Normal rules don’t apply with a narcissist.
The stigma, shame and isolation surrounding high-conflict divorce can make co-parenting a nightmare. The contentious struggles and trauma are a reality, for overwhelmed, now-single parents, whose lives are upended following divorce. The upheaval of divorce is compounded exponentially when you share children with a narcissist. The emotional roller coaster a narcissistic parent perpetrates can be even more detrimental to a child’s healthy ego-development than overt abuse.
Due to the stigma and intense realities of high-conflict divorce, many families continue to suffer, even after divorce. It isn’t only self-indulgent, but self-destructive for you to thrust your children in the middle of emotional crossfire. The fact that your relationship didn’t work out is unfortunate, but it’s not their fault. By adjusting your expectations, repeatedly practicing key strategies and implementing important boundaries, you can achieve freedom and a peaceful home, despite a toxic ex.
1. Not co-parenting, parallel parenting
Co-parenting with a narcissist does not exist. In divorce, narcissistic pathology manifests as a parent’s preoccupation with their own needs and demands, blindness to their own children, and desired erasure of the other parent. As much as legally possible, insulate yourself and your children from this toxic monster. Children need freedom from tension and fear, in order to thrive.
“Do not allow the immature narcissist to have power to create any emotion in you, bad or good. This intentional practice will insulate your children from the viciously selfish behaviors of their narcissistic parent.”– Leah Hill, Founder and CEO | Divorce Strategies Northwest
Treat parallel parenting like a business relationship that you must maintain on a very low simmer. Keep the details of your personal life private, as you would in a professional relationship— stick to facts. Similarly, if a business acquaintance made a snide comment, you would consider the source and shrug it off, keeping the business intact. Gone are the days of you soothing the fragile narcissist, and caretaking their wasteland of intense emotions. You are no longer responsible if the other parent is “ok”.
The key to parallel parenting is to learn not to care. You are divorced for a reason… probably many! Do not allow the immature narcissist to have the power to create any emotion in you, bad or good. This intentional practice will insulate your children from the viciously selfish behaviors of their narcissistic parent. Children of an abusive parent may choose unhealthy partners or become abusive adults.
Protect your children from unhealthy triangulation by not discussing the manipulative narcissist’s relentless, emotionally-draining drama with them. Cultivate self-confidence in your parenting abilities and develop your belief in yourself. Preserve the peace by communicating with the narcissistic parent only if required, and not as a consultation, but as an FYI. This is the beauty of parallel parenting.
2. Your home, your rules
Make the most of your time together. Make memories, laugh, and create positive experiences as a family. Model healthy responses to life’s ups and downs. Allow your children to learn proper emotional regulation and healthy coping skills from you. Maintain boundaries and establish consistent standards of behavior in your home.
Your children are watching you, to learn productive problem-solving techniques and stress-management skills. Contrast the unpredictable, threatening relationship cultivated by a narcissistic parent in your safe, loving home. Long after your children are grown, this era will be written as one chapter, but not your whole life story.
3. Be the safe parent
Anxious adults raise anxious kids. Vow to be calm, pleasant, and non-emotional. Structure and consistency provide children with a buffer of security, protecting them from insidious psychological damage. The confusion, instability and pain of a narcissist’s incessant emotional manipulation can be more harmful to a child’s growth and development than physical abuse.
Kids thrive with the predictable foundation of unconditional love from one stable parent. The insecure narcissist weaponizes parenthood by demanding respect and compliance. Show your children that you earn their respect, not demand it. Make your home a safe haven.
4. Let kids be kids
Do not feel compelled to expose the other parent’s abuses…. it all becomes clear in time. Eventually, children grow up, develop an understanding of narcissistic abuse. There are few dynamics more toxic than exposing a child to constant drama, subjects beyond their maturity and mental warfare. Children are not equipped to understand adult stressors and responsibilities. Their focus should be on navigating the various child development stages they go through.
Children often serve either as armor or as saviors for parents in crisis. During times of instability in your family, do not burden your children with situations they cannot control. No one, least of all a child, should bear such a responsibility. Doing so promotes feelings of helplessness and insecurity in children, causing them to question their own strengths and abilities.
5. Minimize contact
Drama is draining. Communicate with narcissists strictly via written email, limit how often you read them, and reply only when necessary. Boundaries are key. Stay the course—do not respond. Narcissists retaliate when limits are imposed. Remove yourself as their audience, and the needy narcissist will eventually look elsewhere for a reactionary supply.
Ignore commentary and personal attacks about you and your parenting. High-conflict people love to engage in psychological battles. Their transparent agenda is emotional extortion— to keep you entrenched in toxicity. Once you recognize them for what they are, these childish attempts to keep you enmeshed become easier to reject.
