How the “golden child” upbringing is abusive

One of my more controversial articles on Hathor has been How Not to Raise a Rapist. In it, I assert that the way to avoid raising a son or daughter who sexually assaults people is simply not to abuse your kids (the logic behind which is in the post). The comment thread brought up a form of abuse that not everyone recognized as abuse: teaching your child that he is the special golden chose one to whom no rules apply. It doesn’t sound abusive on the surface, does it? I got a lot of questions about how this upbringing is abusive and how it produces the sort of people who can commit such crimes as rape. I’m answering that question here, since it’s more a privilege issue than a gender equality issue (though gender privilege does tie in).

Empathy is a learned behavior. When parents have empathy, they teach it to their kids without even realizing it – it seems to “come naturally” because it was learned so young, while the brain was still forming (between eighteen months and four years).

But if the parent doesn’t have empathy, they can’t teach it to the child. And because they don’t see the child as equally human to themselves, these parents may abuse their children in the physical ways we can easily recognize as abuse. But they have another option, a sneakier one: they can manipulatively groom the child to be incredibly vain and selfish for the parents’ own purpose, which is usually extension of the parent’s ego via the child. Through the child, they seek to experience accomplishments, to punish enemies, etc. The child’s identity isn’t allowed to form as it would with an empathetic parent: the child is simply pushed to see himself as a super star, to achieve power by trampling others, to be a “success” who “takes what he wants” and “won’t take no for an answer” because these are the parents’ fantasies of grandeur.

The child’s developing personality is entirely subsumed – and warped – by the parent’s machinations, which are exploitative and grossly selfish. It’s most often boys who are groomed in this manner, since a girl couldn’t possibly enjoy all the triumphs of which the embittered parent dreams. This results in the psychiatric disorder Hazelwood believes most sex offender have (see original article), Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s essentially untreatable, and adults with it are extremely exploitative of others.

Children groomed in this manner have been deprived of personal identity and the chance ever to connect with another human being in the meaningful way (empathy) that makes us different from the reptiles. Despite any appearance of personal success and happiness, they will never experience the feelings of intimacy, bonding and love that most of us take for granted. Because they lack empathy, they lack conscience, and therefore compassion. The basis of this disorder is believed to be incredible shame – such shame that the child buried it early on and constructed a false “self”, a sort of second personality that believes itself godlike and expects to be worshiped accordingly. But deep down, it always feels inadequate, and lives in terror of someone else seeing that inadequacy.

This is what the empathy-free parent wanted. This is a person who will hurt others and sleep like a baby afterwards. This is the parent’s monster to turn loose on society, in whose triumphs the empathy-free parent will delight. And the parent will expect everyone to admire the child.

Deliberately, if unconsciously, warping a child’s personality so he cannot possibly learn to love, care or share is definitely a form of abuse. This is never an act of ignorance: the parent may not understand what he is doing, precisely, but he is always doing it for himself, without genuine concern for the child’s well-being. Don’t confuse this careful grooming with parenting styles that perhaps go overboard on encouraging high self-esteem or lavishing a child with material things: those upbringings may result in arrogant adults or adults with above-average entitlement. But it takes a special sort of training to produce a rapist.

See the original article for several sources. This is not an opinion piece. It is based on psychiatric research.


  1. Discipula says

    This is a pretty accurate description of how my father was raised and how I think he would have raised me had my mother and her parents not been so involved in my upbringing. Growing up, realizing more and more what my father was capable of and what he wanted of me, was rather shocking and horrifying, but I’m incredibly glad that there were others that became my primary care takers and taught me how to empathize when I was still young enough to learn.

  2. Lolita says

    This is a very insightful piece. I’m not an expert myself but from what I’ve read, I would like to add that NPD, like most psychological “disorders,” exists on a continuum. There are some people with NPD who can function better in intimate relationships than those with very extreme cases. Just thought I’d bring that up!

    • Jennifer Kesler says

      I’m not sure what you mean by “function” but there’s actually very little spectrum/continuum about NPD, and that’s actually what distinguishes it from most psychiatric disorders. They have no conscience or empathy – no spectrum, they just don’t have those traits. And the disorder causes them to need constant ego-stroking (“Narcissistic supply”) – if you don’t give it to them, that is if you treat them like humans instead of gods, they lash out. If you DO treat them like gods, it’s still never enough AND reinforces the idea you exist to be utilized, so they use you. And even an imagined slight can cause them to go on a rampage of revenge (“narcissistic injury”) that is so out of proportion to even the imagined injury that people without the disorder can barely comprehend the rationale behind the behavior.

      The lack of continuum/spectrum is why the only way to “treat” NPD is to literally break down the existing behavior (like brainwashing does) and rebuild a whole new personality – in theory. It’s been tried, and brought very little empathy in exchange for a huge loss in functionality in terms of things like being employable – not considered a success. Typically, therapy is about improving and healing an existing personality. For NPD’s, it’s a whole other deal.

      There is a lot of disinformation about this disorder out there, BTW. The best way to study it is not to read about it, but to have the unfortunate experience of being very close to an NPD for quite some time. Even therapists who have never been close to an NPD don’t generally understand the disorder well enough to provide good therapy to someone who’s been victimized by an NPD.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says


    Well, that just means you’re capable of self-examination. There is such a thing as a healthy degree of narcissism. A genuine narcissist would never make a statement like you just made, because they are absolutely perfect and fabulous, doncha know. 😉

  4. Liana says

    I know a particular young woman who was raised this way. An only child with what appears to have been two parents with NPD, both using her as a weapon against one another and as a source of pride because she was attractive. The mother’s words of wisdom to her daughter were…”Let them (men) see what they can’t have.” as instruction for her daughter to flaunt herself physically and sexually. Her father saw his daughter as a prize. His friends “wanted” her. The father using his psychological attacks on her convincing her that her mother was “bad”, “mean”, “heartless”, “cold” and distant…all the while giving this woman no boundaries whatsoever, no discipline, no consequences…if she cried loud enough or yelled, or screamed, or slammed doors, or stormed out of the house? She got what she wanted. The super villain as daddy’s little girl. She is an habitual liar. She is a thief. She chased her friends boyfriends. She is also sadly very possessive and jealous of anyone in her father’s life. (of course, because no one else can tolerate her horrible behavior despite her good looks. No one else will excuse her the way he does.) They will cling to one another now because he is as he is and she has become the worst of them both.

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