clients have said their parents told them, “The only reason I had you was so you could take care of me for the rest of your life.

“‘You’re not allowed to have children, and you’re not allowed to get married,'” she added. “The parent would be meddling in all these different relationships — left, right, and center — creating all sorts of drama, so the child stays single.”

The child may be expected to be a punching bag

Throughout their life, the child may also be expected to be a punching bag, either physically or emotionally. This would become harder as the child ages, because they become stronger and more aware, so the parent may counteract this by hacking away at their self-esteem.

“As the parents grows older and their health starts to decline, their sense of self-esteem becomes really shaky,” Neo said. “Then the child grows up, becomes strong, becomes powerful, has more of a sense of self, and it’s very difficult for the parent to watch. So there becomes this unhealthy competition, putting the child down, telling the child they’re fat, they’re useless, they’re ugly.”

At the same time, whenever the child accomplishes something, the parent could take credit. For example, they might mention that their child is a very good trumpet player but that the only reason is that they scrimped and saved for lessons for years, even if this may not be true.

“Every single thing is always brought back to them,” Neo said. “So the child is brought up thinking, ‘I have no sense of self, I have no say, and I do not matter.'”

The ‘golden child’ versus the ‘scapegoat’

The dynamics can shift depending on how many children the person with DTP traits has.

Neo says it is remarkable how often the same power dynamics play out in these families with more than one child. In most cases, one child becomes the golden child who can do no wrong.

“The child can live in fear because all they want to do is please mummy or daddy so there’s no trouble — so they will be loved,” Neo said. “So they get this reward, and it’s almost transactional.”

A second child may be used as a scapegoat, blamed for everything — so much so that the parent may enjoy playing the children off against each other and creating unnecessary competition.

If there is a third child, Neo says they may become the “lost boy” or “lost girl” who is neglected and more or less ignored.

“If you watch the families and see the traits of narcissistic parents, this is often what plays out,” Neo said. “Essentially, it’s designed to keep the self-esteem of the child low, so the child will always stay small and as a possession, and there’s a lot of dictatorship over what a child can or cannot do because it’s all about the parent’s sense of self.”

Do monsters breed monsters?

One fear that children of people with DTP traits may have is growing up and turning into their parent. However, according to the blog, written by the psychotherapist Michelle Piper, this is true in only the minority of cases.

Piper writes that narcissistic parents often hate the idea of their children growing up and want to keep them from doing so as long as possible to “keep stroking their thirsty but fragile egos.”

“When you, an adult child of narcissistic parents, grow up, you may feel something is wrong but cannot necessarily identify what that is,” she wrote. “You may have always associated love and appreciation with conforming to the demands of your parents and therefore assume that is how it all works.”

One less common way children of people with DTP traits react is with a “siege response,” becoming used to protecting yourself by becoming less sensitive, walled off, and extremely independent.

“You would do whatever you had to do to manipulate others and treat them as if they are the parents who wanted you to meet their every expectation,” Piper wrote. “This is more or less a passive-aggressive attack on your parents through other people, doing to others what you wish you could’ve done to your narcissistic parent.”

However, more common is the “compliance response,” becoming used to putting your needs to the side and wanting to bend over backward to please everyone you meet.

“Children of narcissists, they tend to be taken over by this compulsion to serve others,” Neo said. “That’s when they become completely empathetic, over-giving, and are used by more narcissists and more dark-triad people in their lives.”

How you turn out sometimes depends on which child you were in the family system. Children of people with DTP traits may have avoided the majority of abuse growing up, but the golden child may end up worse off that the scapegoat.

“The child believes if they do what mummy or daddy wants, everything will be OK — ‘I’m going to be loved,'” Neo said. “And the moment you don’t do something, you’re going to be completely devalued, be insulted and scolded. So you learn that your views and your dreams don’t matter.”

The scapegoat may have never measured up to the golden child growing up, but they usually do better in their life. They may grow and venture out into the world and discover freedom. By having more obviously negative feelings associated with their parent, they may be more able to break free and create a new, healthy life.

This article was inspired by a question on Quora.

What Are the Signs of a Malignant Narcissist?

Malignant narcissists tend to display some of the worst traits of both APD and NPD, and often have severe dysfunctions in their personal relationships, work, and ability to function in other areas of life.3,6

Their reckless behavior, disregard for others, and inability to form lasting healthy relationships with others can make them easier to spot than people with fewer traits or more mild or ‘covert’ forms of narcissism.

Here are 10 signs of a malignant narcissist:

1. They Use, Abuse, & Discard People

One of the main signs of a malignant narcissist is their long history of using, abusing, and discarding people who are no longer useful to them. People closest to them will often see a pattern of broken relationships and friendships, as well as family members and significant others who have become useless or irrelevant to them – often very quickly after they’ve used them to fulfill a certain level of supply.

2. They Are Obsessed With Power

Malignant narcissists are often hungry for power, and obsessed with ways to get more of it. They often vie for jobs that afford them this power, and also form relationships with people who are vulnerable enough for them to exert total control over. Because they lack the ability to find power within themselves, they have an extreme need for positions of power to make them feel worthy.

3. Everything Is Personal for Them

To a malignant narcissist, everything is personal. If a friend or family member makes a joke about them, forgets to call them back, or if they are passed over for a promotion at work, they will be deeply offended and angry, triggering a narcissistic collapse.

