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How To Co-Parent With a Narcissist

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Aug 28, 2023

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How To Co-Parent With a Narcissist

Co-parenting after divorce can be challenging — co-parenting with a narcissist can redefine the word “challenging.”

Narcissists and people who engage in narcissistic behavior can be very difficult to reason with, yet it’s ideal to be on the same page when it comes to your children.

If you share custody of your children with a narcissist, you need to use focused strategies to keep your family safe. Here’s what you need to know about how to co-parent with a narcissist and when it may be necessary to get help.

HHow To Co-Parent With a Narcissist

What Is a Narcissist?

The term “narcissist” can be casually thrown around in conversation to describe people who seem self-absorbed or manipulative. However, true narcissism is a personality disorder that can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional.

People with narcissistic personality disorder hold themselves in very high esteem, whether it’s warranted or not. They enjoy being the center of attention and view others as being below them.

They fail to consider the feelings or opinions of others, placing their own agenda and well-being above the needs of those around them.

Narcissists are often short-tempered when they don’t get their way. They’re very sensitive to rejection or criticism and are likely to lash out at people who attempt to correct them or explain why their behavior is harmful.

Many people with narcissism are extremely sensitive to criticism. They aren’t likely to seek help from a mental health professional because doing so would be an admission that they’re imperfect.

Whether your co-parent is a diagnosed narcissist or simply engages in narcissistic behavior, you should treat the situation similarly.

Can Narcissists Be Good Parents?

Narcissists rarely make good parents or co-parents. Many children of narcissists grow up feeling as though their narcissistic parent was abusive.

A narcissist’s love often feels conditional, and children of narcissists usually feel that they never measure up to their parent’s deliberately impossible standards.

Children of narcissists often feel they need to make decisions to appease their parents for fear that they’ll be verbally or emotionally abused for acting independently. Narcissistic parents have a tendency to take over their children’s lives with their own agenda, leaving children feeling trapped.

Narcissists often neglect the needs of others to fulfill their own needs. Their lack of empathy may lead them to feel like their children aren’t as important as they are or that being a parent makes them extraordinarily special.

This can cause children to feel like objects and have a poor sense of self.

If your former partner is a narcissist or exhibits narcissistic traits, it’s important to closely monitor their interactions with your children and frequently check in with your children about their feelings.

You should always be mindful of the potential for abuse, and you need to be willing to get the court involved if you feel like your narcissistic co-parent is being abusive to your children.

What You Need To Watch Out for When Co-Parenting With a Narcissist

Things don’t often go according to plan when you’re co-parenting with a narcissist. Their behavior can be harmful to others around them, and they don’t usually care who gets hurt.

You should keep a watchful eye over the situation and intervene if your co-parent cannot be trusted to parent safely.

Trauma To Your Children

Most people think of abuse as a physical action, but that’s not necessarily the case with a narcissistic parent. Narcissists psychologically or emotionally traumatize children.

Narcissistic abuse can impact children significantly, even if it doesn’t leave behind physical signs.

If your child seems to be upset after visiting your narcissistic co-parent or is reluctant to spend time with your ex, this could be a sign that your children don’t feel comfortable around them.

Getting your children into therapy can help them. Tracking their reactions to visits can also provide evidence that could help you get the parenting schedule modified.

Parental Alienation

Narcissists like to make themselves out to be the victim. Your narcissistic co-parent may attempt to gain the favor of your children by acting as though you ruined their life or lied to everyone.

They crave the adoration of your children and demand to be their favorite parent. They don’t care what they have to do to achieve their goal.

If your children start acting out against you or asking strange questions after they spend time with your co-parent, it could be a sign that your co-parent is trying to drive a wedge through your relationship.

Be careful not to react by badmouthing your narcissistic co-parent to your children. It’s a better idea to be as loving and supportive of your children as possible. Be a good role model.

Offer your children validation and support. You can also take your children to family therapy sessions to help work out any issues you’re experiencing or resolve trauma stemming from your divorce.

This is also a time in which “parallel parenting” comes into play. Sometimes, you simply have to be the safe and consistent parent that never bad-mouths the other parent.

You must have your rules and your standards and your children will find safety and security in you. Remember, a child needs ONE safe and secure parent, so if you can’t co-parent, don’t despair! You can still control your home with your children.

Manipulative Behavior

Narcissists like to be in control, and they often maintain control through manipulation tactics.

They may covertly begin taking steps to gain more power in your co-parenting relationship. They could make important decisions regarding your child without asking you first.

They may plan fun events outside of their parenting time, get your children excited, and put you in a position where you have to be the bad guy.

