Co-Parenting with a Narcissist

A CALIFORNIA FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY’S GUIDE TO CO-PARENTING WITH A NARCISSIST

Co-parenting can be difficult. When Mom and Dad live apart, they often have different parenting styles, communication styles, new partners, or children from other relationships. These all create challenges. However, these challenges can be amplified when co-parenting with a narcissist. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is known to be a medical condition. It is characterized by an excessive need for admiration and credit, an inability to handle any sort of criticism, and a sense of entitlement that outweighs any other aspect. About 8% of men and 5% percent of women in the USA suffer from NPD, according to several medical studies.

In medical terms, narcissistic personality disorder DSM-5 301.81 (F60.81) is known to be a cluster B personality disorder and is seen to be one of the least identified personality disorders.

Marrying and divorcing a narcissist is difficult, but co-parenting with a narcissist can be almost impossible. The demands, attacks, threats, and attempts to inflict guilt are so skillful, they rattle a parent, sabotaging his or her mental health. However, awareness of the narcissist’s dysfunctional tactics protects the parent struggling in this situation. Once these relational patterns are identified, it is easier to co-parent with a narcissist.

The narcissist appears to be charming, inspiring, and endearing to those he meets; outside the courtroom, however, he is calculated, manipulative, and many times, quite hazardous. The untrained observer may perceive the situation as being about two immature parents who are unable to put their kids first.

The narcissistic traits are not suddenly going to change. And there is nothing like the co-parenting arena to bring out the bad in the narcissist. Firstly, if they do not have custody or joint custody, they have the option to show their surroundings how victimized they are, how you have wrenched their children away from them. Secondly, children can be used as weapons in a strategic manner. From bad-mouthing you to your children, to picking them up or returning them late from access visits, to disrupting the children’s routine just to get at you (e.g. allowing them to stay up too late and returning tired, cranky kids to you the next day), the narcissist has a whole new set of tools in the toolbox with which to torment you and bolster their own ego.

Another challenge parents face when co-parenting with a narcissist is alienation. If the child adopts the narcissist parent’s statements, believes them to be true, and acts out on them by rejecting the other parent, some psychiatrists will say that the child has developed parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

PAS is when a parent has repeatedly presented a negative view of the other parent to the child, such that the child no longer wants to spend time with the other parent. For example, statements from father to child that, “Your mom doesn’t want to see you tonight,” when in reality mom is sick; or if mother repeatedly tells the child, “Your father doesn’t love us.”

A comparison of narcissistic parental traits with child-centered parental traits can be made for a better assessment:

Narcissistic Parental Traits
Child Centered Parental Traits
Impatient with others Patient with child and child collaterals
Unkind to any perceived enemy Kindness toward child’s collaterals
Boastful, conceited view of strengths Willing to acknowledge other children’s strength
Often acts improperly in public Lets the child be the focus of attention
Selfishly arranges child schedules Yields personal scheduling rights for benefit of child
Easily provoked by those perceived as disloyal Avoids public display of anger
Remembers all perceived wrongs Demonstrates forgiveness
Consciously distorts conducts and attitudes Realistic and honest assessment of others
Rigidly asserts rights and easily excuses self Putting child’s needs first
Speaks, acts, and reasons immaturely Filters words, actions, and thoughts


Tips on Co-Parenting with a NarcissistEven though the challenges may never seem to come to an end, your child needs you to be the strong, stable parent. They need encouragement, reassurance, and support from at least one of their parents. Moreover, your child also needs the relationship with the narcissist parent. Your child needs to believe both parents love him or her and want what is best for him or her. Your child’s self-esteem is tied to his or her parents. When dealing with a narcissistic ex-spouse, it is important to refrain from retaliating, as this can be used against you in court.

1. Maintain short communications.

You will notice that by the end of every phone call, you have achieved nothing and you are aggravated. The phone call (or email) went that way because they are looking for reasons to fight and not for bringing a solution or end to anything. You will say something that is essentially not a big deal, but they’ll take it the wrong way and make it a big deal for no reason. And then you start defending yourself and the whole thing slips down a slippery slope. Why do it? Don’t engage. It takes two to fight, so just send the information you need to send and refuse to engage. The shorter your communication, the better.

