June 10, 2010

About my Nephew: the runaway

"CZ, what is the connection with this experience and Narcissism? I've been reading your blog and WoN (both lifelines for so many.) I am gathering information to help me understand this disorder. I am thinking that this nephew is exhibiting narcissistic behavior but is not diagnosed because he is a teen. Can you shed light here? Thank you for this treasure trove of knowledge and experience." ~Geneva

Last week, Geneva posted a comment asking about my runaway nephew. The one who is about as shrewd as the little boy in this image. It took awhile to find a fitting picture for this message, and once again my perseverance and obsessive-compulsivity paid off. So here y’all go: the perfect image of my nephew when he moved in with me about thirteen years ago. 13 years ago, my nephew walked into our ‘safe’ home after his parents divorced. Only a couple of years later, my perfect marriage fell apart and the family construction that appeared to be 'safe and permanent', was proven to be untrustworthy. Again. My nephew had loved his Dad, despite his alcoholism, and he loved my husband (his Uncle) and thus withdrew into himself so deeply he didn't know what was real and what wasn't. Course, neither did I...not for a while. *insert tweety birds here* Narcissists have that impact on other people---they aren't trustworthy but you end up not trusting yourself!

Anyway, this little boy witnessed two men walk away from families both men professed to love more than life itself. That contradiction might thwart a child's self-development, especially when it comes to 'trust'---the foundation to healthy integration and secure attachment.

My nephew lived with me through the darkest period of my life, still needing to be cared for by several adult women who also needed to be cared for, too. It was rough for everyone, most especially for a child who learned early on that adults were first and foremost: committed to themselves and if it meant leaving children behind 'to find themselves', then that was an adult's prerogative. Particularly the man's. Families were mere stepping stones and family members were dispensable.

When my nephew showed signs of an emotional disturbance, it only seemed reasonable considering his life history. When his adjustment period extended beyond what we considered normal, we connected the dots to his behavior as an infant. There were signs of his emotional disconnect when he was two years old. At this point, we took him to a psychiatrist for testing. He has been going to therapy since he was eight years old, initially diagnosed with bipolar. Now that he is eighteen, he is undergoing further psychological evaluations and his diagnosis will likely be changed. Bipolar was a 'tentative' diagnosis at the time, giving direction for treating psychologists who were mostly concerned about preventing a manic episode.

Without psychological guidance for the past ten years, we might have blamed this child, resented him, or even ignored him. I want to say right up front that while a 'psychological label' might interfere with a child's self-perceptions, so do the other labels parents use for kids with emotional and psychological problems. Labels like: lazy, stupid, arrogant, lazy, belligerent, smart ass, lazy, n'er-do-well, defiant, worthless, and did I mention lazy? These are fairly common labels in households where kids frustrate the living poop out of their parents who resort to explanations for frustrating behaviors. Like when my nephew ran away. Was he defying authority like a rebel without a cause; was he replicating the self-centeredness of his father and Uncle; or was he telling us how easily he could be swayed by a friend?

This has been a daunting experience, raising my nephew. I always felt like a pretty good mother with extraordinary patience, understanding, and emotional support to offer children. But this child makes a good mother feel like a failure which is fundamental to the problems between my sister and her son. She is bipolar which means she parents by 'mood'. I'm not bipolar and parent by principle. Putting my nephew's welfare at the top of both of our priorities has required self-examination and constant learning. I am a stickler for consequences no matter how I might be 'feeling' at the time and his mom relents on consequences depending on how she feels. Still, the desire to do the right thing by a child has taken precedence over emotional reactions to his frustrating behavior. We try and we keep trying.

When my nephew first ran away, psychologists assumed he was having a mania which has proven to be inaccurate. Time tells the tale with troubled children, so hard to diagnose because they're such irritating narcissists during adolescence. Which signs of narcissism are normal and which aren't and how do we know the difference?

His psychiatrist cautioned that an accurate diagnosis might not be possible until he was seventeen or eighteen years old. Children change so much during teen-age years. If there is a narcissistic disorder however, it won't disappear. Pathological narcissism is deeply entrenched in the personality and becomes even more obvious during maturation. Not that we didn't worry about him having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or even worse, an Anti-social character.

The first approach psychologists took with my nephew after his runaway fugue, was to talk to him about the 'anti-social' personality. "Do you know what anti-social means?" the therapist asked him. He replied, "That you don't have lots of friends?"

