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The only thing more challenging than a divorce from a narcissistic spouse is managing co-parenting and navigating your children through the tricky territory of having a narcissistic parent. Narcissistic parents lack empathy, are entitled, arrogant, validation seeking, grandiose, sullen, victimized, egocentric, and can be quite rageful. Because narcissism can present itself in such varied ways—inconsistency, criticism, authoritarianism, control, manipulation, gaslighting—children in these situations often struggle with tremendous anxiety.
Children with a narcissistic parent typically display other patterns such as distractibility (which can negatively impact academic performance), shame, self-blame. Dysregulation can manifest as internalizing patterns (self-harm and behaviors consistent with disordered eating) or externalizing patterns (substance use, sexual risk-taking, and rebellious behaviors).
You may also observe the onset of narcissistic behavior in the child, especially as they move into adolescence and emerging adulthood. Some behaviors include a false sense of entitlement, oppositionality, invalidation, gaslighting, and self-victimization. As your child transitions into adulthood, they may choose relational or friendship situations related to the narcissistic abuse they observed and perhaps experienced with their narcissistic parent.
So what do you do?
This is the vexing question that so many parents in these situations ruminate over. Not all people in these situations seek out divorce. Some may wait or delay as long as they can for fear of sharing custody and the child spending time alone with the narcissistic parent. Some reach a point at which they feel they do not want their child to observe such a toxic marriage, and they call it quits. Whichever path you are on, there are no easy paths forward. Either way, your child will struggle from having a narcissistic parent, and there is no avoiding that. Here are 8 strategies to consider to help your child cope with these situations.
1. It is crucial that you do not speak poorly of the narcissistic parent to the child.
You will agonize and wish you could just spell it out to the child, but you can't. A child with a narcissistic parent is confused because this isn't an adult relationship. Sadly, no matter how poorly children are treated by their parent, they often maintain a fierce loyalty to them until they can have their own process as adults and come to these conclusions on their own. There is no pushing fast-forward on this. Doing so can confuse the child who may still view their parent as a parent and have some good moments with them as you once did.
2. Do not gaslight your own child.
What does that mean? You do not need to paint the narcissistic parent out to be a saint or a wonderful person. You do NOT want to say "oh, they didn't mean that" or "they love you" after the parent does something particularly egregious. When you do that, you leave the child confused. But if they bring up an uncomfortable scenario with their parent, tell your child they can talk about it. You do not need to fix it, but you can offer empathy over how hard it is and always reassure them that none of this is their fault.
Just don't talk about their parent being a "bad person," get enraged, or threaten to call the other parent. It leaves the child feeling that you aren't a safe place to talk. Unless what they are raising is related to danger, which involves reporting and safety concerns, you want your child to feel they have a safe space to talk.
3. Use the 30,000-foot technique.
When your child talks about their narcissistic parent, offer empathy and support, and don't try to fix anything. The 30,000-foot view means that when you want to offer more pointed feedback. try to talk in terms of "all adults." For example, "I hear you. Having to deal with so much anger is exhausting. Adults are not great at managing their emotions. It's not okay when that happens, and it's hard to be on the receiving side of that."
Using more generic language may give you the chance to pull back so you aren't talking about their parent specifically. By making about all adults, you can help provide them with some context about the situation. Let them know it's not acceptable and validate their feelings.
4. Keep in mind developmental issues.
Obviously, a 4-year-old child will have a very different experience than a 14-year-old child. Narcissistic parents struggle differentially at each stage of child development. The drudgery of small children can frustrate them, though they are often easier to do simple things with, like a trip to the park. The defiance and back talk of adolescents can trigger narcissistic parents into rages. These parents view their children—and everyone else—as accessories to provide a narcissistic supply rather than as people who have emotional and other needs they are responsible for. The ways you help your child cope with this situation will shift as your child gets older.
5. Infuse your household with empathy.
This is easier if you are living apart from the narcissistic parent. Make time and space for emotional conversations and be present with your child's emotions. Work on emotional identification, which you can do with a younger child by reading a story and asking them how they think the characters feel. As your children get older, choose age-appropriate films to watch together. After the film, don't just turn it off and go in separate directions. Instead, try and talk about the emotions evoked by the story, situations, or characters. Also, try building emotional questions and identification into the day-to-day life—not "how did the test go?" but "how did you feel after today?"
6. Teach your child self-regulation and self-soothing.
Don't fix everything for them but support them through struggles. This can be as simple as playing board games and not letting them win and teaching them how to be okay with not winning the game every time. Let them cry it out after they lose the big game. When they try to blame others for their misfortunes, teach them about taking responsibility. When a child watches a narcissistic parent always blame other people, it can be an easy hole to fall into. Don't let your child make the same mistake.
7. Practice consistency.
Narcissistic parents and their households are notoriously inconsistent. They can be the prototypical Disneyland parent, the checked-out-when-they-are-dating-someone-new parent, the too-stressed-from-work parent, or want-the-children-around-when-it-works-for-them parent. That may put you in an unenviable position of being the buzzkill parent having to deal with homework, school registrations, bedtimes.
Despite the complaints, children welcome and need routine. They may gripe, but it is reassuring to have at least one parent maintain that routine. It will foster a sense of safety and self-regulation in your child.
8. Consider therapy.
This can be complicated depending on the stipulations of your divorce around joint decision-making regarding healthcare. It also depends on the willingness of the other parent to cooperate with therapy for your child. Sadly, stigmas surround therapy. The narcissistic parent will be concerned about what the child will say. Not having control over the narrative means that your coparent may impede your ability to get your child into therapy.
However, it can be essential for your child to get tools to manage anxiety, confusion, anger, grief, guilt, shame, and other negative emotions. This applies to you as a parent as well—and here, you have more leeway because you don't need your coparent's buy-in. Your own therapy is a place to cope, vent, and get feedback. Ideally, choose a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse.
Sadly, having a narcissistic parent casts a lifelong echo. That means it's even more critical for a child to have a parent who can "see" them, support them, and offer stability. With at least one good, non-narcissistic parent, the child can foster resilience in the face of the myriad of challenges brought on by a narcissistic parent. Coparenting with a narcissist will always be difficult. Still, you can help your child grow and succeed by providing emotional nourishment, validation, unconditional love, and the proper psychological tools.
TalkingParents blogs are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult with a qualified attorney regarding legal matters.