6. Parental alienation— respond with care
One of the most challenging aspects of parallel parenting is when your child receives negative messaging about you from their narcissistic parent. There are several keys to supporting your children in the face of this blatant abuse. Your first instinct will be to immediately defend yourself from the accusation(s).
Instead, take a moment, maintain your composure, and stay calm. Realize that your child has heard upsetting, conflicting information that they don’t know how to process. Validate your child’s suffering and confusion, in hearing rumors about people they love. “That’s an awfully hard thing to hear… are you ok?” In a developmentally-appropriate way, calmly assure your child that you are sorry they heard adult information (be it true or untrue).
Resist the urge to talk poorly about the other parent. Be a mature foundation for your child. Explain “When a person feels hurt or angry, sometimes we say things without thinking them through. While they may not be true, it doesn’t make it right…. hurt people hurt people.” Alienating behaviors consistently have a ‘backfire effect,’ wherein a parent’s badmouthing of the other parent becomes a negative predictor of their own relationship. As a child matures, he/she becomes capable of more abstract observation of life.
Give your child personal, relatable references they can resonate with and understand. Help them realize that being vindictive is an unhealthy way to deal with frustration, and how poor choices affect everyone. As you acknowledge their pain, compliment your child’s bravery in talking with you about their complex feelings. By showing your child steady, consistent responses to narcissistic drama, they are more likely to trust you as they become teenagers and young adults.
7. Toxic Communication
Despite your best efforts and personal boundaries, a narcissist may continue their emotional extortion by communicating in a toxic tone with you. Stay committed to non-engagement. Do not allow the conniving narcissist to hijack you and triangulate the children, which is a form of child abuse and will cause them to resent you both.
Respond “Do not message me unless you can communicate respectfully. Do not put our children in the middle.” Copy, paste and repeat this disarming reply to the narcissist’s bully behaviors and rude communications as often as necessary. By refusing to engage, you are maintaining a position of strength.
8. Stick to the schedule
Prevent complications by establishing a mandate of not deviating from the parenting plan. The narcissistic parent is accustomed to taking advantage of others, by controlling everything and everyone. They will propose switching parenting time with an expectation of forced cooperation.
In the best interest of you and your children, a consistent reply of “let’s stick to the parenting plan” will prevent combative communication, arguing, and broken promises. Using this response sets a standard of respect and guards against faulty recollections and faulty expectations between parents. This boundary is empowering; it protects your vulnerabilities and your desire for things to be amicable.
A narcissist’s craving and demand for control do not change. No matter the bullying, guilt trips, and pressures they apply to you and your children, stand your ground. You don’t have to justify your decision; just say no.
9. Limit kids’ communication
Limit the number of phone conversations and texting your child has with the other parent while in your custody and vice versa. Barring emergencies, the best-case scenario is no contact at all. Learning details about you and your life feeds the drama-hungry narcissist.
Unless you suspect that your ex is not adequately caring for your child, it’s best to give them space during their custody time with your children. Use this time to rest, spend time with friends, and practice good self-care. Do what rejuvenates you!
10. Control yourself and WIN
If your spouse refuses to adhere to to mature communication, be committed to doing so anyway. The only person you control is you. If you take the high road, your children will admire you for doing so. The day will come when they’ll look back and acknowledge: “My mother [or father] behaved with such class, dignity and respect that I can see how much he / she loved me and wanted peace and tranquility in my life. I’m so grateful for that gift. I only wish my other parent had been so selfless.”
There is hope for moving forward and thriving, in spite of a high-conflict divorce. As you work to normalize your children’s lives, take the high road and truly make sacrifices for your children. Single parenting is more effective when you control your reactions, trust your instincts, and refuse to be a part of a narcissist’s chaotic narrative. The upheaval of divorce can be minimized by acknowledging the power you have gained.
Whenever possible, keep the details of your complex family situation to yourself. Friends, family, and neighbors are not qualified to provide adequate support and understanding of these abusive complexities. Remember, a narcissist is a silver-tongued snake, presenting their shiny veneer of lies to the world. For those who have not experienced it, the narcissist’s relentlessly vindictive behaviors are unfathomable, making it hard for some to relate to victims of this abuse. Seek the help of trained professionals to support you and your family as you all heal.
Provide your children with a drama-free home, examples of healthy relationships, thoughtful reactions to challenges, and constructive family communication. Find safe people to help you nurture your child’s unique qualities and independence, and validate them with unconditional love. Doing so with intention will contrast the emotionally immature narcissist and their pathetic thirst for admiration. Guide your children by example, and help them choose what kind of adults they will become.
- The High-Conflict Co-Parenting Survival Guide by Megan Hunter
- The Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissist: Recognizing the Traits and Finding Healing After Hidden Emotional and Psychological Abuse by Debbie Mirza
- BIFF for Co-Parent Communication: Your Guide to Difficult Texts, Emails, and Social Media Posts by Bill Eddy
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