"Well, not exactly," she said. Then she described a fork in the road. She asked him to picture himself standing in the middle of a path with one road leading to jail and the other path leading to freedom. "Where do you want to end up?" she asked. "Because making choices like the one you just made, ultimately lead to social alienation. Living in a jail cell without any freedom is inevitable if you don't start making different choices today."

After this therapy session, my sister was frantic about raising a psychopath and talked with me extensively about the signs of psychopathy. "He's not a psychopath", I told her. "He doesn't know how to manipulate people and he's about as cunning as that kid in the posted photo." You see, my nephew ran away in the cold of winter without carrying a coat or stealing money from the household. It was an impromptu, impulsive choice and in my understanding, psychopaths are too devoted to 'creature comforts' to do something like that. They'd steal the teacher's parka, rob classmates' backpacks, or hold up the local 7-11 for a six-pack of Red Bull. Instead, those two kids nearly froze to death and slipped inside a local church to sleep in the coat room overnight while curbing their hunger with peanut butter from the frig.

Disclaimer: As a layperson using psychological information to provide a template for better parenting, there is a lot I do not know about mental illnesses, character disorders, neurological disorders. This is why I rely on treating psychologists to pinpoint my nephew's problems. In the interim, when psychologists are doing their best to understand what makes him 'tick', we are still living and parenting and loving this child. It is not easy and I hope I don't sound Pollyanna-ish about raising a child with emotional problems. Some people can handle it; others cannot which is why those of us who can oughta step up to the plate. I didn't write out a pro-con list of reasons WHY I ought change my life and raise this child when he needed a place to live. I just did it because it 'felt' like the right thing to do and yes, I believe it was. And thus, my continued interest in learning about the narcissistic continuum in the hopes of intervening with behaviors before they become patterns ultimately leading to pathology. (I will list some of the sure signs of narcissism on this post and then follow-up with a second post about what I have done to interrupt developing patterns before they became engrained.)

Many people write about the narcissist’s lack of empathy as the crucial definition of this disorder. I don’t see it that way. To me, the most compelling distinction of the narcissistic pathology is: MANIPULATION

Though everyone, to some degree, uses manipulation in our image-conscious society, the narcissist's manipulation requires DECEPTION on a level most people could never sustain. Narcissists adapt to whatever people expect to see, even appearing to be successful, competent, trustworthy, intimate, highly moral, and 'good' people. In my own experience, narcissists ARE competent, talented and successful people. They excel in a competitive society that rewards Individual excellence, not communal values.

The narcissist’s deception is in the 'fragmentation' between image and substance. For instance, a narcissist will appear to not only be successful and skilled, he or she will also mimic empathy, consideration, tenderness, and commitment to family (or other intimate relationships). The narcissist manipulates everyone and everything in a game of subterfuge that even deceives him or herself. The image of the invulnerable and superior narcissist is maintained AT ALL COSTS---other people being inevitable, even lamentable losses that are justified in the narcissist’s mind. The narcissist scans his or her environment to meet their own needs, exploiting people like objects. You cannot exploit people if you aren't clever at deception, manipulation and cunning.

What you see is what you get is how most people describe themselves, yet with the narcissist, what you see is NOT what you get. The discrepancy between the image of this person (what we expect to see) and reality (what the narcissist masks from others), is a sure sign of a self-disorder ranging from unhealthy to pathological narcissism, even the most severe: psychopathy.

People withdraw at times, especially in times of crisis. We might be extremely self-absorbed for awhile. Some folks might call that 'narcissism' and in a perverse way, diminish the severity of the narcissistic disorder by equating self-absorption with psychopathy. What I am writing about is not situational withdrawal in response to trauma/crisis. I was broken-hearted and believe me, everybody knew it.

What I am writing about is pathological narcissism: a core disturbance of the self, resulting in a fragmented identity. Or no identity at all. Narcissists are always 'looking for themselves' out there somewhere over the rainbow, leaving other people with the distinct impression that they have no self to find. And maybe there isn’t. Until they find this illusive self however, narcissists borrow other people’s identities, mirroring a perfect image of the person you expect to see. Someone so like yourself, it's uncanny.

