Co-Parenting with a Narcissist: The Do’s and Don’ts

How to co-parent with a narcissist

Congrats are in order, you’ve managed to divorce a narcissist (or maybe you were lucky enough not to marry them in the first place). Not an easy feat!

But co-parenting with a narcissist is just as tormenting, if not more so.

Narcissists dwell in anger and live for vengeance. They must be the winner, the best, and take great pleasure in tormenting you…still. Years could pass, but a narcissist can be unrelenting.

They view themselves as special, entitled, and above others…everyone else is simply inferior. They manipulate reality (lie and cheat), then justify it to themselves and others to make their wretchedness seem necessary and okay.

Until your children become adults, your narcissist co-parent will be in your life, and in the lives of your children. It’s like a nightmare you can’t wake up from.

While you can’t change your ex or make them aware of their problem (haven’t you learned this already!?), there are things you can do to set boundaries, protect yourself, and protect your children.

Should you try to prove to the court that your co-parent has a personality disorder like narcissism?

This is a REALLY tough one to answer. When the abuse is not physical, a personality disorder like NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) is a hard thing to prove.

A narcissist isn’t willingly going to seek therapy for self-improvement (they’re perfect, the problem is everyone else), so there likely won’t be an official, clinical diagnosis.

Do, however, keep a sharp attorney – one with experience in dealing with toxic individuals – on speed dial.

The problem with proving narcissistic personality disorder in court is the time, expense, and difficulty of actually proving it. 

The effort will be exhausting and expensive and, in the end, could prove futile. The family court system simply isn’t set up to deal with the sh*t-storm associated with narcissism or other personality disorders, for that matter.

Highly-skilled NPD charmers easily dupe the courts, as they do most people. A judge may not see that your NPD co-parent is simply using the court to torture and control you through the kids.

I’ve known a few brave souls to attempt to prove to a judge that their ex is indeed a raging narcissist. None could. In fact, one brave woman tried for over four years – court dates, mandated evaluations, even lobbying the government – but nothing came of it.

How do they get away with it?

Your narcissistic co-parent will use their talent for manipulation and deception to concoct the perfect parent persona- only interested in the best interest of the kids…all the while you know it’s a load of hooey.

But what the court CAN do is order both parents into co-parenting counseling, which may or may not help (probably the latter). In most cases, your ex won’t even show up for a single session. If they do, expect that they will devalue the therapist, petition the court for a different one, and then just stop coming altogether. What they want is a therapist who they can manipulate for their own agenda.

A judge could also order both parents to take part in a psychological evaluation. They will usually recommend a special test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). If your ex doesn’t find some way to outsmart it (they could), it would reveal a lot to the court.

Once the judge knows that, in fact, your ex indeed suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, they can make far better decisions regarding the best interests of your children. Just don’t get your hopes up.

A judge could also place your child on the witness stand. When answering questions in front of the NPD parent, you know there is a power play going on right in front of you. But most people can’t see how the very presence of an NPD can be so conniving, powerful, and threatening to a child.

It’s hard to see how scared the child is, and how they are totally under the NPD parent’s control. With one look, the child is ‘told’ what to say – agreeing with and validating everything the NPD’s side says.

Until family law has a better way to recognize and deal with narcissistic parents, you’ll likely be forced to share parenting time 50/50.

Narcissists as Parents

The most unfortunate part of all is that being raised by a narcissistic parent is tough on children.  Really tough.

A narcissistic parent is a system gone wrong. Instead of a parent putting the needs of the children before their own, the child is groomed to take care of the needs of the narcissist parent. This creates a toxic bond that can have long-term consequences. Dr. Judy, one of the foremost narcissist abuse recovery experts, discusses this on her radio show here.

Narcissistic parents often view their children as an extension of themselves and try to control or manipulate them into being who they want them to be.

The level of manipulation, brainwashing, demoralizing, and self-esteem destruction that a narcissistic parent inflicts upon a child is sadistic.

Dr. Judy has a great program to help overcome the effects of narcissistic abuse. More on that below.

How do you know your kid won’t turn into a narcissist like their other parent?

How Do know Your Kid Wont Turn Into a Narcissist

The exact cause of narcissistic personality disorder is unknown, but most professionals believe that there is a combination of biological and genetic factors at play.

Narcissism affects males more than females and tends to start developing during the late teens or early twenties.

And while it’s very common for children and teenagers to display signs of narcissism, most outgrow this over time and don’t progress into full-blown narcissists.

Every time my toddler had a meltdown (much resembling those of his adult NPD father) I would panic.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he too was a budding narcissist with borderline tendencies.

It’s a tough thing not to question, and there’s no way to know for sure.  However, many people have been raised with only one good parent and turned out just fine.

