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Forget Co-Parenting With a Narcissist. Do This Instead.

How to establish parenting rules and peace of mind, despite a toxic ex.

Key points

  • Not much research exists on narcissistic parenting, partly because adults in therapy often don't identify having narcissistic parents.
  • The idea of co-parenting with a narcissist does not exist. In that case, one needs to adjust to solo parenting so the kids can thrive.
  • Strategies to overcome a narcissistic co-parent include minimizing contact and modeling emotional intelligence.

Things I found myself saying in sessions this week:

  • “It sounds like there’s no middle ground, and this causes you to alternate between feeling hopeless and thinking that if you just increase the volume and intensity of your communication, your ex will respond favorably.”
  • “Whenever we lose a relationship—no matter how dysfunctional—there’s a sense of mourning. We grieve the lost hopes and dreams and the future we’ll never have with this person. When you’re in the thick of the grieving process, it seems as if you will always feel despondent, even though you know on a rational level that you won’t.”
  • Parenting is the toughest job in the world. However, single parenting doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. Sometimes there’s a sense of relief that comes from relying on yourself and from not trying to control your children's rules when they’re not in your physical custody.”

These interactions offer a snapshot of therapy with heartbroken, devastated, and disillusioned single parents following a divorce from a narcissist. Though the stories are different, the theme is always the same:

The concept of co-parenting with a narcissist does not exist.

There is very little research about narcissistic parenting, narcissistic family dynamics, or the effects that this disorder has on children. Complicating matters is the fact that adult children who do seek therapy do not typically identify growing up in a narcissistic household as the presenting problem.

The following strategies can help you redefine your parenting plan and learn to adjust to solo parenting so you and your children thrive.

9 Strategies for Overcoming Parental Narcissism

1. Minimize contact. High-conflict people love to engage in psychological battles. The hidden agenda is to keep you entrenched in the relationship, even years after the ink has dried on the divorce decree. I have seen few dynamics more toxic than exposing a child to constant below-the-belt blows and mental warfare.

2. Establish firm boundaries. Structure in all settings can provide children with a safe, predictable, and secure buffer from insidious psychological damage. The emotional roller coaster a narcissistic parent perpetrates can be even more detrimental to a child’s healthy ego development than overt abuse.

Dina Uretski/Shutterstock
Source: Dina Uretski/Shutterstock

3. Avoid feeling sorry for your child. Nobody deserves to grow up with a selfish, self-absorbed adult, but there are worse plights. Showing pity for others only perpetuates a victim mentality and prohibits them from moving forward and seeking healthy relationships of their own.

4. Vow to be calm, pleasant, and non-emotional. This is a Herculean task if ever there was one, but if your ex is gaining emotional intensity and threatening to take you along for the ride, someone’s got to consider the impact on the kids. Deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and support groups can do wonders for your physical and mental well-being.

5. Limit the amount of telephone or texting your child has with your ex while in your custody, and vice versa. Barring emergencies, the best-case scenario is no contact at all. Unless you suspect that your ex is not adequately caring for your child, it’s best to stay out of their house. Conversely, allowing your child to contact you about something your ex is doing or not doing is to invite triangulation. The upside for the child of asserting himself or herself in the presence of an unwieldy parent is to learn valuable coping skills for dealing with difficult personalities down the road.

6. Teach and model social/emotional intelligence. Point out positive examples of single-family households where appropriate. At some point, a child grows up and is capable of more abstract observation. Better he or she learns about proper emotional regulation and healthy coping skills from you. I’m a fan of age-appropriate, straight-shooting communication, especially when narcissism runs extreme.

7. Nurture your child’s unique qualities and independence. Somewhere between infancy and adolescence, the narcissistic parent loses focus (if they ever had it) and stops seeing the child as a distinct individual with feelings and needs they must validate and meet. The child becomes, instead, an extension of the parent. The parent sees normal emotional growth as selfish or deficient, and this is what they mirror to the child. For the child to get approval, he or she must meet a spoken or unspoken need of the parent; approval is contingent on the child meeting the parent system’s needs (Donaldson-Pressman, & Pressman, 1994, p. 30).

8. Do not criticize your ex in front of your child. Narcissistic behavior is abominable, no doubt, but children are not equipped to deal with the psychological weight, no matter how "mature" you feel they may be. Complicating matters is that many narcissists are model citizens to the rest of society: They pay their bills on time, garden every Saturday, attend church on Sundays, and are actively involved in the PTA.

9. Banish the term "co-parenting" from your vernacular. I have the utmost respect for adults who bravely endeavor family therapy following divorce from a narcissist. The work is hard and intense, and insight and pain relief are often long in coming. During those especially trying hours when I’m pulling out all the therapeutic stops, I sometimes find myself saying something like the following in a session:

“You described your situation like a nightmare from which you may never awake. I get that your pain is overwhelming and all-consuming. I’m going to ask you to suspend disbelief for a moment, and consider something: Once you’ve worked through the grief and the trauma, when you understand what drew you to this person in the first place, after you’ve made improvements to your self-esteem, and internalized that no matter what you do, you can never reason with this person—then you and your children will come out the other side. Trust me. I’ve been there."

Click here for "Forget Co-Parenting With a Narcissist," Round 2.

Copyright 2015 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.

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