The question on our minds after my nephew returned home was this: Would my nephew's week in juvenile detention be a Corrective life Event, or a Corrosive one? Would he blame us, society, school, the police? Would he justify his antisocial behavior as ‘normal’ considering his pitiable circumstances? A boy in a house of women without a father, what could anyone expect? These questions remain in my mind and heart with no way to predict the outcome. His future was up to him and yes, that's an uncertain place for parents to be.
One last comment about the narcissistic character and I'll use a television actor to hopefully point out the distinction. Did you ever watch Leave it to Beaver? Well, there was this very narcissistic friend named Eddy Haskell. Eddy was the most polite teenager on the block manipulating parents’ perceptions to gain their trust and approval. One tip-off to Eddy’s disorder was his superbly over-the-top manners. Narcissists mimic the right behavior but go to the extreme. Beware the obsequious teenager who makes your own kids look like degenerates.

Then of course, there's The Bad Seed. Watch that old movie and notice how the little girl manipulates her mother saying, "You are the best mother. The prettiest mother." Just what every mother would love to hear. Gosh, just writing about little Rhoda Penmark raises goose bumps on my arms. She was a psychopath, a callous and ruthless extreme of narcissism.

Signs of Unhealthy to Pathological Narcissism
Manipulates people and situations to serve himself: ruthless and exploitive
Enjoyment 'fooling' others; pulling the wool over someone's eyes
Sadistic pleasure in other people pain, mocking ‘vulnerable’ others
Plays on people’s emotions, often aware of how they’re feeling. This appears to be empathy but it’s more akin to observation than mutually shared emotions. Plays on people’s emotions, often aware of how they’re feeling because this is HOW the narcissist has learned to get what he wants.
Successful social adaptation (fitting in to 'pass' as normal or superior)
Suave, charismatic, MANIPULATIVE and shrewd
Shows enmity towards others; malicious intent to harm, subjugate, and destroy objects of their ‘envy’. Puts others down to build themselves up (regulating self-esteem by feeling superior to others)
Behaves 'one way' at school, another way at home, without internal consistency (some variation is normal but the extreme is a sign of fragmentation). Even though everyone conforms to the social situation to some degree, the core self with values, principles and morals remains the same.
Blame, blame, blame with no remorse, guilt or ‘insight’, frequently snaring other people’s pity to escape negative consequences
Assumes rules are for others, not themselves. That they are entitled to special privileges in a world that revolves around themselves
Extremely competitive as if their self-worth depended on winning. Narcissists are bad losers and equally bad winners
High-risk activities generating a pseudo-excitement warding off inner deadness and chronic boredom, proving their mastery (control) over life and death
Splitting people and objects into either GOOD or BAD (this might be evidenced by quickly attaching to 'idealized' friends and abruptly ending friendships by 'devaluing' formerly perfect friends)
Grandiose fantasies about power, brilliance, superiority, wealth, beauty. Promoting themselves as Superior, Gifted, and Skilled while not doing the necessary work to achieve their dreams. Pretentiousness is the key description, even more fitting than ‘arrogant’ for a teenager
Sexual promiscuity (lack of emotional connection) and addictive behaviors
Shallow relationships with numerous friends. Quality is what matters, not quantity
Entitlement beyond a teenagers usual cluelessness. For example, expecting to be given an “A” in class just because they treated the teacher to their presence
Rage reactions, anger and out-of-control temper tantrums, hatred and a desire for revenge towards anyone threatening their self-esteem (their Image)
* * *
As the picture on this message suggests, my nephew is not manipulative, cunning or shrewd. He is what he is which means he appears to be just as 'aloof' as he really is. An odd little duck, there's no mistaking his quack.

I will narrow down my approach to parenting my nephew in the next post. As with any psychological disturbance, I am very aware that despite my best of intentions, there may be very little a parent can do. We have to try, don’t we?



  1. CZ -- your wisdom, patience and compassion never cease to inspire me.

    Hugs and love,


  2. CZ thanks for the indepth analysis and for the list of characteristics. It is so difficult to watch a child or young adult do destructive things which you know they will come to regret or hope they will come to regret. Sometimes it seems as though they are in the grip of something almost beyond their ability to control. The very tough love that you demonstrated must have been a difficult decision but the right one. Thanks so much for sharing all of your knowledge and experience.
    Hugs to you too :)

  3. Thank you, Louise! I haven't written much about my nephew and the problems we've faced raising him but perhaps it is time. I had to be as clear as possible and yes, some of his behavior appeared to be 'narcissistic'.

    At this point, maybe I can write more cogently about the narcissistic disorder and how it differs from autism. We have a lot to learn about autism but rest assured: we are up to the task!

    Why? Because we love him...warts and all.