And for the record, my toddler has grown into a sweet, caring, empathetic, sincere child who can deliver a genuine apology when he knows he’s in the wrong or breaks the rules.

What personality disorders are found in children of narcissistic parents?

As I said, don’t panic! Not all children of narcissists become narcissists themselves, especially if they have one stable, emotionally healthy parent. But some children are susceptible, depending on the level of abuse and how the narcissist parent treats your child.

Different types of narcissists (can) produce different types of children

Different types of narcissists can Produce Different

The High-Functioning, Achievement-Obsessed NPD Parent

This type of NPD parent is driven to succeed (at least outwardly) at all costs. He/she is usually a CEO and expects his/her children to become CEO.
Everyone in their family must look the part and be THE BEST. They need Trophy Kids!

They insist their children conform to what they want for the child, with little regard for what the child wants for themselves in life.

They insist that their offspring be ‘better than’ and admired by others; Outward appearance and image are everything.

The children are praised and loved ONLY when they toe the line.

With this type, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The children tend to become high-functioning narcissists themselves or could rebel eventually.

The ‘I am God, I must be worshiped by all’ NPD Parent

This type of NPD parent demands admiration, from everyone, especially from their offspring. It’s the NPD’s world and everyone else in the household is allowed to live in it, as long they know who is king (or queen).

When the child dares to offer an opinion that differs or disobeys an order, they will be devalued. Conversely, when they are good little worshipers, they get rewarded with love, gifts, and attention.

Children raised by this type tend to have lower self-esteem, as they are never allowed to feel special or celebrated for being themselves.

They may doubt their self-worth and stay in that role. Or they may become determined to achieve greatness in order to prove something to their parent, but still, can always feel an underlying sense of ‘not quite good enough.’

The Covert NPD Parent

The Covert NPD Parent

The covert NPD is more under the radar, especially is their public persona. But at home, they can divide and conquer. They’ll choose a favorite, a golden child, then devalue the rest of the siblings who aren’t as outwarded talented and vivacious.

They see the golden child as their pride and joy and shower them with praise; They are never criticized. The NPD views this ‘chosen one’ as an extension of themselves.

This child can go on to become confident and successful. Or, one day they may realize that they are not the best at everything, and other people may be just as talented, or more so. They will feel confused and angry when the world doesn’t bow at their feet the way they are accustomed to.

Then there are the ‘others.’ The other siblings who don’t measure up to the golden child can grow up feeling ignored, and not important.

Overt, Devaluing NPD Parent

This parent’s message to their children is that they are not good enough and that they will never be good enough. They blame their own bad behavior or disappointments on the children. If only that child were smarter, better, more this, more that, less this, less that – then things would be good.

These children will internalize this message and self-esteem could always remain slightly out of reach.

Neglectful NPD Parent

This is where things get very scary. Since this NPD is only looking out for numero uno (themselves), they may neglect the children completely.

At best, they leave their kids in the care of nannies or other functioning adults. At worst, all-out neglect.

At an early age, these children realize they are on their own in this world, and they must take care of themselves, and any younger siblings.

They learn that the parent is basically useless and cannot be relied on. These children literally take life into their own hands. They can become resilient, resourceful and strongly independent.

When they become adults, they realize that their childhood made them mistrustful and it can be hard for them to get close to people. The ones who had to take care of younger siblings too usually never want children of their own.

Malignant NPD Parent

Malignant NPD Parent

These parents are extremely toxic and dangerous to children. They treat their kids as slaves and punching bags, as tools who have zero feelings. The children are there to serve them. This type of NPD can be physically abusive.

If you suspect even a morsel of physical abuse, GET HELP IMMEDIATELY. Talk to your lawyer about getting the children removed asap.

Engage other resources to help as well.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out CORA (Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse). CORA is a wonderful organization that offers support, legal services, and counseling. They even offer crisis intervention and emergency housing.

Therapy, Therapy, Therapy

Your kids will need it. Heck, don’t you? Living with any type of narcissist can be damaging to one’s sense of self. Imagine being (partly) raised by one.

A good therapist can help mitigate the horrid impact that a narcissistic parent has on the emotional health of your children.

Get them to go once a week if possible, for as long as they need…which may be well into adulthood. Think of therapy as damage-control – the sooner you start, the better.

If time, money, or finding the right therapist for your child is an issue, consider online therapy sites like BetterHelp.

Prices start at $45 per week for weekly live sessions and unlimited messaging. Choose from thousands of licensed therapists and connect whenever and wherever (by phone, video or chat). Plus, it’s way easier to convince your kid to talk to a therapist remotely vs. an in-person session.

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Money: They still want to make you pay. Literally.

