Narcissistic parenting: When you compete through your child

Should you let your child fail?
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Story highlights

  • A new book documents the dangers of narcissistic parenting
  • Children of narcissistic parents often become narcissistic parents themselves, the author says
  • Author: "Extreme narcissists are kind of like alcoholics. They kind of need to hit bottom"

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)The dad stood as close to the goalpost as he could get, coaching his 9-year-old daughter from the sidelines of her recreational soccer league game.

His daughter had two coaches, but that didn't matter. He was determined to coach her separately.
"Move faster. Hands up. Get ready."
    "Come on. Stay alert. Get down low."
    He would not stop.
    And then you can probably guess what happened next.
    A girl on the opposing team kicked a ball right past her. Goal! The tears started to come down fast, and all I wanted to say to the dad of the goalie was, "Just. Leave. Her. Alone."
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    We've all seen such parenting behavior countless times: Parents overly invested in their child's success, wanting to see their child achieve in sports, music, academics, you name it, competing with others via their children.
    It can take the form of both high praise and sharp criticism.
    And in the most extreme cases, there's actually a name for it: narcissistic parenting, according to Joseph Burgo, who devotes an entire chapter to this behavior in his new book "The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age."
    "The winner-loser dynamic is at the heart of extreme narcissism, and the narcissistic parent is somebody who plays that game through their children," said Burgo, a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist who has been practicing for more than 30 years.
    "They are the ones who are driven to create children who are winners, and not only are they winners, but they're better than other people's kids, and they will, in conversation, bring things up. They will bring up accomplishments, which schools their kids got accepted to, how much money they're earning, in order to make you feel bad -- your kid is less than them."
    Psychologist Joseph Burgo is the author of "The Narcissist You Know."
    Louise Sattler, a school psychologist, remembers acting auditions for her now grown daughter. The acting moms, she said, would be more "stealth" than the sports moms, and would just "casually" mention their child's success in the restroom when other people were around.
    "You would overhear the mom and daughter talking about, 'Oh, isn't it great that you just filmed so-and-so. This'll be a snap. You've already been in front of this producer,' " she said. "Anything to get into the mind of the poor kid who is going up for an audition."
    What's "tragic" about this type of parenting, said Burgo, is that it communicates to the children that they aren't loved and accepted for who they are. "They've got to perform. They've got to win to be accepted."
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    Lori Day, an educational psychologist and former school administrator who runs her own consulting business, has seen firsthand the impact of narcissistic parents on children.
    "They are fragile. They have been told they are the greatest thing since sliced bread for their whole lives, while being terribly overprotected and overindulged by parents who live vicariously through them," said Day, who has a grown child of her own.
    "When they get to college, professors have a term for them: 'teacups,' because they are so fragile. Once they are separated from their doting, promoting parents, they struggle with basic skills of independence, their self-esteem is vulnerable and they lack resilience."

    Who becomes a narcissistic parent?

    I've often wondered about the narcissistic parents I've seen on the soccer field, at basketball games or even on Facebook. In my head, I've always thought they are living vicariously through their children to cover up any disappointments they might feel about their own lives.
    Burgo, who is also a father of three, says that is definitely part of the picture. "It's often a parent who feels that he or she has not achieved what she wanted in her own life, what (on) some level feels like a failure," he said. The parent then tries to fulfill his or her own goals "by making the child into a winner."
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    But there are also narcissistic parents who may have had traumatic childhood experiences and who, in essence, use the narcissistic parenting to cover their shame about their own lives. They humiliate and exploit their children by making them feel like losers, said Burgo.
    "More often, those children are pretty crippled by that experience, but sometimes they come out of it by being narcissists themselves in order to escape that feeling of shame."
    It does seem counterintuitive, but on balance, Burgo says, "narcissism begets narcissism." Children of narcissistic parents can become narcissistic parents themselves or marry one.
    "I've seen that in my practice so often, particularly with narcissistic women who had narcissistic mothers, end up marrying narcissistic men."

