Narcissist Parents Leave You Too Little — And Too Much Space

There’s no way to become your full, authentic self in a controlling family.

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Growing up as a kid with my brother, we learned early to not have friends around too often. My friends had easy-going, friendly parents who didn’t mind if the kids got their own snacks or watched whatever they wanted on television.

I loved visiting my friends’ homes where they felt relaxed and at ease, which was totally different than our house. Our parents, by contrast, were moody, easily offended, and didn’t particularly like it when my friends came over, especially if that meant sharing our resources.


My parents had rules upon rules upon rules, rules that were fussy and weird and didn’t seem to make sense to anyone except my parents. My brother and I knew most of these rules were made out of pure selfishness, either to avoid spending money or just for pure control. 

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My mother always kept a fruit bowl out, but we weren’t allowed to pick single grapes off the bunch. We were to take smaller bunches from the big bunch, and if a friend of mine happened to be over and wanted some grapes, I had to explain this.

Of course, my friends could never understand why we didn’t have “normal” Eighties teenage snacks like cookies or chips or Twinkies, which were banned because my parents didn’t approve of my weight.


At one point my mother made a rule that I could only use four squares of toilet paper when I went pee because she decided I used too much.

In summer, Dad would sometimes sign us up for Parks and Rec classes, but he never asked what we’d be interested in taking. He’d just sign us up for the classes he hoped would help with what he saw as our deficiencies.

Dad was often irritated with his sensitive son whom my dad thought of as weak, so to him, it made sense to sign his son up for karate classes, when my brother just wanted to learn about dinosaurs or rocks.

Because Dad thought of me as overweight and unfeminine, he once signed me up for ballet, which I had no interest in. A writing class, though, would’ve been heaven for me.


In both our classes we felt awkward and uncomfortable. Karate class didn’t make my brother any tougher. Ballet class did not make me more feminine; if anything I felt like a freak as the tallest, biggest, clumsiest girl in the room.

A couple of times while growing up, my mother redecorated our rooms without saying anything to us. I remember once coming home to find the bright pink, green and yellow bedspread and curtains I loved had been taken away and replaced with a dour, blue prairie-style print I hated.

But I never said that — I simply thanked my mother for the new things, because we didn’t get a lot of new things and when we did, we had to show our appreciation, or else. The “or else” could be anything from being hit to being guilted to being berated.

“Remember when you were little and wanted us to paint your room Pepto Bismol pink?” My mother would sometimes snort. I did. I also remembered that my parents had painted my room such a pale shade of pink it was almost impossible to tell it was even supposed to pretend to be pink.


But I never questioned my mother’s expertise in paint color; clearly, I was the buffoon.

My brother and I almost never received what we wanted for Christmas. We got what we got, and we were grateful for it.

But this wasn’t Little House on the Prairie; it was middle-class America in the 1970s and 80s.

My brother and I learned early to not bother asking for most things we wanted because the answer would be “No.”

We learned to keep our heads down, never challenge our parents for fear of being screamed at or hit, and we learned to never, never get our hopes up. I’m not saying our parents never did nice things for us, and occasionally, they’d actually manage to buy us something we liked, but it was rare.


My brother and I were taught that we were conservatives and someday we would vote as such. We believed in Jesus because that’s just the way it was.

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It can be difficult to know if you grew up in a controlling household. After all, controlling households are simply what many people call “strict,” and strictly doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing.

But there’s a difference between demanding a less-than-half-assed effort from your kids and believing you have the right to control every aspect of them as people, including the thoughts in their heads.

Unfortunately, narcissists believe the latter, and this style of parenting can only end one of two ways:


1) Children either become dutiful, perpetually unhappy servants to their parents for the rest of their lives

 2) Children walk away when they realize their parents will never allow them to be themselves.

Of course, all narcissists hope for choice 1. They don’t give a rat’s ass if their kid(s) is unhappy. They only want control. But narcissists also run the very risk of losing their kids forever.

Not too long ago, my dad came over to our house unannounced, banged on our front door, and invited himself in.

He then proceeded to scream at my husband and me that our political views are “wrong.”

He is terrified of the demographic changes in the US, and to hear him tell it, the "browning" of America will lead to the country’s demise, which my white husband and I believe is total nonsense.


Even though I’m almost fifty years old, he still thinks he should have a say over the way I vote.

“There are little kids in public schools in this country being told they’re racist,” he bellowed.

My husband snorted. I laughed — like a huge cackle — something I never would’ve dared to do to my dad even ten years ago.

“It’s true!” he yelled, louder. “I know people whose little girl was called a racist at school.”

“Bullsh*t,” I replied. “Nobody is calling little girls racist at school.”

Dad was visibly stunned I contradicted him. “Amber. I know it’s happening.”


“You don’t know anything,” I replied. “You haven’t set foot in a school in years.” Which is true.

Again, he bellowed he knew people whose white kids had been called racist at public school.

“Maybe they were called racist because said they something racist,” I said. He started to sputter, incredulous that I dare contradict him. That’s when my husband, thank goodness, stepped in and asked him to leave.

Controlling, narcissist parents will often want to have a say in what you wear, who you socialize with, your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation, your gender, and even what you put in your body. On the other hand, controlling, narcissistic parents will have no idea what their kids prefer, like, or want.


I can tell you my parents’ favorite foods, their political beliefs, their favorite actors, their favorite movies and books, the types of clothing they prefer — but they can’t tell you anything about my brother or myself. They have no idea what our preferences are, let alone our dreams or ambitions.

There’s no way to become your full, authentic self in a controlling family because they simply will not let you.

You must find your own space and set your own boundaries.

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Amber Fraley is a writer and novelist. She has been featured in Medium, Gen Magazine, Kansas Magazine, and more.