    Hugs and love back,


  4. Dear Geneva,

    You are on my mind and I hope my next post offers better help dealing with self-destructive kids. Both of my adult children went through a dark period in their lives including drugs, alcohol and other addictive behaviors.

    We have come through that storm, too and they are each back on track with their lives.

    I attended Alanon to help me cope with their antics and it comforted me to know other parents were facing similar problems with their kids. Some of the advice was very helpful. Some was not. At least going to Alanon gave me options when I felt like there was nothing i could do to change the mess we were in...together.

    Cuz whether you want to be in the mess with them or not, you ARE if you love them!

    I will post very soon with a follow-up including my experience with two kids whose self-esteem was in the proverbial toilet.

    As I wrote to Louise, I wanted to write about my nephew after those initial posts about his runaway fugue but I felt incompetent to do so. While he appeared to be a budding psychopath, it didn't line up with other behaviors. Finally, perhaps I can write more clearly and hopefully, offer insight into parenting difficult kids.

    You are right though, it was Tough Love when we refused to visit him in juvenile detention. HOWEVER, the real tough love was what I learned to do with my own children several years ago. My experience with them (and the positive outcome) encouraged me to do the same thing with my nephew.

    So far, everything the psychologist told us to do was THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

    Amazing how many parents cart homemade cupcakes to their little delinquents in the jail cell. That's our initial reaction: to tell them how much we love them. I do wonder if the reason some of those parents show 'caring and concern' at that point is because they feel Guilty or Responsible? It's a way for parents to feel better about themselves?

    It's pretty hard to know your kid is sitting in jail and tolerate your guilt for failing them as a parent. But if you buy into that line of thinking, kids will continue blaming YOU as the reason for their choices. If you'll pick up their guilt for them, they'll be happy to let you!

    And the DRAMA continues and the self-destruction, too.


  5. Hi CZ,
    Wow! What an awesome post. I can relate in several ways.
    I sure wish you'd been my sister and my son's aunt about 14 years ago, or better, while I was in the hospital after giving birth to my son.
    As to labels, I agree that they are much better than what seems to be the alternative, which is to call a troubled person lazy or incompetent -- or think this of yourself.
    Personally, before I found a good psychologist, I didn't know what to think about why I didn't seem to feel happy like other people did or why I felt the ways I did. It was the understanding I gained in sessions with that psychologist that saved my life. Once I saw that what was happening to me was actually quite a normal and common response to the life events I'd survived, the experiences became lesser demons to fight.
    Even though I'd learned a lot about my demons, when my son was struck with a mental illness, I was not equipped with the knowledge I wish I'd had. When I learned what I was facing (and ultimately, what my son was facing), I still had no clue as to the seriousness of it. I didn't have an internet connection until a year later, which is when I began learning to spell the word, schizophrenia.
    Writing that word is difficult. Very difficult. I wish it wasn't so. My son does not claim it. Some say I'm doing him a great injustice by saying it myself. Others say just the opposite.
    I'm the "http://dogkisses.wordpress.com/2010/06/02/the-fence-sitter/" regarding this.
    There are certain symptoms of schizophrenia that remind me of characteristics of NPD. Recovering in the aftermath of a toxic relationship with a malignant narcissist, caused me to need a better understanding of these similarities.
    I learned, from my favorite medical professional in the field of psychiatry, that these symptoms I can see are not character issues as they are in NPD.
    Schizophrenia is a thought disorder. Disorganized thinking is kind of like a room where the clothes get put into the toy box instead of the closet. Information gets stored in the wrong places. And this is very different than with NPD.
    Some people think a person with schizophrenia doesn't feel empathy when he or she isn't showing emotions. I read where it is more like this: The person is feeling everything. Nothing is being filtered out of his environment. The person's brain is taking everything in all at once and this can result in what appears to be a lack of emotions, when it is really such a large dose that the brain must find ways to deal with the overload of information being processed. I think it's like a computer when you try to do too many things at once on it.
    Reading your article, then the list, helped me even more to understand that my son has a wonderful heart, that he is a kind person, and he cares maybe a little more than is good for him. And, in fact, he needs a little dose of feeling or knowing that he deserves good things and opportunities in life the same as anyone else does.
    Thanks for your wonderful writing. I look forward to your next post.

  6. thank you so much for your blog...i'm a girl from europe, so please don't mind my bad english..i started to read your blog when i felt that something wasn't quite right in my relationship..so i found all my answers here. and it helped a lot.

