If parenting is challenging, and co-parenting is even more difficult, then co-parenting with a narcissist can almost seem like an absolutely impossible order. Of course, you want what’s best for your children. You want them to feel supported and loved. That said, dealing with a narcissistic co-parent often adds tremendous complications.
Believe it or not, balance is possible. You can learn how to set boundaries, avoid being manipulated, and act as a healthy role model for your children. Let’s get into exactly how to co-parent with a narcissist without losing your sanity.
Can You Co-Parent With a Narcissist?
In many cases, you won’t have a choice. It’s your legal responsibility to share parenting duties with your child’s mother or father. Unless extraneous circumstances apply, you will need to work together to raise your children.
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Seek as much support as you can. Lean on family and friends, and consider joining a support group. There’s no such thing as too much help right now. You deserve to feel validated and understood for your struggles.
How Do You Survive Co-Parenting With A Narcissist?
It may feel more comfortable to stoop to their low level, but acting that immaturely doesn’t accomplish anything. Instead, it only tends to make things worse for everyone involved. Here are some better ways to handle this dynamic and help you with co-parenting with a Narcissist.
1. Recognize Their Behavior and Limitations
The first step to successful co-parenting with a Narcissist is recognizing that the narcissist will not readily change their behavior. True narcissism is a personality disorder; it is not a choice or matter of willpower.
It’s imperative that you understand how narcissism works and why narcissists act in the ways they do. It’s no secret that narcissists have inflated egos and a grandiose sense of worth. Similarly, they have little to no regard for other people’s emotions, and they tend to lack empathy, dignity, and patience when things do not go their way.
As parents, narcissists can affect their children in all sorts of ways. For instance, a narcissist might have extremely high expectations for their child’s behavior. Their child’s performance reflects on the narcissist, so they demand excellence. A narcissist might also use the child to fulfill their emotional needs- for instance, they may dump all their personal problems on them and expect the child to carry the burden.
When you’re the other parent, this pattern can be frustrating and confusing. You have probably heard the narcissist promise to change. At the same time, you have likely witnessed their erratic, hostile, and explosive behaviors enough times to know that you can’t really trust them.
2. Document Any Concerns
Write down any issues that arise, and be as specific as possible. For example, if your child tells you that the narcissist called her a name, write it down. If the teacher reports that your ex arrived an hour late to pick them up at school, write that down as well. When other people are around, ask them if they’re willing to act as a witness.
Keep in mind that you’re not trying to get them into trouble. Instead, you’re protecting yourself by collecting evidence that you may or may not choose to use in the future. Moreover, if you’re currently dealing with court issues, these details matter tremendously.
3. Focus On Your Child Above All Else
Children often feel shafted during separation and divorce because parents are so busy focused on the rage they feel towards each other. Yes, you may feel angry or betrayed or lost. These are normal emotions.
But as a parent, you have a responsibility to take care of your child’s needs (and this applies even if they’re a teenager!). Do your best to be a healthy and loving role model for them. They need a stable and reliable caregiver, and you are capable of being that person.
If this feels like an impossible order, consider seeking professional support. Individual or family therapy (with you and your child) can help you learn how to attune to their needs without projecting your feelings onto them.
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Additionally, don’t overlook the benefits of therapy for your child. They may need a safe and non-judgmental space to explore their emotions. Narcissists frequently pigeonhole their own children into scapegoat or golden child categories.
Some children vocalize freely when they are struggling. Others show they’re having a hard time by engaging in the following behaviors:
- Becoming aggressive (verbally or physically) towards others
- Sudden changes in self-esteem
- Poor eating habits
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Declining school performance
- Comments about being sad or angry
4. Do Not Spend Excess Time Around Each Other
You may want to consider a parallel parenting approach, which refers to parenting alongside each other, but not with each other. This is a different form of co-parenting, but it may be the best one to try.
With this approach, you limit communication as much as possible. You don’t attend any events together. You may even select neutral locations (like the school) for pick-ups and drop-offs.
Parallel parenting can mitigate some of the drama associated with separation. It can also make for a smoother transition for your children. However, you should anticipate that they may feel angry or upset that both parents won’t be at certain events. If this happens, be sure to listen to their concerns and validate their emotions.
5. Avoid Bad-Mouthing The Narcissist
As tempting as it will feel to criticize the narcissist, be the bigger person. This rule applies even if your children start complaining about their behavior.
First, badmouthing the narcissist often backfires. For one, it’s not fair to expect a child to avoid disclosing what you say to someone else. Additionally, complaining might make you think about them more- which is probably the last thing you want to do!
Instead, either keep your thoughts to yourself or share them with a trusted person like a therapist or supportive friend who has no contact with the narcissist.
How Do You Set Boundaries When Co-Parenting With a Narcissist?
