Although I have titled this “co-parenting,” many people who have a child with someone who is diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or who displays many of the traits, will know that co-parenting is an unlikely dynamic.
A narcissist will not cooperate, show compassion, consideration, offer clear or reasonable communication and they most certainly will not have any care or regard for co-parenting. It will feel more like counter-parenting than co-parenting, as every negative act has to be counteracted to try to maintain balance.
Although there will be many who are struggling to bring up their child when still in a relationship with a narcissist this article is aimed at those who have separated or divorced, but are raising a child with a narcissist. The Narcissist Co-Parent has been abbreviated to NCP.
Once a relationship has broken down co-parenting with a narcissist can not only seem impossible but also as though you are living through a reoccurring and worsening nightmare. It doesn’t help that unfortunately, to date, there has not been a vast amount of research carried out, or professional advice made available, with regards to co-parenting with a narcissist. Neither is there clear evidence or research that explains how narcissistic behavior or co-parenting with a narcissist emotionally affects the kid(s).
Therefore, I have written this article based on my experience and research to offer some tips and a base understanding for those who are involved in this dynamic, as it is something I have been questioned about frequently since writing various other articles about narcissism.
The most vital piece of information I can give is that you cannot and will not ever change a narcissist’s behavior, nor will you be able to reason, reach any form of compromise or receive a genuine apology for any difficulties they cause either to you or your child. Narcissists have a grandiose opinion of themselves and think they are “special” and above everyone around them, so no matter how hard you might try to get them to see things from your, or your child’s, perspective it will never happen.
The main concern when co-parenting with a narcissist should be ensuring your child is safeguarded, as they are in the middle of circumstances that they do not have the emotional capabilities to deal with. Sadly all too often children who have a narcissist parent suffer incredible emotional abuse. However, unlike physical abuse there is no visible evidence so it can be incredibly difficult to prove to the relevant authorities. It may also go unnoticed as the child might not talk about it either through fear or because they believe it is normal behavior as it is all they have known from that particular parent.
For those who are still in a relationship with a narcissist it is advisable to drop all expectations about how you hope they will parent your child and also keep all of your emotions under control. Do not respond and react erratically, however frustrating or unpleasant the interactions may be, as this only fuels narcissistic behavior further. It is not a game that can be played and even if you try, you will never win.
If you get through one round and things go your way, without any shadow of a doubt the NCP will come back 10 times fiercer or more manipulative in the next round. They will also likely be fuelled with rage and not only that they will see any defeat they may experience as a challenge. They will become sharper, crueler, cleverer and ultimately more callous to ensure that even if you do “win” again, you will pay a very high price for even thinking about beating them, let alone succeeding. The NCP is very unlikely to give up, so do not see it as giving in to them by choosing not to play their game.
Instead see it as choosing an alternative way to interact, one that does not include dramatic displays of emotion.
Narcissists demand compliance and will settle for nothing less, so if you fall in line with everything that they want all may go smoothly, although this isn’t recommended. As much as it may be tempting to try to keep aligned with them, if you do it will mainly be through fear of what might happen if you don’t. This will mean sacrificing your morals and values and often a tremendous amount of time and expense solely to keep them satisfied.
If you try to regain and maintain some control of your mind and independence, all hell can seem to break loose and the NCP may try a variety of methods, including charm, seduction, aggression, threats or even seeking your sympathy to place you back into a powerless position. As you may not want conflict, you could fall into the trap of working hard to keep them stable and happy, although this will mean abandoning and neglecting your preferences either for you or your child.
It can feel as though “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” and unfortunately, this is often the case. That is why it is essential to learn to lock down your emotions as much as possible and learn everything you can about this disorder. One reason is to avoid your emotions being in the NCP’s hands and another is so that you can be somewhat prepared for their next move before they make their next move. This alleviates the feelings of deflation and frustration and also helps to prevent you from thinking you are going insane due to the way they naturally seem able to manipulate, oversee and control your every move.
If communication is consistently causing conflict then it is essential to keep it to an absolute minimum. This includes leaving emotional upsets and injured egos out of the equation. It is tempting to be triggered to respond, as narcissists are skilled at scratching at old wounds just to gain an explosive reaction. Rise above any pride surfacing and use your internal strength to resist the temptation to erupt, as this is what they hope and look for. NCPs gain great pleasure from witnessing emotional and psychological overspill.