  7. "Some people think a person with schizophrenia doesn't feel empathy when he or she isn't showing emotions. I read where it is more like this: The person is feeling everything. Nothing is being filtered out of his environment. The person's brain is taking everything in all at once and this can result in what appears to be a lack of emotions, when it is really such a large dose that the brain must find ways to deal with the overload of information being processed. I think it's like a computer when you try to do too many things at once on it."

    I really really like your description here, Dogkisses. Makes a lot of sense and applies to my nephew, too.

    When someone acts in ways we don't understand, we easily leap to an explanation. Like not having empathy or not caring or being self-centered or whatever.

    I used to think my nephew was self-absorbed like a narcissist, for example. That's not 'it' exactly. He is withdrawn at times because he is overwhelmed by sensory information. It's what he does when there is Too Much Information (as you've written).

    His withdrawing behavior is NOT a control tactic like it is for the manipulative narcissist.

    Narcissists withdraw to GET A REACTION from other people. That's an important distinction to make. If the narcissist withdraws, other people curry up close and personal asking what they can do to make them feel better or worse yet, WHAT DID THEY DO to make the narcissist withdraw!

    I hope your son will eventually come to peace with his diagnosis. It's such a shame how we have stigmatized mental illness, making it doubly hard for people who are affected by mental illnesses. I hope those of us who advocate for people with mental illnesses will be able to make a difference.

    big hugs to you and your son,

  8. Hello, girl-from-Europe! What a pleasure to know you are reading my blog AND that you are finding answers that help you manage your life.

    we all have burdens and it doesn't matter where we live, does it? There's the super-special burden of the narcissistic relationship though which seems to be a Universal problem even if it's characterized differently according to our culture.

    One thing about narcissists that I'll dare to say is Universal:

    They are swirling, twirling and dust-billowing tornadoes. No woman meets a narcissist without being lifted clean off her feet, landing bottoms up in Oz. You can pretty much spot a narcissistic relationship a mile off...just look for the dust!

    I hope you find useful information here and can work through the aftermath of the N-relatioNship. At some point, and it might take awhile, you will be OUT of that relationship, the air will be clear and fresh and you won't have to worry about flying through the sky anymore.

    Thanks for being here. It helps me to know that other people can relate to my writing, too. It keeps ME from feeling isolated in a lifestory more bizarre than fiction. ((hugs))


  9. Hi CZ--
    I gave you a little gift on my blog. You don't have to do anything with it. It's a way to say thank you.

    Oh, the post is titled, "Warrior Women with Blogs Award."

  10. Hi Dogkisses!

    I will pop right over to your blog right now! Lucky me...I have some time to sit at my computer this morning!


  11. My son has a friend who is obsequious to a painful degree. This young lad (17) has an N mother and is an only child. You can imagine what sort of person he is.

    He spent five days with us recently, and during that time, my three kids and my husband were incredibly stressed, yet none of us knew why. My husband was throwing tantrums, something he rarely does, for no reason, my daughter was being extra loud and giggly (this guy is an attractive person after all), and I was bending over backwards to be nice to this kid. Even my son, this kids best friend, was unnusually quiet.

    This kid CONSTANTLY thanked me for every little thing I did for him, agreed with everything I said, even when I was telling the boys off for swearing, etc. I put it down to having to live with an N mother. I know what that was like. You become real good at sucking upto adults to avoid any conflict.

    Yet, there was something so fake about the boy, and we none of us could put our fingers on it. We just figured he was trying too hard.

    On the day he left, he presented me with two gifts. One was a packet of moisturiser and hand-soap which had been very obviously re-gifted, and wrapped very tightly by his mother in used floral paper. The other was a bag of the most repulsive chocolate and candy I had ever tasted, we ended up throwing both gifts out.

    I remembered the old thing about Ns being notoriously bad gift givers. There it was all over again.

    It wasn't until this boy left, that we collectively heaved a sigh of relief, and realised that the influence in our home had been that of one more narcissist. Whether it was just vicariously through this boy's mother, or through his own mimicry of her narcissism, or even his own budding narcissism, we know now, after having to jetison our own mothers, on both sides, for their malignant narcissism, that we can no longer tolerate this behaviour in our house ever again.

    The only thing that bugs me now is how quickly my son managed to gravitate to this boy. I spoke to him afterwards about his friend's behaviour, and fortunately, my son had already recognised it. I take it their facebook communication has dropped off a bit lately too. Maybe the experience of five days with a teenage narcissist wasn't without its benefits after all.


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