Once you’ve had children with a narcissist, you’re going to have to parent with a narcissist whether you're married or divorced. Yet, co-parenting with a narcissist is qualitatively different than co-parenting with any other person on the planet. It's terrifying, frustrating, and infuriating all at the same time! That's why many divorcing parents are choosing parallel parenting instead.
But what is parallel parenting? Is it better than co-parenting? If so, how is it better, and what do you have to do to make it work?
Those are all great questions. But in order to understand what parallel parenting is and what it does, you have to first understand WHY it even exists. And a big part of the reason that parallel parenting has become a "thing" is because of parents who simply can't work together to parent their kids after they divorce.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, to be “narcissistic” means:
“…to be extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.”
Narcissists believe that they are special, superior, and more important than other people. They usually lack empathy, require excessive admiration, and can’t handle criticism – at all!
Narcissists see ANY criticism, however slight, as a threat to their very existence. For them, making sure they look good IS a matter of life and death.
What’s even worse, the nature of their disorder makes it impossible for them to see that they have a problem.
Because their egos are so fragile, narcissists can’t admit to having ANY weaknesses or flaws – including the “flaw” of being narcissistic! They can’t see reality, or themselves, objectively.
While not everyone who is selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed actually has narcissistic personality disorder, s/he may have narcissistic traits. That’s because narcissism exists on a spectrum.
Someone can have a few mild narcissistic traits. Or they can have so many and such strong narcissistic traits that they’re pathological.
Either way, co-parenting with a narcissist, or someone who has strong narcissistic traits, can be a nightmare.
The Narcissistic Parent
Narcissists don’t change their behavior or their perspective when they become parents. They are just as egotistical and self-absorbed around their children as they are around everyone else.
Unlike other parents, narcissistic parents don’t put the kids first – ever. Narcissists see their children as extensions of themselves. The children exist to serve the narcissist, NOT the other way around.
As heartbreaking as it may be, narcissistic parents have no problem manipulating their children. They hold grudges forever and they will use their kids to get back at their ex - as long as no one sees them! (They are hyper-sensitive about LOOKING LIKE perfect parents!)
Because of their limitations, and the distorted way they see the world, narcissists don’t tend to be good parents.
They’re even worse co-parents.
Narcissists thrive on drama, so they create it all the time. Because of that, trying to make even the smallest parenting decision with a narcissist can be a HUGE deal.
Unfortunately, effective co-parenting REQUIRES parents to make decisions together. That means that, at least when it comes to the kids, the parents MUST be able to talk with each other. They MUST be able to have a rational discussion about the kids. Most importantly, they MUST be able to put their kids’ needs in front of their own.
That’s exactly what a narcissist CAN’T DO.
That’s probably why parallel parenting was invented.
Parallel parenting is a parenting style that is specifically designed for parents who don't (and can't) get along. It (theoretically) reduces parental conflict by reducing the number of times that parents need to interact with each other.
Instead of talking or texting each other regularly about the kids, parallel parents communicate with each other as little as possible. When they do communicate with each other it is always in writing, and usually through a parenting app.
Instead of making most decisions for their children jointly, each parent makes “kid decisions” when the kids are with that parent. The parents limit the decisions they have to make together as much as possible.
In the most highly conflictual situations, parents may even have a parenting coordinator who acts as a private decision-maker when the parents can’t agree on what to do in any given circumstance.
Unlike with co-parenting, with parallel parenting, each parent raises their kids independently of the other. The parents don’t even try to have a consistent set of rules for the kids. Instead, they each parent their kids their own way. They also (again, theoretically!) stay out of each other’s business.
While parallel parenting may sound perfect for anyone who dreads having to deal with their ex, parallel parenting also has some significant drawbacks.
