When you and your partner decide to separate, it can be a challenge, especially when children are involved. Separations are never easy for families. Understanding how to co-parent and co-exist can bring to light many issues—some of which may have even been the cause of the separation. But what if your ex-partner is a narcissist? How does that play into co-parenting?
Someone who displays symptoms of a narcissist may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder—a mental condition where one has an inflated sense of their own importance and a high need for attention and admiration. Being a narcissist is about so much more than having a big ego. Usually, someone who has traits of a narcissist may have trouble with relationships and shows a lack of empathy for others. Dealing with someone who is a narcissist is never easy, so imagine having to co-parent with one.
Since a narcissist usually thinks of themselves first, how can they co-parent? How can it be done to protect you and your child(ren)? “Co-parenting with a narcissist is not easy,” said Psychologist Dr. Robin Hornstein. “If it were, there would not be so many books on how to do just that. Someone who has a fragile sense of self and turns everything around is not a collaborating person to parent with, but there are strategies.”
How to co-parent with a narcissist
First and foremost, boundaries need to be maintained, so there is little confusion about where the kids are, what they are doing, etc., explained Dr. Hornstein. The worst response to someone who we would label narcissistic is to be too flexible, as that can end in disaster.
“It is also important to have good conversations with kids who may be in the crossfire at times. Coparenting with someone who will use tactics such as manipulation and oversharing negative things about you with the kids makes for a hard time on a regular basis.”
The worst response to someone who we would label narcissistic is to be too flexible.
Sadly, this can be a very toxic life for a family as it is hard not to get swept into the charm of a narcissist, only to have it thrown in your face later.
“Sometimes, narcissists want to be worshiped or regarded as the trusted parent and will do much to push kids to their perceived side,” said Dr. Hornstein. “They may want kids to be perfect or help them goof off and not complete tasks. Most of this is a way to form an allegiance that fosters their self-esteem. It is very damaging and can create battle lines in the home. Best to be consistent, maintain boundaries and seek support when you need it.”
Dr. Hornstein also suggested using a parenting coach. She explains that in situations like this, having written agreements can foster a better plan for raising the kids. These written agreements may include guidelines on talking about the other parent, limits for kids’ activities, supporting each other’s ground rules for kids’ behavior, and the like.
How can co-parenting with a narcissist affect the relationship between parent and child?
“It is so hard to maintain a sense of self with a narcissistic parent,” said Dr. Hornstein. “They may see a child as an extension and induce a lot of guilt or shame for not meeting expectations. Kids of narcissists may feel caught between parents and feel that any loyalty to the other parent is abandoning the parent who is narcissistic.”
Dr. Hornstein explained that this type of personality style comes with a lot of pain and shame underneath, which is also projected onto the child. There are cases of divorce where a narcissistic parent forces the children to choose custody. They will make themselves a victim who needs them, thus forcing choices kids may not need to make.
“Parenting is best when it is predictable and consistent—the narcissistic parent is neither,” said Dr. Hornstein. Children may feel a sense of being special and idealized one day and devalued or neglected the next.
Parenting is best when it is predictable and consistent—the narcissistic parent is neither.
“This leads to anxiety which can trigger behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, and eating disorders in the kids who are trying to get control in a shifting landscape. Children of narcissists can end up in therapy for extended periods trying to unpack where they lost themselves and how to go from feeling unsafe and experiencing emotional dysregulation to [feeling] calm and centered,” Dr. Hornstein said.
How can a parent protect their child’s well-being and their own?
While co-parenting is very challenging with a narcissist, Dr. Hornstein offered some suggestions:
- Set boundaries. Make decisions that are very clear. Narcissists like control and will do everything in their power to have it.
- Make a plan when it comes to co-parenting. Do not allow that plan to change. Being flexible with a narcissist can create more challenges and long-term issues.
- Consider getting a parent coach or a lawyer to draw up clear custody agreements.
- Explain to a child that their other parent’s behavior has nothing to do with them.
- Keep open communication with your children. Sadly, growing up with a narcissistic parent can result in long-term issues. The more comfortable a child feels talking with you about these concerns, the better you can help them understand the circumstances and support them as they grow up.