They Still Want to Make You Pay

Your ex NPD will still want to control everything financially. They feel entitled to your money too. If you were a stay-at-home parent, chances are they don’t see it as ‘your’ money anyways. (Don’t try to explain the concept of community property to a narcissist. Trust me, I’ve tried!)

Even if you make a tiny fraction of what your ex makes, they’ll insist you pay 50% of everything. My ex once sent me a bill for a pair of socks and a hair bow.

Expect them to sign the kids up for club sports and fancy camps and insist you pay half.  They’ll know you really can’t afford it, though they easily can.

They will be persistent; they don’t tire easily in their constant campaigning against you.

My ex loves to sow those rumor seeds. Spreading lies about me gives him joy.

They will present themselves as innocent victims of their evil ex (yes, you). They are brilliant when it comes to manipulating situations/people and twisting the facts to fit their confabulated narrative.

Narcissists will have a nonstop and well-rehearsed litany of complaints about you to spew to anyone within earshot, all the while making themselves appear to be the perfect parent.

They will tell people that the divorce was all your fault. Poor little them – abandoned and discarded for no reason at all.  And people will believe them, for they are awfully good at what they do.

They will trash you as a parent to other parents around town.  And if you’ve moved on with someone else, they will trash your new partner, too.

Mine told parents in my son’s class what an awful parent I was. Some believed him, making it so they refused to let their kids have playdates with my son at our house. Whenever we invited a kid over, the parent would get visibly uncomfortable and then not-so-slyly suggest the playdate be held at their place instead.

They will trash you to your own children

I’ve learned to live with the gossip and side-eyes.  But even more damaging (abusive actually) is that a narcissistic co-parent will speak badly about you to your own kids.

They do this as a way to ‘win’ love by trying to ‘steal’ love away from you. Insane thinking, I know.  Do they not know love is limitless? They believe that by making you look bad, they look better. And an NPD always has to be “better than” at all times.

NPDs will continue to do what they do best: triangulate, trash talk, and control. Only now that the focus is off of you, it needs redirection. Every good narcissist needs a target, and it could be your kids.

While his tactics didn’t work on my son, they did on my daughter. A narcissist acts like a  general – and every general needs loyal soldiers. When he’s angry with me, she must be too. When he calls for a cease-fire (usually because he wants something from me), only then can she be at ease.  He reinforces that the divorce was all my fault time and time again – keeping me the enemy.

Not only am I the enemy, everyone in my household is too: my husband, her half-brother, even our cat.

She and I were very close, but the well has been poisoned by his malicious tactics, and now she barely acknowledges me. It eats away at me. My son, a seemingly older soul, is more resilient to his smack-talking. Some kids are.

My son is more aware that his fathers’ actions are not okay. He’ll say things like, “Dad really didn’t have to scream at you about XYZ, he could have just asked nicely.” Out of the mouths of babes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Whereas when my daughter witnesses his angry outbursts towards me, she’ll respond with, “well, you deserved that Mom.”

Parental Alienation

This is one of the most heart-breaking things that can happen to a family. The loss of the loving parent-child relationship you once knew gone, all because your ex had to ‘win’.

The loss of laughter, hugs, genuine bonding and conversation feels like the surgical removal of your heart (performed without any anesthesia while you’re wide awake). The loss of precious time with your child is time you can never get back.

Much like with NPD in the hands of the family court system, parental alienation is also a hard thing to recognize and prove. Even though it is generally accepted that victims of a narcissist can develop an array of mental health issues, depression, and anxiety, the courts don’t really recognize parental alienation as a real thing, sadly.

I’m holding onto my daughter by a thread. Some days I see warmth and openness, and other days she just repeats a laundry list of complaints relayed to her by her father: “You should get a better paying job” or ‘You need to buy me XYZ because that’s what child support is for.”

9 Steps You Can Take to Co-Parent with a Narcissist

While you can’t control the way your ex NPD interacts with your children, you can control how you interact with your ex. Here are some important tactics:

1. Keep your distance and avoid conflict.

Avoid your narcissist ex whenever possible and ignore their cruel remarks. Narcissists like making noise, tune it out.

Do NOT let them rope you into a hostile conversation about the divorce, or the past, or even the present, it’s a recipe for disaster.

And NEVER engage with them while they are having one of their typical, epic, explosive, rage-fests. You can’t reason with crazy so don’t try (you should know this by now though).

If you find your ex trying to engage you into conflict, don’t take their bait. Stop all communication immediately.  Just take a deep breath and walk away/hang up/stop texting. Also, this is probably an obvious one, but don’t put yourself in a situation where you are alone with them, duh.

Co-parenting with an NPD can be like banging your head against a wall. Much like when you were married. There’s a haunting saying; “When you’re divorced, with children, you’re never really divorced.”

