- Children are "hard-wired" to protect their attachment relationships.
- A narcissistic co-parent who plays the victim automatically positions the other parent as the "bad guy."
- A narcissistic co-parent controls a child by giving love when the child does what he or she wants.
A narcissistic co-parent often influences a child in two potent ways. These maneuvers exploit a child’s fundamental need to protect his or her attachment relationships and are difficult to undo once enacted. Understanding how these dynamics impact a child may be pivotal in assisting a child who is under a narcissistic co-parent’s "spell."
A healthy child enters this world neurologically, psychologically, and emotionally “hard-wired” to attach to primary attachment figures. Even before the infant is born, he or she is able to recognize a primary caregiver’s voice. At 6 weeks, an infant is able to smile at caregivers and at 3 months, an infant can recognize an attachment figure’s face, smell, and voice. Rooting, crying, grasping, smiling, and babbling are examples of an infant attempting to attract attachment figures and solidify the bond.
Assuming a caregiver’s response is consistently empathic, the infant may develop a secure attachment style. If a parent fails to routinely meet the infant’s biological and emotional needs (providing soothing and comfort in times of distress), the young child may develop an insecure attachment style. However, the worst-case scenario occurs when the infant’s physiological and emotional needs are repeatedly neglected for prolonged periods of time. In response, the infant may adopt an avoidant attachment style. This often results in an infant’s constant and continual withdrawal from the attachment figure.
Provided the infant has a secure or insecure attachment style, she may progress through childhood with a strong instinct to protect her attachment figures, as well as the bond they share. It is a compulsion often exploited by a narcissistic co-parent.
First, the narcissistic co-parent frequently frames himself or herself as the victim in a divorce. For example, he or she may say to the child, “I never wanted this. I am broken. I’ll never be the same. I’ll never survive this. All I want to do is love your mom. I am all alone.” These sentiments allow the narcissistic co-parent to position himself or herself as the victim in the scenario while simultaneously posturing the other parent as the person who “hurts,” “mistreats,” and “abuses.” In a millisecond, the child’s perception of the healthy parent changes. Due to a child’s inclination to protect an attachment figure and an attachment bond, the child may rush to aid the “vulnerable” parent.
Ironically, the narcissistic parent does not need to say anything derogatory about the other parent in order to successfully position him or her as the ultimate “bad guy” in the child’s eyes. By painting himself or herself as the wounded party, the narcissist automatically positions the other parent as the antagonist and seizes the opportunity to invite the child to take care of him or her. In many cases, the child immediately strives to help the narcissistic parent, and then feels responsible for this parent’s emotional welfare. Coaxed into turning away from the healthy parent and convinced that she is the narcissistic parent’s “lifesaver,” she is trapped.
During this process, the child is often deceived into thinking that healthy love is bad and unhealthy love is good. This pattern of relating, or working model of attachment, may dupe a child in his or her adult life as well.
The second way a narcissistic co-parent manipulates a child is by obtaining emotional control of the child. An emotionally abusive parent lavishes a child with love and affection when the child does what he or she wants. However, when the child offers a feeling or perspective that the narcissistic parent does not like, he or she shames the child and immediately withdraws his or her love. The child experiences emotional abandonment, albeit temporary, and is traumatized. To avoid this emotional obliteration in the future, the child complies with the narcissistic parent's requests.
For example, a child is spending time with a narcissistic co-parent and admits that she misses her other parent. Instead of providing empathy and allowing the child to contact the parent, the narcissist may pervasively shame the child and withdraw love. The child quickly learns that in order to avoid the pain of emotional abandonment, she must ignore her own needs and feelings and do what the narcissistic parent wants.
In addition, the child instinctively realizes that the healthy parent provides unconditional love. She intuitively senses the healthy parent’s attachment is secure. It is not going anywhere, ever. Alternatively, the child is quite aware that the attachment bond with the narcissistic parent is constantly in jeopardy. If she gets it right and is able to do and say what the narcissistic parent wants, she receives love. If not, she is emotionally abandoned. Avoiding the pain of emotional abandonment may become the child’s goal. Because one attachment relationship is secure while the other is constantly at risk, the child may feel compelled to attend to the elusive love, or it may vanish.
Although these manipulations are plain as day to a healthy parent, the child may not be able to decipher them. Pointing out the narcissistic co-parent as a manipulator may not help because the child has already been convinced that the secure parent "has it out" for the co-parent.
For example, two people are fighting over a doll. One person has been pulling the doll’s arm for a long time and has successfully wrangled the doll onto his or her side. If the other person begins tugging on the doll’s opposite arm, the doll may be ripped apart. Although a child should never be compared to an object, the analogy may help a parent understand why attempting to get the child on his or her side, safe from the narcissist, may backfire.
It may be best to empathize with the child’s feelings when she opens up about her inner conflict, without directly “calling out” the narcissistic co-parent. If she realizes she can talk about her feelings without drama ensuing, she may be more inclined to continually ask for help. For example, saying: “It hurts to feel like you can’t say what you really feel in a relationship. I get it, honey.” Or, “Feeling guilty is awful. I get it. People who make you feel guilty for not doing what they want are difficult to deal with. I understand.” Or, “It’s scary to feel like you’ve lost someone’s approval. I would feel the same way.”
Although it seems as if the narcissistic co-parent has won, stay in the fight without throwing a punch. Be there for the child and empathize with everything she feels. Sticking with her feelings and refraining from attacking the narcissist may help the child realize one parent is not pulling her arm. Discussing the manipulative dynamics instead of the manipulative parent may keep the conversation safe for both the parent and the child.