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  • Writer's pictureErin Tahvonen, LMHC

Why co-parenting with a narcissistic ex isn't working

If you share children with a narcissistic ex-partner, you’re in a for a long and frustrating road. Family courts place an emphasis on co-parenting, but the question is: “Can a couple co-parent when one individual displays narcissistic tendencies?

First let’s examine what a narcissistic parent looks like:

Narcissistic individuals are pathologically grandiose, they are prone to anger, overly critical of others, lack empathy, are irrationally resistant to criticism. They exploit and manipulate others to meet their personal needs and assign excessive blame to others to avoid personal responsibility. As parents, narcissists are psychologically and emotionally abusive. Parents involved in child abuse and neglect cases disproportionately score positively on assessments of narcissism (Bogacki & Weiss, 2007), and individuals diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder self-report problematic child-rearing behaviors (Johnson et al, 2006).

While not all narcissistic parents resort to physical violence or criminally prosecutable neglect, their behaviors are abusive and damaging and often the children and co-parent are left to cope with this abuse, all while the narcissistic individual spends time managing their image to others. Some of the more subtle signs of narcissistic parenting include a grandiose obsession with maintaining a sense of superiority and perfection (Shaw, 2010); the parent views the child’s accomplishments and failures as their own (Mahoney, Rispoone & Hull, 2016). The narcissistic parent protects a fragile self-image by responding to embarrassment, shame, rejection and criticism with disproportionate hostility, rage, or revenge (Baum & Shnit, 2005). (How this might look in the real world: The narcissistic parent is obsessed with creating a social media presence in which they are perceived to have a “perfect” relationship with the children which may include fabricating stories, forcing children to take photos, and other forms of “parenting for show.” However, the parent doesn’t care how the children feel in the moment the image is captured and will respond with anger if the children do not want their photo taken, even if this is expressed in a polite and appropriate manner. They may threaten them with a consequence for not submitting to this role they are expected to play.)

The self-absorption leaves a narcissistic parent unresponsive to their children’s needs (Leeb, Mercy & Holt, 2012) and while they resent their children’s dependence, they don’t hesitate to sabotage and undermine the child’s attempt at independence (Mahoney, Rickspoone & Hull, 2016). They often display a dichotomous style of excessively controlling and neglectful parenting. They do not care much for the day-to-day responsibility, but tend to micromanage certain aspects of their children’s lives and place excessive pressure on perfection. The parent is likely to shame or humiliate a child that does not live up to their narcissistic standards (Munich & Munich, 2009). (How this might look in the real world: The narcissistic parent picks and chooses when to be involved and then fixates on that topic, demanding they get their way. They may pressure the child to engage in activities that reflect their personal priorities such as choosing a team, school, or profession that they feel reflects them well. They are highly critical of any traits they view as not aligning with their desired reflection of self and make disparaging comments to the child. This is particularly apparent during the teenage years when children are naturally inclined to separate from their parents and work on identity formation, causing this to be a more conflictual time in the relationship between the child and the narcissistic parent.)

The narcissistic parent lacks empathy and forgiveness toward both their children and co-parent (Dimaggio, 2012) and they fail to acknowledge how their own behaviors and attitudes contribute to the problems (Berg-Neilson & Wichstrom, 2012). (How this might look in the real world: If the child or co-parent bring up a concern or advocates for their need, the narcissistic parent will respond with anger and may even engage in a smear campaign and turn themselves into the victim. “That child is ungrateful, doesn’t she see all I do for her, and she won’t even do this for me?” Narcissists only inhabit two roles, the hero or the victim.)

While the narcissistic parent is good at managing their behaviors in public, the same rules don’t apply behind closed doors. Narcissists often expose children to emotional turmoil, erratic behaviors and outbursts (Berg-Nielson & Wichstrom, 2012). There is also a high likelihood of a comorbid disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders (Shaw, 2010). (How this might look in the real world: The personality traits associated with narcissism are difficult on numerous relationships, so the narcissistic parent is likely to have tumultuous dating and strained familial relationships. While they are able to keep this concealed from many, the narcissist’s children have a front row seat to the drama, which they are willing to share freely as they see the child as a mere extension of themselves. As narcissists have a low threshold of tolerance for frustration, are also likely to yell at or around the children, and to deal with frustration they may engage in substance use, putting the children at risk.)

Narcissists’ refusal to confront their own shortcomings result in a pattern of externalizing problems. The parent will try to convince children to question their own sanity (Shaw, 2010). They also withdraw love as punishment for opposition, engage in gaslighting, and demand to be acknowledged as “right”. (How this might look in the real world: Communication between the narcissistic parent and the child is generally one-sided; there is a lack of give-and-take or perspective-taking. When the child challenges the parent or expresses displeasure, the parent will use lying/deceit, manipulation, anger, demands, and gaslighting to try to force the child to give them what they want.)

Navigating the co-parenting relationship

When the struggle to co-parent fails, legal intervention will ensue. The legal arena has not yet adapted to dealing with the rising prevalence of narcissism in the general population. Narcissistic parents tend to use children to retaliate against the co-parent. If you are struggling with bullying from the narcissistic parent, you may need legal intervention. However, “narcissistic parents react to any criticism with defiant counterattack (APA, 2013).” These behaviors may include using direct attacks on the other parent or engaging in conflict rather than negotiating compromises (Baum & Shnit, 2005), describing parents in a dismissive, derogatory manner (Caligor, Levy & Yeomand, 2015), or falsely accusing other parent of abuse or claims of being unfit without evidence (Summers & Summers, 2006).

Narcissistic parenting styles have a long-term impact on a child’s mental wellbeing, so facing the music and withstanding the retaliation is necessary at a certain point. Children struggle when alone with the narcissistic parent when the other parent is not there to defend against the abusive behaviors. Narcissistic parents often feel above the law because their abuse is difficult to prove to others, particularly given the amount of energy they spend on their image.

To shield yourself and your kids from narcissistic damage, it is important to keep a few things in mind:

1.) You will not be able to avoid conflict forever. Narcissists tend to select partners who are conflict avoidant, but unless you plan to be perpetually bullied, you will need to set boundaries. Therapy is a helpful tool in understanding how and where you want to establish these boundaries.

2.) Do not expect a reciprocal relationship. There can be no expectation of give-and-take in parenting with a narcissistic individual. Remember, part of the construct of narcissism is that they use any means necessary to get what they want out of every situation. That does not mean you should not work toward compromise or be flexible for your children’s sake. You must take each situation and evaluate what is in your child’s best interest. If you put stock in reciprocation or good will, you will be disappointed and frustrated on every occasion.

3.) Rely on a very black and white schedule. The more specific criteria you can arrange in your parenting time agreement, the better. While a looser, more child-specific and amendable schedule is definitely preferred for the general wellbeing in a child custody case, this is the only option available to co-parents of narcissists.

4.) Co-parenting is wonderful in concept; it is not applicable to situations that involve a narcissistic partner for a handful of reasons. There is very often a history of narcissistic abuse in the relationship and where there is any form of domestic violence, there is a need for parallel parenting rather than co-parenting. Parallel parenting allows the parties to minimize interaction, encourages keeping a black and white schedule, focuses on communication that is direct and factual rather than emotional. It allows each parent to establish rules and expectations for their environments.

If you are struggling with navigating the terrain of parallel parenting with a narcissistic ex-partner and recovering from narcissistic abuse, there are resources that can help build your confidence and provide support while you establish the safest, most manageable home for your children. Seek counseling support for yourself and your children. There are brighter days ahead.

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