How to Help Your Child When a Co-Parent Is Narcissistic

Stick with the process, not the content.

Posted Oct 20, 2019

Children who have a narcissistic parent often suffer from anxiety in relation to contact with that parent. Often, a narcissistic parent is only able to think about how he or she feels, so without realizing it, he or she neglects to consider what the child may be feeling, or worse, shames the child for how he or she feels.

For example, say a young child is tired and doesn’t want to talk, yet when he or she expresses this, the narcissistic parent gets angry and attempts to inflict guilt: “Why don’t you want to talk to me? After all that I do for you. Good kids always want to talk to their mom. I’m going to think twice about your birthday present.” As opposed to a healthy response like, “You are tired. You’ve had a long day. I get it. Me too. Anything I can help with? Get some rest, honey. I love you.”

When a child is shamed for how he or she feels, anxiety is induced. The experience of feeling continual guilt and shame about oneself often dismantles a child’s sense of self. If the child is made to feel anxious every time he or she has a feeling or opinion that is incongruent with how the narcissistic parent feels, the narcissistic parent may inflict guilt and shame in order to manipulate the child into thinking as he or she does. In essence, the child is rarely allowed to have a feeling or opinion of his or her own if it differs from the narcissistic parent without being emotionally punished.     

It is important to provide the child with help, or else he or she may be cheated out of a peaceful and secure childhood. Prolonged feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety tend to sabotage a child’s mental health. Yet how can a parent assist the child without talking negatively about the narcissistic parent? One way to lend a hand without throwing the co-parent under the bus is to stick with the process, not the content. Keeping things general and maintaining the overarching goal of educating the child on healthy versus unhealthy relationship dynamics is critical.

Take the example above. The parent may take a moment in the following days to remind the child that how he or she feels is of the utmost importance. Recognizing, understanding, and verbalizing feelings, especially negative feelings, signifies healthy emotional regulation. When a child can identify that he or she feels mad, sad, disappointed, hurt, or frustrated, he or she usually won’t act it out inappropriately. In addition, by identifying a difficult feeling state, he or she is able to elicit help and support. This is critical for the child’s continued mental health and well-being. Letting the child know that if a person in his or her life dismisses or shames him or her for how he or she feels, the person is relating to them in an unhealthy manner.

It is important to clarify to the child that even though another person may honor and respect how they feel, it does not mean that the child will automatically get his or her way, but it does mean that feelings should be respected in close relationships. For example, a person may say, “You are mad. I get it. You have every right, but you cannot hit.” Or, “You are frustrated we are going to the store. I understand. I promise we will eat afterward.” The feeling state is honored, but expectations are maintained.

Alternatively, confronting a narcissistic co-parent about the content of his or her interaction with the child may be unproductive. For example, asking, “Why are you using birthday gifts as leverage with a child?” The narcissistic parent may deflect accountability and project the blame onto the parent who is confronting him or her. A narcissist has several extreme cognitive distortions that alter reality for him or her in order to make it more palpable for his or her ego. Playing the victim is common, so instead of examining his or her actions to evaluate their health, he or she may assume the role of the victim and accuse the opposite parent of parental alienation.

By helping the child identify unhealthy relational dynamics, he or she may be more able to understand what is happening to him or her with the narcissistic parent. When he or she realizes the shame and guilt may be a product of manipulation, it may be easier for him or her to let it go. Giving children permission to politely stick up for themselves or respectfully end an inappropriate interaction is essential.

Examples include:

  • My feelings are important. They matter too.
  • This conversation does not feel right. Can we take a break?
  • I’m not ready to do what you want me to do. Please do not force me.
  • This does not feel okay. Please take me home.

Focusing on the process and not the content allows the child the opportunity to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy interactions. Giving the child permission to apply this knowledge to his or her relationships is key. Granting the child permission to respectfully stick up for himself or herself when an unhealthy interaction is transpiring is critical. An empowered child may be able to help himself or herself in situations when a co-parent is unable. It is important to note that if a narcissistic parent becomes verbally and physically unsafe, immediate action must be taken. Name-calling and physical violence are unhealthy and unsafe relationship practices.