For those who have grown up under the shadow of a narcissistic parent, the dynamics of favoritism are far too familiar.

With one child lauded as the “golden child” and the others often relegated to roles of lesser importance, this toxic favoritism weaves deep, invisible scars into the fabric of adulthood.

Surviving siblings of these families must explore how their narcissistic parents choose their favorites. From there, they can discover the strategies that can help them mend the damage inflicted by this imbalanced family system during their formative years.

The Nature of Narcissistic Parenting.

Narcissists are generally grandiose people who lack empathy for those around them, while also harboring arrogant, self-centered, demanding, or manipulative tendencies. A narcissistic parent is a person who takes this one step further, projecting their insecurities onto their children in a way that marginalizes them or makes them feel inferior or insecure.

Though every case is different, narcissistic parents generally do this by two means. They might engage in petty or demeaning competition with their children, or they might push their children into mythical competition — pitting them against unmeetable standards or constant comparison that undermines their self-esteem.

How Does the Narcissistic Parent Choose a Favorite?

What is the process involved in a narcissistic parent choosing their favorite sibling? Is it the child’s brain? Is it their looks? Their behavior? The truth is that there are many reasons a narcissistic parent chooses and plays favorites, and none of them have benefits for the siblings pitted against one another.

The Golden Child

In every narcissistic family with multiple siblings, there tends to be a lot of role-playing involved. Narcissistic parents love to assign their children roles. These roles make the narcissistic parent more powerful and make the siblings work against one another. At the top of this pyramid of roles, there is the Golden Child — the favored sibling of the narcissistic parent.

How does the narcissistic parent choose who the Golden Child will be? There are a lot of factors at play, but it ultimately comes down to supply and attention. The Golden Child is often selected as:

  •  The child with the most accomplishments
  • The child that looks the most like them / is the most traditionally attractive
  • The child that is most willing to please them
  • The child that gains the parent the most positive attention

Through the Golden Child, the narcissistic parent gets to relive their successes and overcome their failures. By putting their favor on a high-achieving child, they can fulfill their unachieved ambitions and receive grand praise and applause for their role as the parent of such a child.

The favor is always conditional. For the Golden Child to remain on top, they have to remain in compliance with the parent’s expectations at all times. That means being the most successful, being the prettiest, being the most willing to comply. If this ever changes (or gets challenged) the Golden Child risks losing their position to one of their siblings instead.

The Mirror Image

For many narcissistic parents, their favorite child isn’t always a matter of being the golden, sparkling star. The parent with a grandiose ego is more likely to gravitate toward the child who is the most like them. This can be in both appearance and behavior. When a narcissistic parent sees a child who looks and acts like them, they feel validated in who they are and treat that child as they desire themselves to be treated.

It’s not all sunshine and roses for the child who is the mirror image of the narcissistic parent, however. At any time, the narcissistic parent can withdraw their affection and attention from that child.

These children also grow up to struggle with a lot of internal and external problems throughout their lives. As carbon copies of their toxic and manipulative parent, they can struggle to form stable relationships and can develop warped perspectives of who they are and the role they play in their own lives.

The Flying Monkey

Golden Children and those most like the parents get a lot of favoritism. That, however, is not the only trait that may get a sibling selected as the narcissistic parent’s favorite. Roles change a lot in the narcissistic family, especially as siblings age and move toward adulthood. That’s when the “flying monkey” traits become readily visible in the siblings willing to work on behalf of the narcissist.

What’s a Flying Monkey? The Flying Monkey is a person who is willing to attack others, guilt, shame, or manipulate them on behalf of the narcissist. This is seen a lot in narcissistic families. The narcissist will make their displeasure with one sibling known, and another sibling will then take it upon themselves to attack that sibling for the narcissistic parent.

This leads to a lot of triangulation and resentment, too. Siblings learn to see one another as adversaries, instead of a tribe of family members. Why does the Flying Monkey do it? For safety, for approval, for love, affection, and acceptance. In the end, they never receive a reliable portion of any of those things.

The Impact of Parental Favoritism on Siblings in a Narcissistic Family.

What’s the long-term damage done by these types of toxic families? The scars run deep, both cognitively and emotionally. When a narcissist raises siblings, they are turned against one another before they have a chance to realize the depth of their relationships with themselves and one another. That’s damaging. It changes the way siblings see one another and the way they can relate later in life.

Triangulation and rivalry

There is little doubt that triangulation and sibling rivalry are two of the greatest issues in the narcissistic family. Narcissistic parents use triangulation to turn siblings against one another. One sibling fights the other all for the approval of the narcissistic parent who watches in the background. All the while the narcissistic parent retains power and gets the siblings to do the dirty work.

All this work to turn the siblings against one another results in one major issue: sibling rivalry. Far from siblings learning how to support and protect one another, they are turned against one another and are taught to treat each sibling as a competitor or an adversary.

