Co-parenting with a narcissist is qualitatively different than co-parenting with any other person on the planet. It’s terrifying, infuriating, and humiliating … and that’s on a good day!
The worst part is that once you’ve had children with a narcissist, you’re going to have to parent with a narcissist. You simply have no choice. (… unless you want to just abandon your kids, which isn’t much of a choice at all!)
The best thing you can do for yourself and your kids, then, is to learn how to deal with your narcissistic ex in the healthiest, and most productive way possible.
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.
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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. Trying to make even the smallest parenting decision with a narcissist can be a HUGE deal.
Unfortunately, effective co-parenting REQUIRES parents to get along with each other. Co-parents don’t have to be best friends. They don’t have to agree with each other on everything. But they DO have to 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 to reduce parental conflict.
Instead of interacting with each other regularly, parallel parents interact with each other as little as possible. All of their communication is in writing, usually via email or a parenting app.
Instead of making most decisions for their children jointly, each parent makes “kid decisions” when the kids are with that parent. They limit the decisions they have to make together as much as possible. In the most highly conflictual situations, they 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.
In parallel parenting, each parent raises their kids independently of each 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 (theoretically) stay out of each other’s business.
One important thing to know about parallel parenting is that it’s NOT a legal concept. It’s a parenting style.
You create a parallel parenting relationship by laying out parenting rules that allow it to happen. Then you follow those rules and limit your contact with your ex.
While parallel parenting may sound perfect for anyone who dreads dealing with their ex, it has a lot of drawbacks. The main one is that it is extremely rigid.
The Downside of Parallel Parenting
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 two challenges:
- Negotiating a parenting plan that will dictate what you will do in every possible situation from now until the time your kids turn 18 is impossible; and
- Negotiating ANYTHING with a narcissist is worse than having a double root canal without anesthetic.
Yet. without an extremely detailed written parenting plan, your parallel parenting will end up in chaos.
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. You and your kids will have no stability and no consistency.
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 what they want when they want. 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.
Here are 21 more tips that can help you parent in (a tiny bit more) peace.
21 Tips for Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
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. So, don’t even try. 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 as soon as you can.
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.
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. Plus, a good therapist can give you tips about how to best handle your narcissistic ex as time goes on.
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 going through 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 will make co-parenting with your narcissistic ex at least bearable.
Use a parenting app for all communication.
Co-parenting apps give you the ability to create email conversations with your ex that can never be changed. They have shared calendars and scheduling capabilities. By using those, you don’t need to talk to your ex. S/he can easily see important dates and times just by looking at the app. 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.
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. 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.
Master and use BIFF responses all the time.
“BIFF” communications are those that are: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. They are short, simple and specifically designed NOT to embroil you in a fight. They also work extremely well when you’re trying to communicate with a narcissist. While it takes a little while to get the hang of always using BIFF communications, once you do, your life will become infinitely calmer.
Consider using a parent coordinator.
Parent coordinators are like private decision makers. They 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 to mediate your battles can be a good option.
Document everything, always.
When you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, ASSUME that you will need to prove everything that happens in your parenting life. Put every conversation with your ex in writing. (If it’s not in writing, you can’t prove it happened.) 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.
Control your emotions.
Your emotional reactions feed your narcissistic ex. They are like oxygen to drowning sailor. 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.
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 happened from the beginning of time until the day one of you dies. No matter what anyone says, your ex WILL bad mouth you to anyone who will listen – including your kids. While that definitely sucks, that doesn’t mean any of it is true! Remember: what your ex says about you isn’t really about you at all. It’s about your ex. Everything is.
Maintain your boundaries as if they were set in concrete.
A boundary is a dividing line that does two things: It keeps you in and your ex out. In order to protect yourself and your kids from your ex’s craziness, you need to do both of those things. You don’t have the luxury of being flexible. You need to maintain boundaries 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. Even if your ex walked all over you while you were married, you don’t need to let him/her keep doing it to you now. Stand your ground. Set an example for your kids.
Never admit a mistake to your ex.
The ability to admit a mistake is a sign of wisdom and maturity. Unfortunately, if you admit you made a mistake to your ex s/he can and will use it against you. So do yourself a favor. Don’t ever tell your ex you were wrong.
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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 act like a model parent, you will be continually disappointed and upset. You will also change nothing. When you expect the worst, not only will you be prepared for it, but you will also stop being so hurt when your ex acts differently than you want.
Unless it’s dangerous, learn to ignore what goes on at your ex’s house.
This one is 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. (Sorry!) You can’t control your ex’s behavior or his/her parenting. Unless your ex is doing something dangerous with or to the kids, for your own sanity, you’ve got to let him/her do what s/he wants when the kids are with him/her. In truth, you can’t do anything else. Let go.
Never depend on your ex for anything.
Learn to be as independent as possible as fast as possible. A narcissist will use anything s/he can to control you, including your kids, money, friends, and family. The less you depend on your narcissistic ex for ANYTHING, the less control s/he will have over you.
Take the high road.
Just because your ex badmouths you, doesn’t mean you should do the same. Don’t badmouth your ex. Don’t argue with your ex in front of the kids. Your kids need at least one sane, stable parent. Like it or not, that’s you. Engaging in a game of emotional tit for tat with your ex is guaranteed to trap your kids in the middle.
Parent your kids with empathy and respect.
Those are two things kids need to develop into healthy adults. They are also two things your kids will never get from your ex. Since you can’t change your ex, the best you can do is fill the void. Listen to your kids. Let them vent to you. Provide them with a safe space. Let them feel and work through their emotions. Show them respect and let them be kids. Don’t burden them with your problems, or put them in the middle between you and your ex. (That’s why you have a therapist!)
Support your kids.
Narcissists need people around them who will make them feel wonderful, special, superior and (of course) right! You filled that role for years for your ex. 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. Usually, that “someone” is one (or more) of your kids. Make sure your kids know they can talk openly and honestly to you. Get them a therapist if they’re having troubles. Love them as listen to them.
Accept that you will bear the brunt of your kids’ bad behavior.
No one behaves perfectly all the time – especially when they’re dealing with a parent who isn’t meeting their emotional needs. When your kids act out, they’re much more likely to do it in front of you. That’s because you are the safe parent. Your kids can make mistakes and not feel like you won’t love them because of them. They can’t do that with your ex. Unfortunately, that means that, while you twist yourself into a pretzel trying to make their childhood at least a little bit okay, you will also get to deal with their bad behavior as they grow up. Welcome to parenthood!
Teach your kids to trust their own 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. (Sorry!) To counteract that, validate your kids’ feelings whenever you can. Teach them to trust themselves, to trust their instincts. Give them the tools they need to deal with the parent they (unfortunately) have.
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.
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