In the narcissist’s world, there is no such thing as an innocent mistake, oversight, or other explanation for why someone does not treat them in the way they expect (and in their mind, deserve) to be treated.

4. They Hold Grudges & Take Revenge

A malignant narcissist is easily offended and when they are, their revenge can be brutal. People with this personality disorder tend to hold long grudges against anyone who has wronged or slighted them in any way.

Even disagreeing with them, giving them feedback, or questioning something they said can result in swift, anger-filled revenge. They may punish people by lashing out, ignoring them, or even cutting them off altogether.

5. They Take Pleasure From the Suffering of Others

Malignant narcissists can be cruel and even sadistic, seeming to take a sick pleasure or satisfaction in the suffering of other people. They may laugh or mock someone who is having a hard time, intentionally humiliate someone, or use personal knowledge they have against them.

Unfortunately, this also means that they can be predators who will manipulate, abuse, and exploit other people, sometimes for personal gain and sometimes just for fun.

6. Nothing Is Ever Their Fault

Narcissists (and especially malignant narcissists) usually do not take the blame for any of their words or actions, even when they’re clearly in the wrong. Instead, they tend to lash out, get defensive, and find ways to blame other people, even when they have to bend and distort the truth to do so.

7. They Are Ruthless in Their Pursuit of What They Want

Malignant narcissists will often be ruthless in their pursuit of power, wealth, success, or recognition. When they want something, there may not be any line they’re unwilling to cross to get it, even at the direct expense of other people they say they care about. They may lie, manipulate, use, or even attack or discredit other people in order to get what they want.

8. They Don’t Have a Conscience

A lack of empathy or regard for the feelings and needs of others is a symptom of both APD and NPD, and is common in malignant narcissists. People with this personality type will often have no remorse or regret for things they’ve done to harm other people.

Sometimes, it may be necessary to fake remorse in order to get what they want, but typically they will admit no wrongdoing at all and genuinely, don’t feel bad for what they’ve done.

9. They Have Many Enemies

It should come as no surprise that a malignant narcissist will have a long list of enemies, which often includes former friends, lovers, and even members of their own family. People with this personality disorder tend to make enemies easily and often because to them, even the slightest offense can cause them to discard the entire relationship.

Because relationships are only a means to an end for them, it’s fairly easy for them to break off a tie, even with someone close to them.

10. No One Will See Their Insecurities

Deep down, narcissists are extremely insecure, but a malignant narcissist will never let these insecurities show to others. Instead, they will become defensive, lashing out, shutting down, or even destroying relationships when they feel threatened or insecure. Also, they will often mask insecurities behind a facade of arrogance or grandiosity.

What Causes Malignant Narcissism?

All mental health disorders, including personality disorders like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, are believed to be caused by a mix of both genetic and environmental factors, as well as personal temperament.1,2 Some research has also found that there may be some differences in the wiring and structure of the brain in people with NPD which helps to explain some of the symptoms and traits of the disorders.3

Some of the non-genetic factors that are believed to play a causal role in the development of NPD and APD include:1,2,3

  • Experiencing abuse or neglect
  • Being held to unrealistically high expectations as a child
  • Being excessively praised or criticized as a child (or both)
  • Possessing irritable, neurotic, or aggressive personality traits
  • Having a low stress or frustration tolerance
  • Being overly sensitive and unable to regulate emotions
  • Being bullied or rejected in childhood
  • Being told one is special or has extraordinary talents
  • Witnessing entitled, grandiose, or narcissistic traits in a caregiver
  • Seeking external validation or praise to compensate for low self-esteem
  • Learning that vulnerability is a sign of weakness
  • Learning that failure and mistakes are intolerable or unacceptable
  • Excessive focus on status, recognition, power, and success
  • Lack of self-awareness and trouble recognizing emotions in self and others
  • Disrupted identity development

How to Deal With a Malignant Narcissist

Unfortunately, the traits and symptoms of malignant narcissism often directly impact other people, especially those closest to the person. When dealing with a narcissist, many people become victims of narcissistic abuse, a specific form of abuse that often involves manipulation, deceit, gaslighting, and being taken advantage of.

The consequences of this kind of ongoing abuse can be devastating, negatively impacting a person’s quality of life, self-esteem, and overall mental health. Often, it becomes necessary to distance yourself from a malignant narcissist, especially if they’ve become abusive or toxic – if you’re in a relationship, it’s probably time to break up.

If this is not an option, here are some other ways to deal with a malignant narcissist in your life:8

  • Manage your expectations and don’t expect love, fairness, or loyalty from them: Malignant narcissists are incapable of true, reciprocal, healthy relationships
  • Limit your interactions by keeping interactions brief, focused, and superficial: This minimizes your risk of being harmed or exploited by them
  • Avoid being too vulnerable or open with them: They may use this personal information as ammunition later
  • Let them talk about themselves and be supportive: Feeding their need for validation can keep them from using aggressive tactics
  • Identify the tactics they use against you (i.e. praise, false affection, guilt, pity, etc.): This helps you clearly identify when they are using them against you
  • Understand what they want from you and decide ahead of time if you will say yes: This helps maintain your boundaries with them, even when they try to overstep
  • Understand and avoid their triggers/insecurities: Causing a narcissistic injury can make you their target
  • Practice self-care and use your support system: This protects against the negative psychological effects of narcissistic abuse