It is recommended to erect firm boundaries and keep them in place to protect both yourself and your child while s/he is in your care. Narcissists do not have boundaries, they have no respect for them and they will go to all lengths to tear yours down.
The reason they dislike boundaries is because they revel in drama and boundaries keep all their ridiculousness at bay. Therefore, when you put them in place you have to be firm and ensure that you do not fall prey to their tactics, which may include, seduction, flattery, threats, anger or aggression. They will attempt any technique that may result in you backing down and take away whatever is constraining their behavior.
If you take a barrier away they will then view the removal as a weakness on your part and they will persevere until they have direct access to whatever it is they want to swoop in and take, whether it be your time, emotions, money, possessions and most of all your energy.
Even if it goes against your natural character, be firm and assertive because if you are passive they will walk all over you and think that you are weak. They will try to control you, not just where your child is concerned, but in various other areas of your life too.
The NCP may regularly ask your child to lie to you to keep up any charade. The lies may be to manipulate you for money, possessions or to make you feel inadequate and insignificant as a parent or for any other gain they see as valuable. They will not think twice about how their child feels about maintaining the corruption. Their main concern is to succeed in benefitting themselves by any means possible.
Although it is distressing to know that you are being lied to by your child, it is essential to remember that this is not the child’s fault. They are serving their other parent and will often be doing it through fear of what might happen if they go against them and tell the truth. The most difficult thing about this is that the child grows very comfortable with lying and they become more natural and skilled at it as time goes on. It may even get to the stage where you never know when your child is speaking truthfully or dishonestly. Making a child lie is damaging in numerous ways, but not least because the child is then effectively learning to become narcissistic themselves.
Your child may also be asked by the NCP to find out certain pieces of information while in your company and they may also be asked to snoop around your home, on your phone, or laptop and spy on you. Another issue surrounding deceit is that your child may be told to keep secrets from you and avoid answering basic questions, which can be puzzling, especially when they are just innocent casual enquiries about how they are getting along at school or with friends. The lies are usually to prevent the child from slipping up and saying anything that might give away something, for example, the illusion of the “perfect” home life with the NCP.
When your child is in your care the NCP may make false promises to your child to either make them seem the more affectionate or caring parent, or to tempt your child to return to the NCP’s home earlier than arranged. The promises are often broken upon the child’s return leaving your child feeling bewildered, though the NCP will make up many excuses as to why the plans have suddenly altered. It is quite normal for narcissists to change all kinds of arrangements at short notice and with no valid excuse. They see it as their prerogative to make and break plans and have no concern for any anguish this may cause your child.
When your child is in your care the NCP may contact them relentlessly to interrogate them about what they are doing, where they are going and what you have said to them. Often this is purely to cause conflict and another reason is to maintain control over the child’s emotions. They may promise your child the earth while on the telephone, telling them how much they miss them, how much fun they will have when they return and some will even go to the length of making the child feel as though they are missing out on something back home, while they are in your company, in a twisted way of getting the child to want to leave your care. When the child does return home, sadly, all of the things promised are usually non-existent and were born purely for high-drama to prevent your child from relaxing and enjoying your quality time together.
Limiting calls, other than emergencies, usually quells the upset when your child is spending time with you, however, the NCP will not take kindly to this and you taking control with telephone calls could cause you problems in other areas. Still, it is better, if possible, to see if you can keep the calls few, short and succinct.
Hobbies and activities will likely be left to you to take full responsibility of and organize, as the NCP will not want to spend either their time or money on something that they feel they do not get a direct benefit from. However, if your child is excelling at something the NCP will want front-row and exclusive involvement as in their mind they think people will see their child’s success as their own personal success. Even if the hobby was something you originally arranged, the NCP will push you out and exclude you if your child shows signs of natural talent or they are receiving attention and praise due to their high achievement.
