Dark triad personality (DTP) traits are narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These traits manifest in people as excessive self-love, a manipulative attitude, and a lack of empathy.
It’s unclear how many people in the population have these traits, but various studies and estimates put the number somewhere between 1% and 10%.
DTPs are often reported to have an obsession with themselves, and they struggle to see the point in other people’s feelings. Because of this, their relationships are often abusive and controlling. Romantic partners are 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 DTP would be treated any differently than the individual’s romantic partners.
Narcissists ‘can never really love anyone’
According to Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and therapist who specialises in DTPs, the answer is no.
“Narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths do not have a sense of empathy, they do not and will not develop a sense of empathy, so they can never really love anyone,” she told Business Insider.
This doesn’t change when they have children. There’s no primal instinct to protect and encourage their offspring, because they are not seen as a separate entity. They are merely a tool which is 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 DTP parent grows up not knowing their own 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,'” is what Neo said DTP personalities believe. “There are no emotional boundaries, either. So the children grow up not really sure about what boundaries are.”
The child is 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 unload a lot of unnecessary emotional baggage onto their children. They 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 centre, creating all sorts of drama, so the child stays single.”
‘The child is expected to be a punching bag’
Throughout their life, the child is also expected to be a punching bag, either physically or emotionally. This becomes harder as the child grows older, because they become stronger and more aware, so the DTP parent will 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 has to take credit for it. For example, they would mention the fact the child is a very good trumpet player, and the only reason is because 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’ vs. the scapegoat
The dynamics shift depending on how many children the DTP has.
Sometimes, DTPs will have more than one child, and Neo says it is remarkable how often the same power dynamics play out in these families. 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.”
Then the second child is used as a scapegoat, and is blamed for everything. So much so, that the DTP parent will enjoy playing the children off against each other, and create unnecessary competition.
If there is a third child, Neo says they become the “lost boy” or the “lost girl,” who is neglected and more or less completely 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 parents’ sense of self.”
Do monsters breed monsters?
One fear children of DTPs have is that they will grow up and turn into their mother or father. However, according to the blog NarcissisticMother.com, written by psychotherapist Michelle Piper, this is only true in the minority of cases.
Piper writes that narcissistic parents 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 DTPs react is by growing up with a “siege response,” which is when you become 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, the more common response is the “compliance response,” where you are used to putting your own needs to the side, and want to bend over backwards 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. They may have avoided the majority of abuse growing up, but the golden child may actually 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 never measured up to the golden child growing up, but usually they do better in their life than the one who is essentially the parent’s puppet. They grow and venture out into the world, and discover freedom. By having more obviously negative feelings associated with their DTP parent, they are more able to break free and create an entirely, new, healthy life.
This article was inspired by a question on Quora.