While growing up in a normal family means learning to share your toys and figuring out your own identity, being part of a narcissistic family means fighting for survival.
Rather than spending their time working out what music they like, where their strengths are, and what they want to be in life, children of narcissistic parents are busy finding their “role,” according to trauma therapist Shannon Thomas.
“One of the most distinct patterns I’ve seen is that everybody has to find somewhere to be, and a job to do within the family,” she told INSIDER. “In healthy families, you’re just yourself — you’re your name, you’re your talents, you’re your strengths and weaknesses. You’re the person.”
In a narcissistic family, however, you fit within whatever pattern the narcissistic parent is trying to create within the family.
Thomas likened it to pieces on a chessboard, and how every individual one has a purpose and moves in a certain way, and can attack others within a certain guideline.
“It’s very similar to a narcissistic family where all the players within that family, whether they want to be or not, are forced into a survival mode to find a spot,” she said. “They either support the narcissistic parent or they are the focus of the narcissistic parent’s rage.”
The narcissistic parent is in control of the chessboard, always choosing who gets favored, and who suffers their wrath. These games mean certain patterns show up in narcissistic families. Thomas identified five of them.
1. The neutral sibling
The neutral sibling walks a delicate balance between the narcissistic parent and the siblings, Thomas said, because they are attempting to be a peacemaker.
“There’s a lot of mental gymnastics that have to happen when it comes to being a neutral sibling,” she said. “Because you’re there, and you’re trying to pretend you’re not seeing what you’re seeing, and being the glue.”
But rather than achieving tranquility, the mediator is actually a really unhealthy role to play. The neutral sibling tries to come from a kind place, but then ends up denying what they see in an attempt to make everybody happy. As a result, it can be incredibly hard for other siblings to get close to the neutral one, not least because of the emotional wall they put up to be able to ignore all the pain around them.
“The neutral sibling is very much trying to keep the facade going — that this family is healthy,” said Thomas. “They try and focus on the healthy parts of the family, but it’s very lopsided, like a strong denial.”
2. The needy sibling
Being needy means relying excessively on someone, and the needy sibling in a family does this with the parent either out of necessity, or because they are also narcissistic.
Thomas said she often sees that the narcissistic parent will infantilize the needy sibling to stop them from being independent, as it enables them to keep getting their narcissistic supply of adoration. Also, it helps them deny any wrongdoing towards the rest of the family.
“If they’ve been harmful or mean to children in the family, they can point to how much they’ve helped this particular sibling to counterbalance any sort of judgment of them,” said Thomas. “That sibling getting on their feet and getting strong often isn’t the goal of the narcissistic parent. They say it, but their actions completely enable a dependency.”
There’s also a chance the needy sibling is toxic themselves, so their dependency is manufactured. This means the sibling and the narcissistic parent are in a “toxic dance,” Thomas said.
“It’s a way to try and triangulate the siblings,” she said. “It creates this imbalance between the siblings where there is jealousy and competition and all that sort of chaos.”
3. The flying monkey
There will always be a “flying monkey” in a narcissistic family, said Thomas, which is the sibling who is most actively involved with helping triangulate everyone to cause the most upset possible.
“They love to use group texts as a form of harassment towards others in the family,” she said. “The flying monkey sibling is just as toxic as the narcissistic parents. They see the games the parents play, and they reinforce allegiance to the parents through their direct relationship within the sibling subgroup.”
They report back everything the other siblings say about the parent, like Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.”
But nobody is safe in a narcissistic family, even the flying monkey after all their loyalty.
“Sometimes one who was a flying monkey may become a target for the parent down the road,” Thomas said. “If they in any way stop feeding that narcissistic supply to the parent, that’s how that can happen.”
It’s also a choice that at some point becomes free will. If they continue to do the narcissistic parent’s bidding way into adulthood, they are making that choice.
“They’re insightful enough to know these are behaviors that should not be tolerated,” Thomas said. “And yet they add gasoline on top on them.”
4. The withdrawn sibling
Not to be confused with being neutral, the withdrawn sibling is always observing what is happening around them. But rather than trying to keep the peace, they find cover for safety and keep to themselves most of the time. It’s a coping mechanism to try and fly under the radar — but it doesn’t really work.
“They see all the games, manipulations, and chaos that is purposefully stirred up by narcissistic parents,” said Thomas. “Being the withdrawn sibling often leads to speaking up about the toxicity in the family and that causes them to become the scapegoated sibling.”
The scapegoat is then the target of the majority of abuse by the narcissistic parent, and any flying monkeys in the family. The withdrawn sibling often finds themselves in the firing line because they’re the only one to vocalize what they’re seeing as wrong.
Narcissistic families usually look close and tight-knit to the outside world. But in reality, they’re the most broken and segregated of them all.
“There’s a term called pseudomutuality, and it’s this clinical term that describes this pseudo-closeness within families,” said Thomas. “When you look a little bit behind the billboard you realize all these toxic dynamics are happening.”
This can be incredibly hard for someone coming into the family unit, like an in-law or partner, because what they’re portraying to the public simply isn’t the truth.
“People have to be very very careful before they move from dating to an engagement to marriage that the family they are marrying into is actually matching what they present themselves to be,” Thomas said.