If you notice that your co-parent is manipulating you, your children, or your custody agreement, you need to work double duty to reiterate the importance of adhering to the parenting plan you established when you made your initial child custody arrangement.

How to Communicate With a Narcissist Regarding Your Children

Communication is the single most important aspect of co-parenting, but narcissists can be deliberately difficult to communicate with when they feel like they aren’t getting their way.

You should take a structured, careful, and reserved approach to communication to keep the situation as peaceful as possible.

Only Engage When Necessary

While it’s crucial to communicate with your co-parent regarding your children, you are under no obligation to be their friend. Remain civil, but limit communication to what’s strictly necessary.

Don’t share details about your personal life, and don’t take an interest in details about their personal life. Set boundaries in your co-parenting relationship to avoid becoming entangled in unnecessary situations.

Be concise, clear, and courteous in every communication and try to communicate only in writing, ideally through a co-parenting app. NEVER communicate through your children. That puts them in a terrible position.

Stick To the Parenting Plan

Don’t allow any wiggle room when it comes to your parenting plan. The court is only interested in your adherence to the plan. If your co-parent wants to act outside of the plan, make it clear that they aren’t allowed to do so. You won’t face any consequences for refusing to informally change the rules or make exceptions.

Pick-up and drop-off times should always stay the same. Custody time and overnight visits should stick to the schedule. It’s better for everyone involved, including your children.

They thrive on routine, and keeping things predictable will make their lives easier.

If your co-parent takes issue with the parenting plan or doesn’t want to follow it, it’s their responsibility to demonstrate to the court that the plan should be changed. Remind them of that.

Any time they want to change the way your arrangement works, simply state that you’re comfortable with the current arrangement. If they’d like to change it, they need to return to court and request to change the court order.

Keep a Record of Your Conversations

Narcissists use manipulative behavior to get what they want. They may not care about any agreements or arrangements you made if they interfere with their own self-interest.

They may even attempt to gaslight you, convincing you that you never reached an agreement or that they told you they changed their plans.

It’s essential to have everything clearly in writing. It’s best to communicate with your narcissistic former spouse by text message or by email or through a co-parenting app.

Avoid phone calls, which leave no record of the conversation. Always ask for clarity or confirmation when decisions are made regarding your children.

If anything comes into question, you’ll have a full transcript of the conversation to refer to. It may be useful if co-parenting issues need to be taken to court.

You’ll have a record of what happened, and you’ll easily be able to demonstrate that your co-parent wasn’t cooperating with the plan.

Try Parallel Parenting

You can communicate with a narcissistic co-parent all day long, but if they refuse to see eye to eye with you, there’s nothing you can do.

If you and your narcissist co-parent have different ideas about what rules should be enforced and how your children’s lives should be structured, consider trying parallel parenting.

Parallel parenting is a method of parenting where each parent has different rules and plays a different role in their child’s life. Many parents don’t like parallel parenting because there is no consistency, but it may have advantages in specific scenarios.

If your former partner disagrees with your parenting style, parallel parenting is your only option.

Agreeing to disagree can also prevent arguments in front of your children, which may be better than a consistent set of rules that leads to frequent fighting.

What To Do If Your Children Are in Danger

While you shouldn’t cry wolf and jump to the conclusion that your co-parent is engaging in abusive behavior, it’s important to take indications of abuse seriously.

You never want the situation to escalate to a point where your child develops low self-esteem and feels as though they don’t have an adequate support system.

You should never confront your co-parent or cause an argument. Arguments with narcissists create high-conflict situations that can sometimes persist indefinitely. If you have a legitimate reason to believe that your narcissistic co-parent is acting in an abusive way, get the court involved.

Don’t take any action on your own.

If an investigation finds that your co-parent is engaging in abusive behavior, you can return to family court and file for sole custody of your children.

Your co-parent may still be allowed to visit your children under the supervision of a court-appointed supervisor, but they won’t be allowed to be alone with the children.

A Final Word on Co-Parenting With a Narcissist

Narcissism isn’t just the act of being self-absorbed — it’s a personality disorder that can profoundly affect someone’s ability to care for others.

If you’re co-parenting with a narcissist or someone who displays narcissistic tendencies, you need to take steps to protect your children and yourself.

It’s important to act quickly if you believe your child’s well-being is in jeopardy as a result of your co-parent’s behavior, and understanding the signs of narcissistic abuse can help you monitor your children’s well-being over time.

In addition to only engaging when necessary, creating a parenting plan, and recording all conversations, you may want to consider meeting with a therapist or talking to a lawyer for options to protect yourself and your children.

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