Parenting is already one of the toughest challenges we face in our lifetime. Dealing with the aftermath of divorce and subsequent co-parenting strategies makes it even more challenging. Worst of all, a substantial number of newly single parents are forced to embrace co-parenting in an already unhealthy partnership. Many of them are stuck with an ex-partner who may be struggling with their own mental health issues, thus adding to the chaos. The most common of these issues is narcissism, whether diagnosed or not.
So what is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), how can you tell the signs, and what strategies can help you navigate a problematic co-parenting relationship? Word of advice: if you find yourself in such a situation, please seek further information and assistance as you can be facing an exceptionally stressful time.
While I’m not a certified mental health professional, I have had plenty of experience with my child’s mother. She suffers from NPD and other mental health problems. Thankfully, my tale is a success story, with my son happily and healthily making it through the most challenging years. Still, I will unapologetically share that it was a heavy burden that I would not wish on any other parent.
Before going any further, we should define narcissism and NPD. It’s essential to understand this mental health disorder and not slap the label on anyone without having proper knowledge.
One of several personality disorders, NPD is a condition where someone has an inflated sense of importance. As a result, they have an excessive need for attention and admiration and lack empathy for others. The mask of exuberant confidence hides fragile self-esteem issues that become exacerbated by the slightest of criticisms.
NPD can cause all sorts of problems in many aspects of life. More relevantly, a narcissistic parent can have a damaging impact on their child’s development. Instead of having their needs put first, the adolescent is raised to care for the narcissist. Such toxic relationship leads to long-lasting consequences.
Children raised by narcissistic parents exhibit the following behaviors:
- People pleasing
- Insecurity about their own needs
- Taking on parental responsibilities
- Unhealthy personal relationships
Signs you’re co-parenting with a narcissist
Here are some of the main signs of narcissism:
- Immature and selfish behavior
- Desperate need for others’ approval
- Emotional manipulation
- Lack of empathy
- Sudden mood changes and anger outbursts
- Insecurity and attachment issues
Strategies for co-parenting with a narcissist
At the beginning of my co-parenting journey with a narcissist, our social worker shook my hand and warned me about the upcoming lifelong battle. I was naïve and unaware; only she understood the struggles before me. Attempting to cooperate with someone who has such a dangerous and volatile condition requires hard work, emotional strength, and a truckload of strategies to deal with the chaos storm about to rain down.
Thankfully, if you prepare yourself properly, your child will become a better person because of your efforts. Let’s focus on 5 of the best strategies to employ when co-parenting with a narcissist. These are only brief overviews, so I encourage you to do your homework as you reach each step. Additionally, every person and every relationship is unique; therefore, consider your own requirements throughout the process.
1. Implement a legal parenting plan
An inevitable part of the co-parenting process is the development of a parenting plan. While many co-parenting relationships can thrive without external mediation, it’s highly recommended that you establish a legally documented parenting plan. Hopefully, this process can go smoothly through the utilization of family lawyers and legal mediators. Still, prepare for a reality where the proceedings result in court-finalized decisions.
If things end up in court, understand that providing evidence of narcissistic behavior is complex and nearly impossible to prove without a professional diagnosis. Thankfully, a couple of the other strategies can help, including documenting everything and setting boundaries.
Navigating these mediations can be exhausting but very much worth the trouble. Establishing a legally backed parenting plan prevents the narcissistic parent from deviating. Additionally, both parties will clearly understand their responsibilities, which will protect you in the long run from manipulative behavior.
The biggest winner of a well-defined parenting plan is undoubtedly the child, who requires structure for healthy development.
2. Document everything
The more you have a record of, the better. Unhealthy behaviors have patterns that can be recognized and predicted.
Keep a journal of every interaction with the co-parent and all warning signs between the narcissistic parent and the child. Additionally, any decisions or changes made between the co-parents should be documented by both parties in writing.
Cooperating with narcissists can be difficult, especially if they are forced to compromise on their needs. If the process becomes too much, reconsider how the parenting plan is set up. You may want to establish a parallel parenting strategy that limits the number of interactions co-parents will have with each other. However, these situations require that both parties be unwaveringly reliable for the child.
3. Position an emotional example
Navigating any relationship with a narcissist requires a great deal of tact, all the more so when the stakes are as high as with co-parenting. It’s essential to set an example when it comes to healthy behavior.
Do not allow the narcissist’s negativity and manipulation to erode your calm, patient, and composed energy. It is invaluable to do the homework to develop strong tactics for emotionally defending yourself from narcissistic behavior.
Most importantly, setting an example will lay the groundwork for your child’s healthy behavior towards the narcissistic parent. You define this by treating the other parent with respect and never speaking ill of them.
Remember, to the child, the other parent represents a significant part of themselves, and they will naturally take on responsibility and negative self-esteem.
4. Establish firm boundaries
Thank goodness you are no longer in an emotional relationship with a narcissist! Celebrate that fact, and don’t forget it. As much as the co-parent tries to make you feel responsible for them and their actions, you are not. Savor your freedom, and don’t ever let go.
Establish your independence from the relationship by making the co-parenting partnership strictly business. Dates, times, and accountability are the only things you’re interested in discussing.
The parents’ emotional needs have to take a back seat so the adults can focus on the child. Set these boundaries in writing and ensure that both parties understand them.
5. Expect and prepare for change
If my journey has taught me anything, it’s that change is inevitable. Life is like that, constantly in motion. Just as people begin to get comfortable, it always finds something new to throw at them, and it truly never stops.
Then it starts to pass by as you watch your child grow from infancy to adulthood. The best you can do is prepare and hunker down until the storms blow over so you can make it to those crystal-clear life-is-good moments.
Unfortunately, co-parenting with a narcissist is a lifelong journey. While the roughest times are throughout those first 21 years, it doesn’t end there. And honestly, a lot happens to families over 2 decades.
Brace yourself emotionally for anything. Understand that a narcissist’s behavior can be unpredictable, especially when things don’t go their way (which is most of the time).
You are your child’s champion and advocate now, so good luck! You will never let them down, nor will you allow the other parent’s unhealthy behavior to negatively impact your baby. Defining the lines and borders of the co-parenting partnership is going to take some elbow grease. In the end, your child will benefit from your perseverance and emotional strength, and you will also be healthier for the effort.