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Narcissistic Families: Family Roles & Characteristics

All families have roles in which each member acts in accordance. However, in narcissistic families the roles are distinct and damaging to the members individually as well as the family unit. The roles continue the level of dysfunction within the family unit with the purpose being to protect the narcissist from addressing their own unresolved issues with themselves or others. Thus, how family roles are assigned are intentional, discretely assigned to each member and can go unnoticed for years due to the dysfunctional dynamics and abuse tactics. Here we will break down what each of these roles may look like so you are better able to identify them in your own family. Once we can identify what role we and others play we can begin to be intentional in the role we play in the narcissistic family.

The Narcissist

The narcissist in these families is usually one of the parents and they demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors. Narcissistic parents can be overt or covert in their demonstration. The covert narcissistic parent is hard to recognize and far more difficult to expose due to appearing wounded, gentle, vulnerable and, in some cases, humble. The covert narcissist is truly a wolf in sheeps clothes making them far more dangerous. Regardless of overt versus covert, some behaviors of narcissistic parents include having a strong sense of entitlement that requires excessive admiration. If this admiration is not given then they become impatient or angry. They feel as though they are superior, even when there is no proof to warrant it. The parent expects compliance without questions or any form of resistance. It is truly their way or the highway and everyone must conform to fit their needs. The narcissistic parent has an inability or is unwilling to recognize the needs and emotions of others. They even have difficulty regulating their own emotions, making adjusting to change next to impossible. They insist on having the best of everything and look down upon others whom they perceive as inferior. In fact, they will even belittle as a way to make them feel superior and manipulate in order to get their way. We'll explore these abusive tactics in an upcoming post so check back in! The narcissist is easily slighted, offended and takes things extremely personal, despite proof of anything being personal. Overall, the narcissistic parent struggles immensely with feelings of shame, insecurity, and vulnerability, which is ultimately where their behaviors stem from(2).

The Orbiting Spouse

Also known as the enabler for the narcissistic parent. The orbiting spouse will revolve their world around the narcissistic parent and never question the narcissist's version of reality in order to keep their relationship intact. The orbiting parent often has qualities that would compensate for the narcissistic parent's qualities. However, the orbiting parent is unable to share these with or meet the children's needs, as they are too focused on appeasing the narcissist(1, 3, 7).

A table with the word love on it. In narcissistic families love is conditional. If this is something you see in your family please seek out mental health services to begin healing from the abuse

Golden Child

Also known as the conformer, the golden child is just that. The child that conforms to the narcissistic parents abuse and is even taught to sympathize with the abuse towards the scapegoat. The golden child conforms due to fear of rejection, criticizing, and shame that comes from the narcissistic parent if they do not do as the parent wishes. The golden child is not free of abuse from the narcissistic parent. They just experience a much more covert form of abuse than the scapegoat. Ultimately, the golden child is playing the pleasing game as a way to avoid the negative backlash they see the scapegoat experiencing from the narcissistic parent. This makes the golden child the favorite and idealized child of the family unit. Often this leaves the golden child to receive special treatment and attention, though this can easily switch to another child if they are no longer serving the narcissist's needs. Although the golden child avoids most of the abuse from the narcissistic parent, they struggle to identify their own sense of self and lack self-esteem. They are constantly fearful of never being enough. Since the golden child is taught to comply and idealize the narcissistic parent, they rarely see the narcissistic parent for who they truly are. This puts the golden child at risk of becoming narcissistic themself and contributing to the abuse experienced by the scapegoat(6).

Flying Monkeys

Flying monkeys are also enablers and are the most easy to manipulate. Their purpose is to continue the narcissist's poor behavior and abuse by proxy. There are usually one or more family members, usually children, who make up the flying monkeys. These family members also run the risk of becoming or have already become narcissistic themselves(7).


Narcissistic families have roles that are assigned to members that negatively affect the family dynamics and individual's mental health

The use of a scapegoat is needed in narcissistic families. They simply cannot exist without one for it would mean addressing their own uncomfortable emotions and behaviors. Thus, which family member is the scapegoat can change depending on the narcissistic parent and the other family members' conformity. The scapegoat is not picked on accident. They are the family member that is usually the one who refuses to remain silent about the family dysfunction. They are also the strongest and healthiest of all the family members as they need to be in order for the narcissistic family to escape suffering themselves. Narcissistic families use a scapegoat as a way to protect their own ego, discharge and distract themselves from their own negative emotions and create a "villain." These all leave them feeling self-righteousness and as though they are the "hero," even if created in their own heads and purely fictional. This process of selecting and creating the scapegoat is covert and occurs through repetitive and consensual acts of shunning. This one person is doomed to bear the brunt of any psychological discomfort experienced by one or more of the family members. In order to justify these dysfunctional behaviors, the narcissistic family member(s) will create and repeat stories that strengthen the narrative as the scapegoat being deserving of disparagement and distain. Though, it is important to note, that the scapegoat is not deserving of such treatment. If you're the scapegoat, please remember this. You may not be perfect, but such treatment as what you're enduring comes from a place of discomfort in addressing their own unresolved issues. As much as they will attempt to convince you that you are the problem, whether it be your actions, accomplishments, or words, please remember that you are not the problem nor can you fix it(4, 5).

Were you able to identify your role? What about your family members? Once we understand what these family roles are and where our place is in it, it is usually pretty clear to identify who plays what role. It also begins to help us understand how the family dysfunction continues to be perpetuated despite the pain, anger, and devastation it brings.

Check back in soon for our next post in The Narcissistic Family Series! Part of healing from narcissistic family abuse is being able to spot the dysfunction. In part three, we will identify and define in detail common dysfunctional dynamics and traits so you are better able to spot them within your own family to protect yourself.

While you wait, don't hesitate to reread part one of The Narcissistic Family Series, The Narcissistic Family & the Pain they Bring. Each of the series builds on each other to help give a full picture of what to expect from the narcissistic family.


For those who are or have experienced this type of abuse and toxic dynamics, please don't hesitate to seek help. You are not alone. Mental health services can be helpful in processing your experiences and developing tools to heal. Sometimes we need therapy to help us deal with the people who should be in therapy. If you're in the Quad Cities area, don't hesitate to reach out to schedule an appointment today to start your journey to healing.



  1. McBride, K., (May 1, 2011). The Narcissistic Family Tree. Retrieved from

  2. Mayo Clinic. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Retrieved from

  3. Knight, K., Nazario, M. R., (July 5, 2018). Hurtful Parenting: Identifying and Overcoming the Impact of Narcissistic Families. Retrieved from

  4. Burton, N., (December 24, 2018). The Psychology of Scapegoating. Retrieved from

  5. Swenson, S., (January 30, 2017). The Blameless Burden: Scapegoating in Dysfunctional Families. Retrieved from

  6. Inner Integrations. (July 1, 2018).Scapegoat and Golden Child: How and Why Narcissists Assign These Roles (and not just in the Family). Retrieved from

  7. Hall, J., (January 26, 2017). The Narcissistic Family: Cast of Characters and Glossary of Terms. Retrieved from


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