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How to Help Your Child When a Co-parent Plays Favorites

3 specific strategies can help a parent intervene on behalf of the child.

Key points

  • A narcissistic co-parent plays favorites with the children to gain emotional control of them.
  • An idealized child may be hypervigilant about pleasing the narcissistic co-parent, which often causes anxiety.
  • The devalued child wishes to escape future humiliation and clamors to please the narcissist as well.

A narcissistic co-parent who plays favorites may be engaging in a manipulative tactic referred to as triangulation. By idealizing one child and devaluing the other, the co-parent gains emotional control of the children. Understanding this dysfunctional dynamic and applying three strategies may help a parent intervene effectively.

A child who is idealized is placed on a pedestal because she agrees with the narcissistic parent and complies with what he or she wishes. Showered with accolades and privileges, the child, at some level, recognizes she is “loved” when she does what the narcissistic co-parent wants. Although she is rewarded, it is distressing for the child for several reasons.

The Idealized Child

First, the child may have to stifle what he or she feels because the narcissistic parent’s feelings and needs must come first. If not, she may fall from grace and suffer emotional abandonment. The withdrawal of love and acceptance from an attachment figure is one of the most painful experiences a child can endure. Thus, the child may neglect her own feelings and needs because she is required to put her parent’s needs first. She may censor important aspects of herself, which may lead to long-term damage to her self-esteem.

Next, the child may live in a constant state of anxiety because at any moment she may “get it wrong” and have the rug pulled out from underneath her. Hypervigilant about reading the narcissistic co-parent’s cues, the child is continually preoccupied with the relationship. Often, she may sacrifice important elements of her own life to take care of the narcissistic parent.

Lastly, the child may be coerced into abandoning her other attachment figure to appease the narcissistic parent who asks for complete loyalty. The child may need to tend to the tenuous relationship with the narcissistic co-parent rather than the bond with a healthy parent because the healthy parent’s love is unconditional. This parent does not threaten the child with emotional abandonment. The child may recognize that this parent’s love will always be there. The opposite may occur with the narcissistic parent, so the child must work to sustain the bond that is shaky and constantly in jeopardy.

The Devalued Child

The child who is devalued is usually the idealized child’s sibling and is used by the narcissistic co-parent as an example of what happens when a child does not follow their lead. The child is verbally reprimanded and humiliated by the narcissistic co-parent. He or she will often attack the child’s character and purposefully shame the child. Next, the narcissistic co-parent will passively-aggressively ignore and avoid this child while spoiling the other children.

This emotional abuse leaves scars on a child’s soul and often heavily impacts their mental health. To avoid the emotional anguish, the child may clamor to regain the “love” by doing whatever is necessary to avoid this emotional oblivion in the future. This may include rejecting the emotionally available parent.

The narcissistic co-parent gains control over both children and treats any additional siblings similarly. He or she may use them to spy on each other during their time with the opposite parent and reward the child who tells on the others if they display affection for the other parent. In the same way, the child that returns from their visit with “dirt” on the alternate parent is often celebrated.

3 Ways a Parent Can Effectively Intervene

Although this dynamic may damage all of the children involved and threaten the attachment relationship with a nonnarcissistic parent, it is difficult to intervene. Emotional abuse is next to impossible to prove, and often the court system does not take it seriously because the parent bringing the evidence forward appears equally as antagonistic. It is one parent’s word against the other’s, and narcissists are typically skilled at distorting the truth. However, three specific strategies may help a parent intervene effectively.

First, identify the dynamic without “calling out” the narcissistic co-parent. When the healthy parent sees the child in distress, they should empathize with the child’s feelings without mentioning the narcissistic co-parent. Although the child may have been instructed to avoid opening up to the emotionally available parent, this parent may pick up on subtle cues that the child is upset. At this time, it may be helpful to identify the dynamic and empathize with the child’s feelings without bringing up the co-parent. Usually, a child wants to avoid drama with the narcissistic co-parent, so leaving them out of the discussion is imperative. It also protects a person from being accused of parental alienation.

Examples include the following:

  • “It hurts to feel like you can’t say what you really feel in a relationship. I get it, honey.”
  • "It is really hard to feel left out. It hurts, and it's lonely. I totally understand. I’ve been there, and it’s awful."
  • “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.”
  • “It’s scary to feel like you’ve lost someone’s approval. I would feel the same way.”
  • “It is hard when someone makes you question what you feel. Honey, you have a good heart. Trust it, no matter what anyone else says.”

Second, it may be especially helpful to educate a child about emotional manipulation when they encounter a similar situation with a friend. However, again, it is important to avoid making a direct comparison to the narcissistic parent. A parent should merely discuss the dynamic itself. Empathizing with the child’s feelings after she is “ghosted” by a friend who was her “bestie,” is the first step. “It hurts to be abandoned by a friend for no reason. It is so painful. I know, honey. You have every right to be upset.” Next, explain that micro-abandonments are an insecure person’s attempt to control others. If she appears ready, a parent can continue illuminating the additional manipulative dynamics. A child who grasps the concept of emotional manipulation may, hopefully, then be able to identify these concepts in other relationships, including her attachment relationship with the narcissistic co-parent.

Third, a parent should consistently validate the child’s character before her achievements. For example, “The way you pass the ball is incredible. You never quit. You are a team player and a leader. I love who you are.” These types of statements should be used instead of ones like, “I’m so proud of your stats. You are the best player on the team.”

By validating the child’s deeper capacities, such as effort and selflessness, in place of her achievements, she may feel seen, known, and cherished for who she is instead of what she does. Alternatively, the narcissistic parent may only complement the child when she wins and, thus, fuels his or her ego. In addition, a healthy parent may empathize, then empower a child, versus a narcissistic parent who often enjoys swooping in to “save the day.” Enabling a child may strip the child of their self-efficacy and often engenders dependence. In total, a healthy parent who offers a child emotional sustenance in a way that the narcissistic parent cannot provides the child with a chance to differentiate safe love from the alternative.

Although it may seem as if the narcissistic co-parent has won, a parent should stay in the fight without throwing a punch. Remaining emotionally available and empathizing with a child’s feelings is critical. Educating a child on emotional manipulation without mentioning the narcissist co-parent may also be key. A parent who sticks with the child’s feelings instead of trying to “fix” the situation may be a parent the child can trust because a parent who “puts down his or her sword” and focuses on the child may be proving to the child that he or she has no agenda but to love that child. Once the child sees the narcissistic co-parent’s manipulations, it is important for the parent to give the child permission to lovingly establish boundaries with the narcissistic co-parent. Helping a child identify and continually reinforce these limits may also be essential.

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