The Downside of Parallel Parenting
The first problem with parallel parenting is that, from a legal perspective, it’s not really “a thing.” Most family law statutes talk about “joint parenting” and “joint custody” as well as “separate parenting” and “sole custody.” They don’t even mention “parallel parenting”
But just because the law may not have caught up with the way some families work these days, that doesn’t mean that you can’t CREATE a parallel parenting situation. You can. But you need to understand that “parallel parenting” is not a legal concept. It’s a parenting style.
Parallel parenting is a type of joint parenting. What makes it different is the way you lay out the rules.
Joint parenting focuses on having co-parents communicate with each other and be flexible around raising their kids.
Parallel parenting focuses on keeping the parents apart and setting out very strict and very specific rules about what each parent can or can’t do with their kids on their time.
For example, a co-parenting plan might require parents to cooperate with each other and choose the activities their kids are enrolled in as the kids grow. High conflict parents, however, CAN’T cooperate with each other. So their parenting agreement might list the specific activities the kids can participate in. It might also say those are the ONLY activities the kids can participate in. That way they don’t have to discuss what activities their child will do in the future.
Deciding parenting issues like this in advance gives you the advantage of never having to talk to your ex about those issues. That reduces conflict. But it also eliminates flexibility.
Flexibility v Conflict
To make parallel parenting work properly, both parents have to lay out the rules by which they will raise their children, and the times during which they will see their children, in a detailed, comprehensive written parenting plan. Then they have to stick to that plan EXACTLY.
Unfortunately, making and following that kind of plan has several challenges:
- It’s virtually impossible to decide how you will deal with every potential parenting issue that could arise for you or your kids from now until the time they turn 18;
- Creating such a rigid parenting plan leaves no room for your kids to grow and change; and
- Negotiating anything with a narcissist is worse than having a double root canal without anesthetic. Because of that, even though you might INTEND to write a very detailed parenting plan with your narcissistic soon-to-be-ex, chances are, you won’t. You’ll settle for a much simpler agreement because you won’t have the energy to keep negotiating for so long.
Now, at this point you may wonder, “Can’t I just parallel parent WITHOUT a detailed parenting plan?” The honest answer is “probably not.”
Here’s what will happen if you try.
Your ex will push your boundaries and your buttons. S/he will make you and the kids follow whatever schedule is best for him/her. S/he will do things that s/he KNOWS you disagree with. Most of all, s/he will change the rules around parenting your kids whenever s/he feels like it.
In short, you and your kids will have no stability and no consistency. Your life will end up in chaos more times than not.
That’s why the more “rules” you have in writing, the better chance you will have to live your life without your narcissistic ex’s constant interference.
Of course, even if you have the most iron-clad parenting plan in the entire western world, it’s still only a piece of paper. Narcissists tend to do whatever they want when they want. So while having a written parenting plan at least gives you some leverage in court, the fact that you have to continually go to court and fight with your ex will still be exhausting. (Sorry!)
Parallel Parenting v. Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
While parallel parenting can help you co-parent with a narcissist a little more peacefully, it’s still not the answer to all your prayers.
Whether you’re parallel parenting, co-parenting or simply parenting any way that you can in order to survive until your kids are 18, you still have to deal with your narcissistic ex. That’s never easy.
So here are more tips that can help you parent in (a tiny bit more) peace.
21 Tips for Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
1. Use parallel parenting.
Co-parenting with a narcissist is like trying to juggle knives while standing on a teeter-totter. You're never on solid ground, and you're almost guaranteed to cut yourself.
No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be able to co-parent amicably or effectively with a narcissistic ex. The best thing you can do then is to be honest with yourself.
Accept from the start that your best option will be parallel parenting. Limit your contact with your ex and start building stability for your kids however you can and as soon as you can.
2. Make your parenting plan comprehensive and specific (… and put it in writing!)
Whatever kind of parenting you are (supposedly) going to do with your ex, take the time and spend the money to work out a parenting plan that is as detailed as possible. Try to cover as many contingencies as you can without making yourself crazy.
Although your divorce is likely already more expensive than you thought it would be, it’s worth investing the time and money into paying your lawyer to create the best plan you can.
