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Parental Envy: The Silent Thief of Joy and Fulfillment

How narcissistic parental envy shapes emotional worlds and futures.

Narcissistic parents often inflict attachment wounds on their children by harming them emotionally. It is natural for these parents to perceive their children as extensions of themselves and neglect their emotional needs, establishing what Daniel Shaw (2010) called “controlled egocentric self-promotion.” They also impose additional emotional damage by pathologically envying the children’s successes and happiness. The combination of emotional deafness and envy, often expressed through rage (4), cultivates guilt and lack of self-confidence in such children in adult life.

Melanie Klein, one of the early pioneers of British psychoanalysis, suggested that what drives parental envy is their own deprivation of good things in childhood. She postulated that “envy is exacerbated by deprivation and, indeed, also fuels feelings of deprivation because of how it prevents the subject from benefiting from that which is available” (1). The parents, embittered by their children’s happier childhood that they themselves did not have, remind the children how hard they had it—“I walked two miles to school, why don’t you?”—versus how good their children have it—their parents drive them. In an attempt to retroactively improve their own childhood, they resort to identification with their child to reclaim a life they never lived and the hopes, dreams, and possibilities that they were robbed of but feel entitled to.

However, these attempts do little to help the parents themselves and are damaging to the children. Let’s examine the effects parental envy has on children and determine in what cases it is useful to address the subject of parental envy in therapy.

1. Lack of rewarding relationships. Since narcissistic parents tend to merge with their children psychologically (2), they cause serious boundary issues for the children. As the child is not perceived as a separate human being worthy of their own desires, feelings, aspirations, motivations, and especially relationships, the parent employs envy and inflicts criticism or prohibitions on their children’s personal relationships and social interactions. As Shaw states, their relational strategies are signified by the compulsion to control and dominate, and since envious parents consider the child as their extension, the parent withholds fulfilling relationships from their child’s life to control it and remain their center. The opposite of envy is generosity, such as generosity of love. Unfortunately, envious parents do not provide the possibility to learn the generosity of love for their children.

2. Unfulfilled ambitions. The narcissistic personality is not only accompanied by envy, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) states, but also by rage and boredom (4). D’Agostino et al. reference Kernberg, who described that the experience of emptiness in a narcissistic personality occurs alongside feelings of boredom and restlessness (4). The child is forced to dedicate herself to fill their parent’s void. Having their own success here would risk encountering the parent’s rage. The more the child attempts to develop autonomy from parental encroachment, the more the parent’s desire to possess and grab back surfaces. When there are several children, there may be one whose achievements are less accepted by the parent to balance out the successes of the other children. Thus, in the eye of parental envy, it is extremely challenging for the child to keep and hold their own possessions.

Peter Shabad describes that his child patient, who dealt with parental envy, got angry when the therapist watched him buy a bag of Doritos prior to the session. The child required that the therapist avert his eyes, speaking as if the therapist “could reach inside of him omnipotently and steal his private pleasures” (3). It is expected that the consequences of parental envy would create a hurdle in therapy, as unconsciously, the client would be afraid to make progress and achieve therapeutic achievements since that requires them to neglect the parent’s needs for the sake of their own.

3. Lack of joy in life. The subject of parental envy has penetrated the collective consciousness through fairytales for centuries. Take Snow White, for example, where the evil stepmother poisons her daughter out of envy that she is the “fairest of the land.” In other fairytales, such as Rapunzel, there is the motif of a stepmother or childless witch who kidnaps an only child, stealing light from the family. In therapy, we can look at parental envy as the parent’s way of symbolically stealing the joy from their child’s life. Let’s take an example of a child standing up to a bully. The jealous parent would unconsciously want to take the joy of winning from the child’s hands, so instead of sharing the jubilance that this child stood up for themself, the parent omits this part and only criticizes them for violating the school’s rules.

The motif of Snow White also demonstrates the theft of the joy of maturity, which brings autonomy and freedom for children to do what they want. It includes experiencing satisfaction from the grown body, its beauty and sexuality, and the admiration it elicits from others—not just from the body or its beauty itself but from the miracle of maturing and changing—the joy of becoming themselves, as opposed to being a parent’s extension.

Unfortunately, some fairytales are based on reality, and the children who become the recipients of their parents’ envy might suffer long-lasting psychological consequences that prevent them from living life freely and happily. Being raised by narcissistic parents brings a lot of guilt and fear into the child’s life. Guilt for potentially living better than the parent(s) and the fear of reliving the rage they witnessed from the parent(s). In therapy, these people might initially be afraid to speak against the parent(s) or even analyze their behavior lest they detect something negative and deserving of critique. It takes time, but eventually, therapy can help them navigate through the guilt and fear and live a fulfilling life worthy of envying.

You might also be interested in reading The Complexities of Dating the Children of Narcissists.


1. Lemma, A., & Roth, P. (Eds.). (2008). Envy and Gratitude Revisited (1st ed.). Routledge.

2. Mahoney, D. M., Rickspoone, L., & Hull, J. C. (2016). Narcissism, parenting, complex trauma: The emotional consequences created for children by narcissistic parents. The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, 45(5). Illinois School of Professional Psychology/Schaumburg.

3. Shabad, P. (2014). The Evil Eye of Envy: Parental Possessiveness and the Rivalry for a New Beginning. In Gender and Envy (pp. 255-268). Routledge.

4. D’Agostino, A., Pepi, R., Rossi Monti, M., & Starcevic, V. (2020). The Feeling of Emptiness. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, Publish Ahead of Print.

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