2. Keep communication simple, short, and business-like.

Stick to brief, basic, to the point, interactions (text or email is best). Keep the sole focus of your conversations on the well-being of the kids, and nothing more.

Always keep good documentation too; There is even app for this – it timestamps and verbiage can’t be altered after the fact! When your NPD ex drags you back to court (expected) you’ll have definitive records to work with.

3. Work out a detailed, finely-tuned schedule.

Spell out the specific days when the children are with each parent, including holiday and vacation specifics as well, even if seems petty and unnecessary.

Settling this up from the start saves you from future conflicts and makes for less communication with your ex over logistics.

4. Choose Your Battles.

My narcissistic ex is conniving and angry, and co-parents with a vengeance. He goes low every chance he gets, even for the pettiest of things.

Take the time he ripped me a new one because I rescheduled – not missed – my son’s karate class due to a scheduling conflict, on my parenting time, due to a scheduling conflict. He may be nannied up, but I can only be in one place at one time.

He’s like a lurking paparazzi hungry for even the measliest scrap, anything he can spin to use against me.

One morning, I showed up to volunteer in my kid’s class only to find he wasn’t there. The teacher informed me that he was pulled from school earlier because ‘Dad took us to the museum.’  Did I make a peep? No.

Or when I found out that my 5-year old son got on a plane, by himself, without my knowledge or permission? Again, no peep out of me.

The list goes on and on.

Why do I let him slide? Because I have to pick my battles. And besides, it’s usually a battle that cannot be won – at least not without emotional collateral.

Next time your ex does something vial that you know they would tear you to pieces for if things were reversed, just ask yourself: Is this battle REALLY worth it.? You only get a small handful.

5. Rise Above

Narcissistic qualities (i.e. lack of respect, constant critiquing, blaming, and trash-talking) are in direct contradiction to the skills required to maintain a solid co-parenting relationship. So since co-parenting in the traditional sense is sadly not an option, think of it as ‘parallel parenting’ instead.

As a healthy parent, you MUST rise above and put your children’s feelings above all the BS that comes with co-parenting with a narcissist.

Maintain your Zen – stay cool, calm, and collected. Be the reason why your children have some peace in their lives.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You don’t have to go it alone. If you’re struggling with recovering from narcissistic abuse, there are resources that can help. One of the best I’ve found is Dr. Judy’s Be the Cause Mind Map System.

6. Be the best parent YOU can be – and don’t expect anything from your ex.

But how do you instill goodness when the NPD constantly models the opposite!?  All you can do is be their role model and be their rock. It’s a long game.

Be the example of how to handle challenges in a constructive, rational, not overly emotional manner. Model that it’s ok to be upset or frustrated without flying off the handle or screaming in someone’s face.

Your children must see that there are better ways to solve problems and express opinions. And that it is ok for others to have an opinion that differs from their own; That a difference of opinion doesn’t warrant a verbal attack or otherwise.

7. Live by example.

Show them what normal, healthy actions and reactions look like, especially when faced with difficulty.

Model humility.  Your children won’t learn about empathy, compassion, and forgiveness from their other parent. Show them what a genuine apology looks like (they’ll certainly never see that from their narcissist parent).

Exemplify emotional intelligence and doing the right thing. Always take the high road –when they go low, you go high.

Absolutely no smack-talking about your ex to the kids, even though they hear it consistently from their other parent. Badmouthing their other parent feels to them like you are talking badly about them. For they see themselves as a part of each parent. Kids have a natural want to love both their mother and father.

8. Be the better person.

It’s a hard burden to bear and a tough pill to swallow sometimes. My daughter may never come around, or maybe she’ll come around once she has children of her own. All I can I do is exemplify goodness and love… as I wait…and wait…and wait.

9. And remember: Only you can control you.

You do you; There ain’t a dang thing you can do to change your ex’s parenting skills–or life skills in general. Why even worry about what is or isn’t going on over there (unless there is imminent danger or abuse, then act yesterday).

Show your kids stability. Stay focused on your main goal of putting your children’s best interests first and foremost. Break the wheel!

And most importantly, love them no matter who they are, or who they want to be, without condition. They’ll appreciate you for it, if not today then one day!

A narcissist will forever attempt to strip you of your confidence in yourself and in your parenting decisions. Do not let them.

Stay strong survivors of narcissistic exes!

BONUS: Learn how to negotiate with a narcissist.

The only thing worse than divorcing a narcissist is co-parenting with one. At least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with a divorce! You’re stuck co-parenting with your narcissist ex for years to come.

Remember, the narcissist’s game is all about manipulating you. That’s what drives their fragile little egos.

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