At the same time, don’t leave everything to your lawyer! Ask others about the kinds of provisions they have in their parenting plans. Finally, prioritize what matters most to you and be sure to fight for that.
3. Put your therapist on retainer.
Narcissists are experts at making you feel like you’re crazy. They will say one thing today and the opposite thing tomorrow. Then they’ll deny they changed their tune.
You need someone you can talk to who will keep you stable and sane! Working with a therapist while you’re divorcing a narcissist can be a lifesaver!
Plus, a good therapist can also give you tips about how to best handle your narcissistic ex as time goes on.
4. Mobilize a strong support group around you.
When your ex is a narcissist, you need just as much support AFTER your divorce as you did DURING your divorce. That’s because the craziness doesn’t end just because the judge declares you divorced. (Sorry!)
Having a solid group of family and friends you can lean on even after your divorce is over will make your life way more manageable.
You might also want to join a divorce support group or a divorce recovery group that you can stay in after your divorce is over.
5. Use a Co-Parenting app for all communication.
Co-parenting apps can be a lifesaver if you’re co-parenting with a difficult spouse. They allow you to put your parenting schedule, expenses and calendar all in a single app. They minimize the drama while maximizing your proof of what’s really going on.
Here’s what I mean. Co-Parenting apps allow you to create messages with your with your ex that can never be changed. That automatically eliminates the “he said/she said” craziness that dominates most high conflict divorces.
The Co-Parenting apps also have shared calendars and scheduling capabilities. They allow you and your spouse to easily see important dates and times for your kids without having to talk about them. What’s more, many Co-Parenting apps will allow lawyers and judges to log in and view what’s been happening between you and your ex. They’re a great way to keep your communication reasonably civilized.
6. If it’s not an emergency, wait 24 hours before responding.
Emails and texts from a narcissistic ex are rarely pleasant. If you’re lucky, they’re kind of vanilla. But most of the time, they make your blood boil! Your ex will rant at you, call you names, and refuse to be reasonable.
Responding to anything when your blood pressure is shooting out the top of your head is a bad idea! That’s when you say (or write!) things you’ll later regret.
So when you get a message from your ex, take a deep breath, have a glass of wine, go to sleep, and respond the next day when your head is clearer and your emotions are under control.
7. Master and use BIFF responses all the time.
“BIFF” responses share four characteristics. They are: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.
When your spouse says or does something that sends you skyrocketing to Pluto, stop! Take a deep breath. Remember Tip #6. Then take some time to craft a short, controlled response that conveys what you need to say in as neutral a way as possible.
BIFF responses are specifically designed NOT to embroil you in a fight. They are short and simple (although they’re not always simple to write!) Writing a BIFF response takes practice and self-control. But once you get the hang of always using BIFF responses, your life will become infinitely calmer.
8. Consider using a parent coordinator.
Parent coordinators are court-appointed professionals who will decide an issue about your kids when you and your ex can’t do that yourselves. Unlike judges, they are generally available in the evenings and on weekends. So they can listen to any disagreement you and your ex have about the kids and then decide what you will do.
Parent coordinators are not judges. But they have decision-making authority that you MUST abide by until you and your ex can get in front of a judge.
Parent coordinators are typically trained mental health professionals or lawyers who represent children. While not every high conflict couple needs a parent coordinator, if you find that you and your ex can’t agree on anything, and it’s getting in the way of parenting your child, using a parent coordinator can be a good option.
9. Document everything, always.
When you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, ASSUME that you will need to prove everything that happens to you in court.
That means you need to put every conversation with your ex in writing. Keep copies of every bill, schedule, receipt, and anything else related to your child. Document everything and don’t stop until your kid turns 18.
While doing this may seem like overkill, it’s really not. Remember – courts operate on proof. If you don’t have hard evidence that something happened, a judge might not believe that it did.
10. Control your emotions.
Your emotional reactions feed your narcissistic ex. The more emotional you get, the more empowered your ex will feel.