    Growing up with narcissistic parents

    Danielle Le Roy, chief financial officer for an information technology firm and a homeschooling mom of two, said she grew up with what she describes as narcissistic parents but has adopted an alternative parenting style with her own children.
    Her parents weren't "micromanagers," nor did they scream on the sidelines, she said. "They were more like high-achieving parents who seemed greatly pleased when their kids achieved in a similar manner."
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    Growing up, she said, she interpreted this message as, "You are what you achieve." Love and attention seemed very conditional, she said.
    While she and her brother went on to great success -- she as a lawyer and he as a doctor -- she said that throughout her academic career, she struggled with performance anxiety.
    Her parents also didn't understand that she really didn't want to become a lawyer. "They didn't understand why I didn't feel loved unconditionally."
    As a parent herself, she is humbled by how challenging parenting can be and appreciates the things her parents did well but is taking a different approach when it comes to raising her two boys, who are 8 and 10.
    "My husband and I strive really hard to listen to what our kids are interested in, as opposed to imposing our own ideas of what 'success' looks like," she said.

    Advice: 'Focus less on wanting the best' for children

    In our culture today, we place so much emphasis on being the best and being the winner, and that certainly makes modern parenting difficult, said Burgo.
    But he says there are key ways we can make sure we don't move into the narcissistic parenting arena.
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    "I would focus less on wanting the best for your children and wanting them to be happy, wanting them to find meaningful work -- work that satisfies them," he said.
    "There is so much competition these days about getting into the best schools, getting into the Ivy League, the best kindergartens ... and your whole life will be ruined if you get off the path."
    He continued, "If you don't go to Harvard, you could still be happy."
    I admit it's not always easy grappling with that desire to want the best for your children. For instance, every time I walk into my children's classroom for a publishing party or another school event, I sometimes find myself starting to compare my child's work and performance with the other children's. And each time that happens, I ask myself, "What's that about? Is it more about my ego than a true concern for my daughter's well-being in school?"
    "The very fact that you're asking yourself that question, you are way ahead of the game," said Burgo. "That's what is needed. Just a healthy amount of self-reflection. It's the parents who don't realize that, who don't stop and ask themselves and then just start getting overly invested in their child being better than some other student."

    Can you stop a narcissistic parent?

    Amanda Rodriguez, a mom of three who is also team manager for two children's football teams and an elite basketball team, has had plenty of experience with narcissistic parents.
    She said she has seen parents, on more than one occasion, pull their children to the side after a game and sometimes even during one to yell at them about their performance.
    "And I mean full-on in-your-face yelling," said Rodriguez, the founder of the blog DudeMom. "No kid of theirs is going to be a loser," they will scream.
    When you first see it, said Rodriguez, you are caught off guard because you can't quite believe a parent is doing that to a child. While you may want to step in, you also have to be careful that you don't make it worse for the child, she said.
    Personally, she believes it's appropriate for parents to say something to the coach (or the teacher if it happens at school), and that person of authority should say something to the parent.
    "We have had to ban parents from events for their behavior, and I think that is totally an appropriate response, since our job as an organization is to keep kids safe and allow them to participate joyfully in athletic pursuits," she said.
    As much as other parents would love to take on any narcissistic parent they see -- on the playground, near the stage, at science camp, in the restroom -- Burgo says there's really no way to engage with an extreme narcissist directly.
    "If you challenge them, they'll engage in battle and they'll have to win, so you might just make yourself a target," he said.
    If you have a relationship with the child, you can be there for that child in a supportive way and acknowledge what he or she is going through. But sadly, trying to get the parents to "reform is a lost cause," Burgo said.
    "Extreme narcissists are kind of like alcoholics. They kind of need to hit bottom. They need to have a severe wake-up call of some kind" before they ever realize they have a problem and get help.
    Have you ever witnessed narcissistic parenting? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.