They see their siblings as people who can’t be trusted. They see them as people who have to be conquered or beaten, to earn the praise and respect of the narcissistic parent. As a result, siblings can’t be emotionally honest with one another. Nor can they look to each other for support of any kind.

Skewed perspective

There is a warped reality that comes with being the sibling of a narcissistic family. Narcissists themselves are inherently delusional. They put themselves at the top of imaginary hierarchies and subject those below them. Everyone around them (siblings included) is expected to play along with their delusions and this changes the reality that the siblings experience in the family.

Narcissistic parents raise their children in twisted environments that warps how children see themselves, their siblings, and their families. They learn they can’t trust their parents as an emotionally safe place, and they learn the same about their siblings too.

Children raised in these environments can enter the world with low self-esteem and the fundamental belief that they aren’t lovable (or can’t be loved without transactional behavior). They choose partners, career opportunities, and even friendships based on this warped perspective created by being a child unloved.

Repeating patterns

Children learn a great deal of their behaviors and beliefs from their upbringing and the environments they are raised in. This is especially true of siblings caught up in a narcissistic family. By playing along (and against) the favoritism games, they learn how to interact with others and to move through life. Using the unhealthy examples set before them, they go out into the world and repeat what they’ve lived through.

These repeating patterns don’t lead to happiness. Far from it. When siblings are raised in these toxic environments, they pick up toxic traits. Due to the heritability of narcissism, some of them even go out into the world and perpetuate the same harm that was inflicted on them by their narcissistic parents.

Broken relationships

Whether the favored sibling or the ignored sibling, children of narcissistic families regularly grow up to struggle with their adult relationships. It’s an understandable cycle. Not only do these children witness toxic relationships firsthand, but they also take part in regular emotional betrayal and danger with the people they love and trust most in their lives.

This breaks down into a couple of significant cycles in the lives of these siblings. The favored sibling can grow up to be emotionally vicious and entitled. They may be controlling to their partners or otherwise manipulative and coercive.

What about the unfavored siblings? They struggle just as greatly with interpersonal connections. Many have low self-esteem and choose partners who treat them as ruthlessly as their narcissistic parents and siblings. Some create walls that are too high to bridge and struggle with emotional regulation, integrity, and trust.

All of this can add up to failed marriages, abusive relationships, and family systems that are just as toxic and self-destructive as the narcissistic family the siblings were raised within.

What Can Siblings Do to Heal and Move On as Adults?

As destructive as the narcissistic family can be, there is still a pathway for recovery for those siblings who are committed to doing the work. Make no mistake, all work must take place on an individual level first so that siblings can come to the table to work together honestly and openly. That’s a challenge and one that can’t be done without therapy, self-care, and a solid support network too.

  •  Seek the right therapy: Therapy is a *must* for anyone who has survived narcissistic family abuse. Therapy helps to build awareness and also helps to lay the groundwork for emotional resolution and self-acceptance beyond the abuse. Siblings can also reconnect through a safe therapeutic space.
  • Set stronger boundaries: In a narcissistic family, boundaries are a must. Siblings who have been pitted against one another must learn to draw the line between personal attacks and cooperation. At the same time, adult children must learn to set boundaries with their narcissistic parents.
  • Build a support network: Support networks are vital in the recovery from narcissistic abuse. Having people around to support in the recovery process helps to prevent gaslighting and helps survivors retain self-respect and self-esteem throughout the process.
  • Practice self-care: Self-care is a lot more than massages and meditation. Real self-care involves taking medication, going to therapy, and having the tough conversations needed to maintain peace and happiness. Survivors must lean into these processes in order to nourish their physical and emotional bodies.
  • Lean into education: Knowledge takes survivors a long way when it comes to recovering from narcissistic abuse. It helps to increase awareness but also helps to establish a strong foundation from which survivors can rebuild their self-esteem and their futures confidently.

Is it a big ask? Sure. There’s a lot of work that goes into healing from narcissistic abuse. On the other side, there is freedom that can help siblings create emotionally safe and validating families and relationships for themselves and between one another.

***

The wounds left by a narcissistic parent’s favoritism run deep, but they do not have to dictate the adult stories of siblings who survived. Strategies and resources are available. Huge strides can be made by continuing to seek knowledge, forge connections, and find strength in communities that foster understanding and healing.

Above all, siblings need to remember that the favor of a narcissistic parent doesn’t determine their value. Their true value is defined by the resilience and compassion they nurture within themselves and future relationships.

In the fight against the invisible scars, always know that the triumph over childhood trauma isn’t just a possibility — it’s a testimony that can be embodied and reflected in the essence of those who choose the path of healing, empathy, and wholeness.

© E.B. Johnson 2024

I am a writer, artist, NLPMP, and podcaster who helps people build creative lives after trauma. In my free time, I have a passion for fresh bread, history, and all things watercolor. Learn more about me here. Join my mailing list. Or, apply to work with me 1:1 by clicking the image below.

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