Now that you’ve moved beyond mere survival, it’s important to identify, implement, and continue to reinforce boundaries with a narcissist. Let’s discuss the best strategies.
1. Don’t Expect To Have Normal Boundary Conversations
In healthy relationships, both parties express their needs to one another respectfully. If someone hurts another person’s feelings, there is a concerted effort to apologize and accept accountability for the wrongdoing.
When you’re with a narcissist, such boundaries don’t really exist. Narcissists don’t fully comprehend the nature of boundaries- another person’s limits are more of “general suggestions” rather than firm expectations. And if they don’t agree with those expectations, they just won’t follow them.
Instead, your conversations need to be absolutely as direct as possible. Define the boundaries, and describe exactly how you will implement them.
Anticipate their rebuttals or defensiveness. Narcissists struggle with authority, and they will perceive your boundaries as you trying to act superior to them. Try not to focus on their emotions. Instead, stand firm in your beliefs, and do your best to execute them.
2. Get Everything In Writing
Custody can be a contentious issue, and many narcissists will overstep boundaries and swindle their way into getting what they want. That’s why it’s crucial to include as many details as possible under your custody agreements.
Of course, working with lawyers on an ongoing basis can be costly. But it’s one of the best investments you can make to protect yourself and your children. The more you can keep things legal and straightforward, the easier it is to provide proof if the narcissist starts misbehaving.
If other people express concern about the narcissist, ask them to make a written statement. Documentation always holds more weight than a verbal comment. Even if you don’t do anything with these statements, it’s good to keep them on hand just in case.
3. Ignore Their Hoovering
Hoovering refers to all the manipulative tactics narcissists use to suck their victims back into their lives. Hoovering can be overt, in the sense that they may just blurt out that they miss you and want to be back with you.
But it’s often more insidious. For example, they might “accidentally” call you just to see if you pick up. Or, they might “just happen to be in the neighborhood” and wanted to say hi to the kids.
Don’t call out the hoovering, even when you recognize it (and even when it’s driving you crazy). The narcissist will likely become defensive or even hostile. Instead, ignore the tactic without giving it any of your time or attention.
4. Remember That You Cannot Control Their Behavior
You believe in serving vegetables with dinner, and they like to feed the kids ice cream and cake. You want them going to bed at a reasonable hour, and it’s an all-hours slumber party at the narcissist’s house.
It’s frustrating to feel like the narcissist is undermining your parenting choices. But vocalizing these concerns will only reinforce their decisions. If they sense that you don’t like what they’re doing, they’ll often do it even more frequently. That’s because narcissists thrive when they receive attention, even if the attention is entirely negative.
Instead, aim to be as neutral as possible. Don’t even ask questions about their approach. If they tell you something you don’t want to hear, shrug it off.
5. Continue Reinforcing Your Boundaries With Your Children
If your children start preferring to spend time with the narcissist, don’t feel too alarmed. This is normal. The narcissist will work very hard to spin reality and play the favorite parent. In doing so, they may lavish your children with expensive gifts and try to win their affection. Additionally, they might also spend a great deal of time trying to put you down.
Of course, this can be painful. You’re probably already feeling fragile and insecure. If you’re balancing being a single parent, you might also feel utterly exhausted.
You may feel tempted to give in when your children tell you that they’re allowed to do something you disapprove of at the other parent’s house. But by doing so, you’re just letting the narcissist win this battle. You’re also sending confusing and conflicting messages to your children.
Instead, aim to be consistent. Children need that structure, and they need to know they can rely on you to offer it.
6. Pick Your Battles
The narcissist will do things just to irritate you. When it comes to raising your children, you need to choose what to focus on and what to disregard. Only you can decide those boundaries, but make sure you know how to prioritize them.
If you’re picking a battle over every disagreement, you’re giving the narcissist more power, attention, and time. This perpetuates ongoing tension, and it can affect your children. It also impacts your mental health. If you always obsess over what the narcissist is doing, you are going to feel a sense of hopelessness. Eventually, this hopelessness will interfere with everything else in your life.
7. Consult With A Lawyer
If issues continue to arise, you may need to revisit your parenting terms with a lawyer. This is to protect both you and your children. It’s also to ensure that things are kept completely legal instead of the narcissist interpreting the situation.
It’s a good idea to write down any questions or concerns you have in advance. Lawyers often charge hourly rates, and you want to be organized and efficient with how you use your time.
How Do You Deal With a Manipulative Co-Parent?
As frustrating as the dynamic may feel, it’s possible to learn how to co-parent with a narcissist successfully. Remember that your children need you to make the best effort to take care of their well-being. Likewise, you deserve to have a fulfilling life free from narcissistic abuse.
Remember to stand firm with your boundaries. Do not tolerate any name-calling, manipulation, or smearing. And most of all, try not to react. The more stoic you can be when interacting with the narcissist, the better.