Co-Parenting With A Narcissist? 7 Tips To Make It Work & Support Your Child
Ending a relationship—whether you're in the middle of a tough divorce or consciously uncoupling—is hard enough, but when you add kids, things can get excruciatingly complicated. And if the person you'll be co-parenting with is a narcissist, then it might feel impossible to make it work.
Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of selfish, arrogant, and often manipulative behavior. A narcissist typically operates with a superiority complex and almost never shows empathy. Trying to co-parent after a breakup with someone like this won't be an easy feat.
The struggle of co-parenting with a narcissist.
One of the biggest challenges of co-parenting with a narcissist is usually the state of the relationship after the breakup.
"Narcissists do not leave relationships on good terms, and they'll often burn the emotional house down on their way out the door," explains licensed clinical social worker Kimberly Perlin, LCSW. "They see the world in a black-and-white manner—either you are on their side, or you are against them. Ending a romantic relationship with a narcissist is seen as a rejection even if they are the one who left. Rejection brings up all the feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy they cannot tolerate, so they may be inclined to strike out instead of feeling."
According to licensed clinical social worker and relationship counselor Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., LCSW, parenting is the ultimate team sport, and the last person you want on your team is a narcissist. A typical day of healthy co-parenting involves "communicating and collaborating whenever needed, sharing the burden of parenting in as equal a way as possible, compromising, and being flexible as needed," Sterling says. Additionally, when discussing the other parent to or in front of the children, Sterling stresses the importance of using "neutral or positive language, i.e., not talking sh*t about the other parent."
This healthy dynamic can be hard or impossible to establish with a narcissist, and not only because the narcissist will probably react poorly to the end of your relationship. People who make the decision to co-parent have also made the commitment to put the needs of the children above their own, but since narcissists aren't big on putting anyone's needs above their own—including their children—a typical day here will look a lot different. Sterling says the responsibilities won't be split equally because fairness isn't something that a narcissist understands, and they won't feel empathy for the person who's being treated unfairly.
Co-parenting vs. parallel parenting.
When it comes to parenting with an ex, there are multiple ways to approach it. You can take the typical co-parenting approach, which requires both parents to be civil and interact regularly, or you can try parallel parenting.
"Co-parenting is a process by which two parents mutually make decisions regarding the child's welfare and needs (such as disciplinary tactics, school choices, extracurricular activities, academic goals, friends, etc.)," says Sterlin Mosley, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma. "Co-parenting is often used in situations with divorced, separated, or otherwise uncoupled parents who have a mutual interest in the child's well-being, growth, and development."
This approach assumes a level of cooperation and some alignment in child-rearing philosophies and strategies to be successful. It typically works best when the adults involved have an amicable and cooperative relationship.
Another approach is parallel parenting, which is a term used to describe a method of parenting whereby two (or more) parents minimize their interaction with each other but coordinate various aspects of the child-rearing as needed.
"Parallel parenting is typically utilized when the adults have difficulty having amicable interactions, and as such, co-parenting may be too involved and intimate and not in the best interest of the child given the conflictual or acrimonious result of the adults' interactions," Mosley explains. "Parallel parenting requires more prior planning and structure to minimize potential difficulties, and parents must still have the best interest of the child at heart to navigate the parallel parenting relationship smoothly."
Co-parenting with a narcissist can be difficult because compromise is often challenging. In this case, parallel parenting may be preferable because it reduces contact between the narcissist and the other parent. The narcissist may even prefer to only coordinate necessary details and keep their worlds separate from the other parent to maintain a greater sense of control over the child.
It's also worth keeping in mind that someone with narcissistic traits could use the minimal contact involved in parallel parenting to their advantage.
"The narcissist may leverage the expectation of minimal interaction to further obstruct, stonewall, or neglect their responsibilities or promises. It may require the intervention of a third party to help facilitate some requests depending on the level of acrimony or anger the narcissist exhibits," Mosley says.
Parallel parenting is the wise choice when the narcissistic parent is abusive or more malignant, as it can reduce the potential for continued narcissistic abuse.
Issues that may arise.
Common behaviors that a narcissist may display when co-parenting include the following, according to Mosley:
- Shifting expectations and ideas about parenting or previous commitments.
- Broken promises to the child or the co-parent
- Acting as if their involvement is a choice while the other parent's involvement is mandatory
- Gaslighting the child or the parent, particularly when it comes to getting the narcissist's needs met
- Bad-mouthing or trashing the other parent to the child or subtly undermining the child's trust of the other parent
- Competing with the other parent for love and attention of the child through extravagant gifts or promises intended to win the child over
- Triangulating the child and putting the child in uncomfortable or inappropriate positions where they are mediating between parents
Tips to make it work:
Set clear boundaries.
Setting clear boundaries is always a necessity when dealing with narcissists. Especially when children are involved, be clear about expectations as well as what will not be tolerated in reference to parenting. Boundaries also keep the co-parent and the child relatively free from guilt or other emotional damage when the disappointment of dealing with the narcissist's unstable or challenging behaviors.