If you want to dial down the conflict between you and your ex, you have to start by controlling yourself.
Don’t react to your ex’s criticisms. Don’t argue with him/her. Do your best not to engage emotionally with your ex at all. When you absolutely have to communicate with your ex, remember to use BIFF responses (See Tip #7) and a Co-Parenting App (See Tip #5)
11. Stop listening to your ex.
Narcissists love to use blame and shame. Your narcissistic ex is going to blame you for every bad thing that ever happened to him/her from the beginning of time until the day one of you dies. Listening to all that garbage will only bring you down.
What’s more “listening” can sneak up on you! Even if you and your ex haven’t spoken to each other directly in months or years, listening to what your friends, family or kids SAY your ex said about you can be infuriating! Don’t let it get to you.
You don’t have to buy into what your ex is saying about you. You don’t have to even consider the possibility that it’s true. (It’s not!) Remember: what your ex says about you isn’t really about you at all. It’s about your ex. Everything is.
12. Maintain your boundaries as if they were set in concrete.
A boundary is a dividing line. It does two things: 1) It keeps you in and 2) it keeps your ex out.
In order to protect yourself and your kids from your ex’s craziness, you need to do both of those things! What’s more, you probably will need to draw more boundaries around more things than you ever dreamed you’d need to do! That’s okay. Draw your boundaries and then maintain them like they’re made of steel.
Don’t agree to change the parenting plan unless you have an amazingly good reason. If you do make changes, insist that they be in writing. And remember to be realistic. Just because you may have changed something in your parenting plan in a way that benefitted your ex, that does NOT mean that your ex will do the same for you. (Sorry!)
13. Never admit a mistake to your ex.
Everyone makes mistakes. It’s normal. Being able to admit you made a mistake is a sign of self-awareness and maturity. But admitting that you made a mistake to someone who will only take advantage of that fact makes no sense.
That’s not to say that you should lie to your ex – or to your kids. You shouldn’t.
But there’s a BIG difference between telling the truth when you’re asked a question and spilling your guts to someone who does NOT have your best interest at heart. (Btw, if you are having a weak moment, and you DO admit you made a mistake, please DON’T do it in writing [i.e. text or email]! That’s just creating evidence that can be used against you in court.)
14. Change your expectations to match your reality.
A big part of what causes parents so much pain is wishing that their kids had a better parent than the narcissistic one they’ve got. The truth is, we all want our kids to have a great childhood. But, when your co-parent is a narcissist, that’s not going to happen.
As long as you expect your ex to change, you will be continually disappointed and upset. Human behavior is consistent. Absent years of therapy, or a miraculous epiphany, your ex is probably going to behave the same way after your divorce as s/he behaved during your marriage.
When you start to understand and accept the reality of your situation, you become open to discovering better ways to deal with it. That, in turn, will reduce the conflict and pain that both you and your kids have to go through.
15. Unless it’s dangerous, learn to ignore what goes on at your ex’s house.
NOTE: This one is hard! (Not that the other tips are easy! But this one is really hard!)
As a parent, you can’t help but want to protect your kids. You want to make sure that when they’re with your ex, they’re okay. You want to shield them as much as possible from your ex’s craziness. Unfortunately, you can’t. (Again, sorry!)
You can’t control your ex’s behavior or his/her parenting. Unless your ex is doing something dangerous with (or to!) your kids, there’s probably not much you can do to change it. What you CAN do is learn to let go (as much as you can). Worrying about things you can’t control will only wear you out. Your kids need you to be there, and to be present for them. Learning to let go will help you do that.
16. Never depend on your ex for anything.
Parenting, especially parallel parenting, can be exhausting. When your kids are with you, YOU have to be their everything. You don’t get a break and you don’t get help from your ex. What’s more, on top of parenting your kids when they’re with you, you also need to do damage control when they come back from spending time with your ex.
It also doesn’t seem fair that you’re working double time while your ex is only causing problems. It’s only normal to want your ex to chip in and do his/her fair share. But depending on a narcissistic ex to do anything is asking for trouble.