2. Only discuss matters pertaining to the children.

You will often notice that you called to tell him or her that you are running late and within seconds, you are discussing how you cheated on him or her and ruined the family. Don’t let it happen. The minute it turns into something else besides why you called, hang up. The minute the conversation turns to something about you and the marriage personally, hang up. Just hang up. You’ll be so happy you did, and now you are in control, not your ex-spouse.

3. Never let them see you triggered.

The moment you let them see that you are getting angry by what they say, it will only continue. It just adds fuel to the fire. Do not engage and don’t get angry. You will need to realize what you are dealing with, and sometimes you just have to laugh at it. Laugh and move on. You take all of their power when you aren’t bothered by what they say.

4. Communicate in writing.

Communication should be limited to writing (e.g. text or email) as much as possible. Keep the communication limited to the topic of the children. If you have a phone conversation, follow up with an email or text confirming what was discussed. For example, “Just to make sure we are all on the same page, you’ve agreed to pick up the children at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow, and I will have them ready at the library for the pickup. Please let me know if I’ve got this wrong.” Then you have the relevant evidence about the details, which can be important if something goes wrong later. No matter how ugly the response is, keep in mind that the court will likely read this, so keep it clean. Keep in simple. Keep it short. Always write as if the judge is going to read the communications.

5. Be polite in front of your children.

Do not involve your children in harsh conversations or bad talks in which they have no role. Do everyone a favor and get yourself a therapist or best friend, because you shouldn’t be talking to your kids about their narcissistic parent. Tell the children that marriage issues are none of their business so the children may live in peace. If it continues from one side, you will need to get a petition before the court to stop the other parent from discussing your case or your marriage with your child. But don’t engage in the same type of bad behavior if the other person is doing it.

6. Set positive limits.

Narcissists are interested in creating chaos during your time with the children. The parent with the most time often texts and calls the children excessively when they are in the other parent’s care. To end it, at times you have to take your child’s phone away, which doesn’t give you any awards with your child. But it has to be stopped and monitored. This is a problem the court can control, but typical orders allow the child to communicate with the other parent as much as they want. If you have a teenager who uses the majority of the time during your time on the phone texting his mother, you clearly have a problem. If court orders don’t help and you aren’t able to effectively communicate with your child about it, you should look into having some therapy time set up for you and your child.

What the Courts Can Do to Aid You in Co-Parenting with a Narcissist

  • Domestic violence restraining orders (DVRO): If the narcissist is abusive, the court can issue a DVRO. Under California law, abuse is defined broadly and includes but is not limited to physical violence, sexual assault, threats of violence, harassment, stalking, and destroying personal property. The DVRO can include a stay away order and no contact order for yourself and other close family members. A violation of the DVRO can lead to criminal penalties including jail time.
  • Custody and visitation orders: Well detailed custody and visitation orders can be powerful tools when dealing with a narcissist as they outline both parents’ rights and responsibilities when it comes to the children. Such orders will schedule the time share, identify the method and place for exchanges; can include rules for communication, such as a rule that communications are to be via email only or time of the communication; and may require counseling including co-parent counseling. When the narcissist tries to manipulate you into doing something you do not want to do, you can simply say, “We need to follow the court order.”
  • Parental alienation orders: The court can create orders to stop PAS, which can include no disparagement orders, orders to attend counseling for the narcissist parent, reunification therapy for the alienated parent and the child, and in extreme cases removal of the child from the narcissist parent.
  • Custody evaluations: The court has the power to appoint mental health professionals to evaluate the parents, interview the children, interview third parties, and make recommendations as to the best interests of the child. The evaluator will spend significantly more time with the narcissist parent and will be in a better position to see the faults of the narcissist parent than the judge, who may only have ten to twenty minutes of interaction with the narcissist parent.
  • Sanctions/contempt proceedings: If a narcissist violates court orders he or she can be sanctioned and/or found in contempt. A finding of contempt can lead to civil and criminal penalties, including jail time. The narcissist also can be ordered to pay your attorney fees.

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