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The Art of Co-Parenting with a Narcissist

The narcissist origin story and striking a deal in the best interest of your kid

Key points

  • For the non-narcissist parent: With your guidance, allow your child to figure out how to deal with the narcissistic parent.
  • You might try writing a letter or email explaining your feelings and how your partner's behavior has affected you and your child.
  • You may want to consider parallel parenting, where parents don't communicate but stick to a set of agreed terms for the child.
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

What separates healthy self-esteem from narcissism? It’s simple. Usually, people who are narcissistic have a very underdeveloped sense of self-esteem. Their schemas about themselves and the world are fragile, black and white. Their self-esteem is unable to handle much adversity or criticism without lashing out. These people need constant praise and attention to maintain their ego. In some cases, it can lead to depression or drug abuse.

Self-esteem is built from early childhood and comes from something called cognitive schemas. These are packets of information stored in the neural networks of your brain and built over long periods of time. When you’re a child and you are watching the world around you, you are constantly gathering data points to put in your schemas. When good things happen and you receive praise, you put those into buckets (schemas) in your mind.

When negative things happen and you don’t get praised, those things create self-defeating schemas. Narcissism comes about when parents express love inconsistently, not because the parents overpraise the child. They may overpraise the wrong traits like beauty, money, or winning. They deprive love and praise for things like nurturing others, kindness, or individuality.

As a result, narcissists need constant praise and admiration; they need to be the center of attention. As parents, narcissists view their children as an extension of their own ego and expect praise for their children's achievements. They also get upset and angry if a child deviates from societal norms. For example, parents may feel angry if their child wants to become an artist, despite the parent’s preference for a business-oriented route. Narcissistic parents may also feel disappointed if their child isn’t heterosexual. This is because this type of parent has internalized a lot of shame, which can make them lash out at their child if they aren’t taking the path the parent had hoped for. This can create two main types of reactions in their child: it either causes anxiety within the child, or they may feel isolated and dejected.

Either way, this makes it difficult for the child to live authentically. As the non-narcissist parent in this dynamic, it can be incredibly difficult to experience. The best thing you can do is allow your child to figure out for themselves how to deal with the narcissistic parent, with your guidance. Continue to be a positive, stable role model for your child to look up to. Children learn to see the world through the eyes of their caregivers and you have an equal chance to make a positive impression on your child as their narcissistic parent. Be careful not to point out the other parents’ flaws. Eventually, your child will see the other parent’s limitations.

Help them navigate the muddy waters of forging a relationship with the other parent. Suggest that they find a therapist to express their frustration and find solutions with a neutral party. At the end of the day, your child and the other parent have to figure it out for themselves. However, if you do your best to be a good role model, parent, and mentor, then you can help your child develop healthy bonds and intimacy. You can also cushion some of the shame and preserve their self-image and sense of individuality.

If you think you may be parenting with a narcissist, it’s possible to make the co-parenting dynamic work. You may want to write a letter or email explaining your feelings and how their behavior has affected you and your child. Give the other person a chance to process before approaching. This can serve as a chance to start a conversation about your boundaries going forward.

I talk a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement for child development, but this tactic can be crucial to building a better relationship with a narcissist. They need approval for their behavior, so when they do something well, make sure to praise them for it. Super Nanny Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

If you’re at a crossroads with a narcissistic parent, you may want to consider parallel parenting, where parents do not communicate with one another, but stick to a set of agreed terms for your child. You could exchange the child in neutral territories to avoid contact with other children or step-parents. This does work better in very high-conflict situations where any engagement might result in fighting and stress that could negatively impact the child. This is also useful in cases of a narcissistic parent who frequently engages in aggressive or hostile behaviors, especially when their incessant need for admiration is not getting fulfilled by the situation that they’re in. Sometimes, this is the best path forward to avoid putting children in the middle of an argument until the dust can settle and emotions can calm down.