Keep a diary, document everything and ensure any decisions that are agreed with the NCP, concerning your child, are put in writing and if possible agreed by a solicitor or the courts, as unfortunately they will regularly go back on their word, even totally denying that any mention of an agreement took place. Keep in touch with schools, doctors and all other professional centers yourself to ensure you are receiving authentic information. If exchanges at the beginning and end of contact sessions are constantly disrupted, aggressive or threatening try to arrange, either with the NCP or through the courts if necessary, for a trusted friend or family member to accompany you as a witness, or to pick or drop off your child in your place.
Disregard any communication that does not concern the interests of your child. They may try to reel you into an argument just for a dramatic scene and also so that they can then repeat what has happened to all of their, and possibly your, family and friends. Whichever way you respond will always be “wrong” so it is better to keep any communication simple and void of emotion and only centered around your child’s welfare.
Regardless how hard the NCP may be trying to make you out to be a terrible parent by dramatizing situations and criticizing or name-calling in front of your child, always remember that the only thing that matters is your child that is caught in the middle, so however much of a battering your pride and ego may be taking, ignore the insults and focus on being a positive role model. The last thing the child needs is to see both of their parents caught in a yelling match, so remember, it isn’t personal and try not to let your child know your own thoughts about their mother or father.
The NCP will attack anyone that they consider a threat to them in any way, so if they think you are putting them down and putting their reputation at risk, they will vehemently set out to slander and ruin people’s opinions of you, including your child’s. They are desperate to make themselves look like the “better” parent, and they think that putting you down elevates them. This isn’t true at all so remain calm, rational and focus only on your child’s best interests and they will learn from you an alternative way to respond to conflict.
They NCP may also use their child as a trophy to showcase “impeccable” parenting abilities. They do not see the child as a unique individual who has their own set of needs and requirements, but instead as an extension of themselves and the children are often treated as though they do not have emotions or they are not affected by any dramatic encounters that go on. If the NCP’s child disappoints them in any way, they then face being alienated, rejected or ostracized.
Sadly, that means your child may grow confused about what love looks and feels like and might view it through warped lenses as though it is something that has many conditions. They might feel that to receive their narcissist parent’s love and attention they must act accordingly and please them at all times. It may even seem as though your child happily and naturally falls into line with the NCP and it can look from the outside as though they are perfectly happy and comfortable within the parent-child relationship. Just because the child is compliant, it does not mean they are content in their care. Narcissistic behavior is extremely damaging and although your child may not let you know anything is wrong, it is essential to provide them with regular assurance, validation, love and affection so that any adverse side-effects of the narcissism does not leave a long lasting imprint that influences your child’s self-esteem, self-confidence and overall self-worth.
Much of narcissism is learned behavioral patterns and when children witness repeats of the same behavior over a period of time, they become accustomed to it and then may act in similar ways themselves. One of the difficult things to watch is when your child subconsciously picks up narcissistic behavior through watching and copying the narcissistic parent.
People behave this way consciously or unconsciously for many reasons, much of which will remain unknown even to the person displaying the narcissistic traits. As difficult as it may be, we should try not to negatively judge them and instead show compassion.
It helps to be mindful of the struggles the NCP faces currently or ones they may have experienced throughout their life. Although this is no excuse and I don’t think for a moment we should allow or accept this type of behavior to infect and destroy our lives, I do think that we should be open and compassionate to the fact that narcissism is a personality disorder. They don’t see their own emotions and feelings with clarity and neither do they see ours or anyone else’s.
Focus 100 percent on your child and keep the NCP at a safe distance and compensate your child emotionally where possible for any detrimental effects the NCP’s behavior may have on them. Unfortunately, your ex-partner is often the one who knows all your weaknesses and this includes exactly which buttons to press to gain an explosive reaction. When the NCP sees that they no longer affect you emotionally, their tactics and techniques will eventually wane and over time, it is likely they will disappear completely.
The main thing that keeps narcissists acting as they do is because they think all eyes are on them. As soon as you take your eyes away and keep them away they will have no one to watch their performance. It may not be guaranteed, but like anyone who enjoys drama, it is only fully pleasurable while on the stage and while the audience is engaged.
This dynamic is a constant challenge and one that may require professional assistance and advice so that both you and your child are fully supported.
Author: Alex Myles
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Jaime Gonzalez