If you have divorced someone with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or if you are in a difficult marriage with a person with NPD, probably everyone in your life—your hairdresser, your therapist, your family, even strangers—tells you to "leave," "get an attorney," "get a divorce." Every meme on social media advises that you deserve better and to cut the toxic relationship from your life.
This is all great, and probably true. As a society, we can recognize when an adult is in an "unhealthy" and possibly emotionally abusive relationship. There are resources and options for the adult to consider and implement that can "free" them from this type of relationship—divorce being one option, although there are many difficulties going through the divorce process with a narcissist. In the end, the adult is free to not live with the narcissist, not communicate with the narcissist, and not be bullied by that individual anymore.
In the end, the hope is that the adult may find a new and quality future, and an improved life. However, all of the same people in the community who advised the adult to "leave" the narcissist also commented that "kids will be okay," and that "it is better for kids to be from a broken home than in a broken home," that "kids are resilient and will adjust," and "he or she is that way with you, but will be great with the kids."
Is this true? Can a parent with NPD behave so horribly with their co-parent yet act like Mary Poppins with their children? The implication is that all of the symptoms and behaviors exhibited by someone with NPD—gaslighting, bullying, emotional abuse, controlling, needing constant admiration, and lack of empathy—somehow disappear around the children.
Is this even possible?
Clinically speaking, the answer is no. If a person sufferers from a personality disorder, they cannot simply turn it on in certain environments and shut it off in others. It would be like turning off your diabetes when your the kids come around. It is a persistent problem that interferes and affects all of their relationships.
So, how do we help children adjust to the non-NPD parent no longer being present when they are alone with the NPD parent? And how do we help the children cope with their NPD parents' behaviors?
Tips to Help Children Cope With an NPD Parent
1. I find it extremely helpful to give children a "safe" adult they can turn to in stressful times—an adult they trust who has no bias toward either parent; for example, a therapist, a guidance counselor, a coach, or clergy are examples.
There are also support groups for children of divorce. Parents with NPD at times speak negatively about the non-NPD parent. Those with NPD have trouble empathizing with others and are likely to be consumed with anger instead of considering how negative talk about their ex can affect the kids. Having an unbiased adult for the children to turn to can be a valuable outlet for kids if and when this situation arises.
2. Teach your children a few good "boundary-setting" phrases they may use if the NPD parent is upsetting them. For example, "I love you, and I want you to be happy; I think it would be good for you to speak with another adult because they can relate to you better than a kid." Or, "May I call my 'safe adult' now? I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed." These phrases might help the child feel more protected.
3. When the children are not with the NPD parent, remember to validate their feelings and experiences, since a person with NPD sees themselves as "correct" and doesn't have the ability to show compassion. It is important for the other parent to pick up the slack in the hopes of protecting children's self-esteem.
Children are not able to divorce, separate, or ghost their NPD parent; in all likelihood, after a divorce, they will be required to spend time with that parent. The more communication, help, support, and guidance we can offer these kids, the easier it will be for them.