How to Handle a Narcissistic Mother

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on December 12, 2023
4 min read

Living with someone who's a narcissist is challenging. Narcissists are highly self-absorbed and often see their kids as extensions of themselves. And when it's a parent, their children often feel "unheard, unknown, and used by their narcissistic parent,” says Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker in Towson, MD.

Anju Chandy was 18 years old when she left her Bakersfield, CA, home for a college far away. After years of frustration and arguments, the more miles she could put between her and her narcissistic mother, the better.

“I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere near my mother," says Chandy, a musician in Indianapolis. " I needed to forge a path of my own away from her influence and control."

If narcissism is affecting your relationship with your mother, you have options to help manage its impact on you.

A mom who is a narcissist may  seem self-sacrificing: always doing things for her kids and never thinking of herself. Sher may be a class parent, PTO president, or soccer coach. But that involvement is self-serving. She does it because she wants attention and needs to be involved in every decision.

Even when you're  an adult, she may be too involved in your life. She might interpret what you do as being more about her than you, Perlin says. For instance, when you talk, she always shifts the focus back to herself. If you have children, she may try to eclipse the other parent. 

If your mother is a narcissist, she may be emotionally manipulative and coercive, says Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, author of Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. “Narcissistic parents may give unrealistically positive feedback which can suddenly turn into overly harsh or punitive criticism,” he says.

Your mother may not see you for who you truly are, aside from being an extension of her. She could have trouble understanding and accepting your feelings and get anxious or angry when she feels rejected or criticized. And although Chandy's experience was with her mother, narcissism is a trait that any person -- parent or not, and of any gender -- can have.

“Narcissistic traits run along a continuum,” Perlin says. Your mother may have a few hallmarks, like self-absorption and entitlement. Or she may have  narcissistic personality disorder, which includes signs such as grandiosity, arrogance, lack of empathy, and an excessive need to be admired. People often call others "narcissists" casually, but the disorder is more severe. 

If you think your mother may be a narcissist, Perlin suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Can she handle negative feedback?
  • Does she seem overly concerned about how she looks to others?
  • Does she need you to prop her up with compliments and positive feedback?
  • Does she need others to know she’s the most overworked, underappreciated, or giving mother?
  • Does she make it clear you owe her?
  • Do you feel you need to be a certain way or achieve something for her love and approval?
  • Does she feed off attention in ways that feel uncomfortable or over the top?

“If you answer many of the questions with a yes and her behavior is consistent over time, you can consider narcissism,” Perlin says.

If your mother shows signs of narcissism, take these steps to manage your relationship:

Set boundaries. Create and maintain healthy boundaries. Be clear about what’s OK and what isn’t.

Stay calm. Try not to react emotionally to what she says, even if it’s an insult. “The narcissist wants a reaction from you because it means they have control and can shift the mood as they please,” Chandy says. “Your calm is your power.”

Plan your responses. “Have a respectful exit strategy when conversations go off the rails,” Perlin says. Prepare and practice statements like “I have to get going, Mom,” or “We’ll have to just agree to disagree.”

Let go. You may feel pressure to keep your mother happy and be a perfect daughter or son. Let go of these thoughts. Remember, it isn’t your job to make your mother feel special, needed, or relevant.

Get help. Talk to a counselor. They can help you understand how a parent's narcissism affects you and learn how to break the cycle.

Step away. It may be best to limit or stop with your mother, especially if she’s abusive or violent. Instead, focus on the things you can control. “I currently have no contact with my family,” Chandy says. For her, that helped her prioritize her own growth and happiness.

If your mother is a narcissist, avoid these things:

Don’t expect an apology. Narcissists are unlikely to accept critical feedback. They often have excuses and justifications for their behavior. Your mother may not see herself as wrong or her behavior as bad. She probably thinks she’s the victim.

Don’t try to fix or heal her. You can’t change someone's personality. Narcissists often grew up with narcissistic parents and were used and hurt by them.  It may help to build compassion for her struggles and recognize that she may not realize her impact.

Don’t compare her to others. “Try to have the best relationship you can with the mother you have,” Perlin says. “Think about when the two of you shine. Do you share a talent or interest? Try to bond on that.”