Be organized and clearly document as much as possible surrounding schedules, discipline protocols, teacher contacts, extracurriculars, etc. This will help to support co-parents when the narcissist begins shifting blame and expectations or gaslighting. Documentation and written guidelines and agreements can help mitigate the inevitable fights; since if it's written down, it's easier to hold them accountable, Mosley says.
Slow your reaction.
Co-parenting with a narcissist will be extremely triggering. Accepting that you are on the other end of a difficult personality is important for you to gain the tools to cope with it.
"One of the best things to be mindful of is your reaction to 'the fire' that will come your way when parenting with this type of personality. Refraining from reacting and responding impulsively will help lower the volume of conflict and create a better environment for the child," says therapist Kim Egel.
This method of dealing with narcissists is sometimes known as the grey rock method, which refers to simply acting like a boring, grey rock in response to their attempts to rile you up.
Focus on the best interests of the child.
With any co-parenting relationship, it's important to remember that the relationship should be centered on your mutual care and desire to be in your child's life. It's important to remember, especially when your co-parenting partner is being difficult, that all your reactions are ultimately affecting the child. This focus could help encourage you to act and respond in a more tasteful way, even when you're irritated and triggered.
Focus on being a consistent parent.
Focus on how you can show up in healthy ways for your child. Even if the other parent is unhealthy and unwilling to change, your consistent positive parenting and ability to make choices that serve the child will help them greatly in their development. Be consistent by doing what you say and showing up when you say you will show up. Refrain from negative commentary about your co-parent and lead by example. Modeling of these behaviors will provide a strong positive example that will help in your child's development, Egel says.
Consider how you can balance out the narcissist's parenting style.
Unless you're incredibly lucky, you and your ex-partner probably won't have the same parenting styles—which means you'll often find yourselves on different pages. And since children end up suffering when parents fail to align, it might be worth revisiting the arrangement.
If being the "good cop" is their approach, then you're going to have to take over setting limits with the children, disciplining them, and setting and enforcing structure. While if they're "emotionally undisciplined and inclined to be the 'bad cop,' then yelling and barking orders will probably be their style—which means the compassion and validation needs to come from you," Sterling says.
Seek expert input.
Find a therapist knowledgeable in working with narcissists and process through the various difficulties and challenges that will inevitably arise while co-parenting or parallel parenting with someone on the narcissistic spectrum. If necessary, find a child psychologist that can help arm the child with the required tools to deal with the potential negative effects of having a narcissistic parent, Mosley says.
Is narcissism genetic?
If you're co-parenting with someone who's a narcissist, especially if the experience has been particularly difficult, you might be concerned about whether these traits could have been passed on to your child. According to Mosley, narcissism is a complex personality trait that exists along a continuum from mild to more extreme.
"There is some research to suggest that narcissistic traits are genetic, but this by no means predetermines that a child will express the genetic tendency in a pathological way," he explains. "The development of narcissistic personality disorder (which is the clinical diagnosis of narcissistic traits that have developed into a set of traits and behaviors that cause social, emotional, and interpersonal impairment) is a condition that many psychologists and researchers believe is exacerbated by a variety of factors. The factors that contribute to the development of NPD include abuse, neglect, or excessive coddling or inaccurate mirroring of a child's strengths and deficits."
While NPD isn't usually diagnosed in children, there are a handful of early signs you can look out for here. Things like a lack of empathy or compassion for others, an inability to consider the needs of others over their own, lying or concealing information, bullying tendencies, extreme flattery or manipulative tendencies, and an extreme sensitivity to criticism or negative feedback. (Here's more on what to know about children raised by narcissists.)
When things really aren't working.
When things really aren't working, you might feel incredibly overwhelmed. If you've found yourself in this situation and you're unsure of your next steps, Child Protective Services specialist and former investigator Will Kesselman says you have options.
"If something isn't working, you must change it, and the sooner the better. Because the longer it goes on, the harder it is to fix. If you've decided you want sole, instead of joint custody, then there is often a good reason for that," he says.
Kesselman says before you do anything, make sure you've collected enough evidence to support your claims. If you're looking to gain sole custody, you'll have to appear before a judge. Oftentimes, a judge will assume the situation has been fine until something happened recently to change it, instead of assuming it wasn't working from the beginning.
"While there are no guarantees, the more proof, facts, and documentation from professionals (on letterhead) that you have, the more it forces the judge to make the tough decision," he says. It may help to consult with a legal expert beforehand to know what to do and how to prepare.
It's likely that your narcissistic ex won't be pleased with the fact that you're seeking to change the previous arrangement and may try to force you to rethink it.
"The perpetrator may use the court, the police, or any other system to force [you] to see, talk to, or otherwise interact with them. Also, joint custody and visitation is a way for them to use the child you have in common as a pawn to continue to control [you]," Kesselman says.
He notes that if the situation has become abusive, "abusers are like bullies, and you can't give in to a bully. But I also don't agree with our parents' wisdom of 'just ignore them.'"
The bottom line.
Co-parenting with a narcissist is difficult, but it's not impossible. If you can both set and respect boundaries, put your differences behind you, and focus on being the best parent to your children, then it could be a healthy situation. However, if you realize things are no longer working or the situation has become abusive, you do have options.
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Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.