Your ex will tell you s/he is going to do something, then not do it. As a result, things will fall through the cracks. Your life will be in chaos. On top of that your ex will probably blame you for messing up and make you look like the crazy one! So, do yourself a favor. Learn to be as independent from your ex as possible as fast as possible.
17. Take the high road.
Just because your ex yells at you, badmouths you, talks behind your back, or treats you badly, that doesn’t mean you should do the same. That’s especially true when you’re in front of your kids.
Your kids need at least one sane, stable parent. Like it or not, that’s you.
It doesn’t matter that your ex seems to be getting away with murder while you’re long-suffering. It doesn’t matter that what your ex is doing isn’t fair. Engaging in a game of emotional tit for tat with your ex is guaranteed to trap your kids in the middle.
18. Parent your kids with empathy and respect.
Kids need empathy and respect in order to develop into healthy adults. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to get either one of those things from your ex.
Since you can’t change your ex, the best you can do is fill the void yourself.
Listen to your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them vent to you. Provide them with a safe space. Let them feel and work through their emotions with you. Show them respect and let them be kids. While doing that won’t be easy on you, in the long run it will pay off for them.
19. Support your kids.
Narcissists need people around them who will make them feel wonderful, special, superior and (of course) right! You filled that role with your ex for years. Now you’re gone. You’re no longer meeting your ex’s needs. That means your ex will have to find someone else to do that.
As heartbreaking as it is, that “someone” often ends up being one (or more) of your kids. Once you’re gone, your child starts taking the brunt of your ex’s bad behavior.
Because of that, it’s important to get your kids the support they need. If they’re having troubles, get them a therapist. If it’s available in your area, get them into a divorce support group for children. And most importantly, talk to your kids. Make sure they know they are safe when they talk with you. Encourage them to share their feelings with you openly and honestly.
20. Accept that you will bear the brunt of your kids’ bad behavior.
Conflict is hard on kids. Because of the conflict that divorce can cause, children of divorcing parents – especially parents who are going through a high conflict divorce – suffer.
Usually, once their parents’ divorce is over and life settles back down, kids’ lives improve. But when one parent is a narcissist, the conflict doesn’t end when the divorce does. That can make kids – even good kids – start to act out. Unfortunately, “acting out” in front of a narcissistic parent doesn’t usually work too well. So instead of acting out with your ex, your kids act out with you.
What you need to remember is that your kids aren’t acting out with you because they hate you (although they may say they do). They’re acting out with you because they can. You are the safe parent. They know you love them. Unfortunately, that means that, while you twist yourself into a pretzel trying to make their childhood at least a little bit normal, you will also get to deal with their bad behavior as they grow up. Welcome to parenthood!
21. Teach your kids to trust their instincts.
One of the ways that narcissists take advantage of you is by keeping you off balance. They deny they said or did things that you know they said or did. They make you question your instincts and your sanity. Your narcissistic ex will do the same thing to your kids.
To counteract that, you need to do whatever it takes to empower your kids and help them trust their instincts. How can you do that?
First, validate your kids’ feelings whenever you can. Don’t make them wrong for feeling or talking about anything. Second, teach them coping skills they can use when dealing with their other parent. Third, show them that YOU trust them. Allow them to use their own judgment, even if they make mistakes. Once they see that you trust them it will be easier for them to trust themselves.
BONUS TIP: Take care of yourself.
The only way that you can take care of your kids is to take care of yourself first.
When your kids are with your ex, instead of worrying about what they’re doing (which you can’t change!), spend the time taking care of yourself. Make sure you eat right, exercise and get plenty of sleep. Do what you need to relax and recharge your batteries.
Remember, the stronger and saner you are, the more you will be able to be present for your kids. In the end, that’s really the only way you can survive when you’re co-parenting with a narcissist.
This post was originally published on June 24, 2019 and revised on March 10, 2022.