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Co Parenting with a Narcissist


Does your ex spouse actually have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and does it matter?

Even if your co parenting relationship is relatively functional, you’ve probably had this thought at least once: “My ex is such a narcissist.”

What you may not be aware of is that calling your ex husband or wife a narcissist can actually mean two very different things. First, we have the very serious clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Second, we have a constellation of what we might call “narcissistic tendencies” which are still aggravating, but much more subjective.

In order to be diagnosed with clinical Narcissism, a patient must display at least five of the following nine characteristics:

Dad with son

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

  4. Requires excessive admiration.

  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).

  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.

Meanwhile, a little-n narcissistic might only display three or four of these qualities. That is not to downplay the damage that a little-n narcissist parent can inflict on a child.

Narcissists (whether or not they rise to the level of NPD) engage in a special kind of toxic relationship. Their severe insecurity leads them to engage in a wide range of emotional abuse designed to manipulate people into easing their anxieties. 

From the perspective of your narcissistic ex spouse, these are useful strategies straight out of the narcissist’s playbook. From the perspective of the non narcissistic parent, these tactics are sometimes called narcissistic abuse.

One characteristic abusive behavior is the need to constantly refill their narcissistic supply by extracting admiration and validation from the people around them. Anyone who has ever had a narcissistic partner knows how exhausting this can be, having to constantly stave off adult temper tantrums by rewarding bad behavior with unearned praise.

Toddler walking along the beach

This can be especially devastating for the mental health of your child, because they are not even old enough to be equipped to care for themself, let alone moderate the moods of a volatile adult.

You don’t need a clinical diagnosis to know that you want to protect your child from your narcissistic co parent at all costs. Usually, the first step is divorce.

Unsurprisingly, narcissistic traits can also affect the attorney client relationship and ultimately show up in family court. Unfortunately, when you divorce a narcissist, it is almost always an extremely high conflict divorce.

Now that that divorce is hopefully behind you, your child will need help and guidance in order to cope with having a narcissistic parent, and you’ll need to develop some strategies of your own in order to diffuse what will inevitably be a high conflict parenting situation.

You can’t control a narcissist’s behavior, but there are certain things you can do for your own self-preservation and the wellbeing of your child. A parent with NPD might be more difficult than a little-n narcissistic parent, but the absence of a diagnosis doesn’t change our advice.

Tips for Co Parenting with a Narcissist

Person writing a co parenting plan

  • Come up with a parenting plan.

Developing a comprehensive parenting plan is terrific advice for all divorced parents, but it is especially integral when working with a narcissist co parent.

A parenting plan can be as simple as a child custody agreement, or it can get deep into the weeds about the rules and values with which you want to raise your child, which family law doesn’t really address. If you can convince your narcissist ex to put a parenting plan in writing, then they might demonstrate greater accountability than they would have otherwise.

The hardest part is getting your narcissistic ex on board with developing  a parenting plan in the first place. The best time to do this is during the divorce process, when you already have professionals helping you address some of the issues that might go into your plan.

However, if your divorce led to only a bare-bones parenting agreement, it’s never too late. You can still hire a parenting coordinator to help you develop a move comprehensive plan, or if you can’t afford it, something as simple as a co parenting app can help facilitate productive communication between you and your ex.

After all, you might have even gotten divorced online, so co parenting online should be a breeze!

  • Set firm co parenting boundaries.

After your divorce is final and your plan is in place, you’re left with the task of enforcing the structure that you and your ex agreed upon. Needless to say, this is much more difficult if your ex is a narcissist.

Narcissistic behavior can really rear its ugly head when the narcissist feels judged or chastised, so you have a somewhat limited toolbox. The simplest thing you can do is rely on strong positive reinforcement when your ex acts in accordance with the plan, even if it’s difficult. 

Remember, the narcissist is addicted to validation, so knowing that cooperating with you is a reliable way to get it can be strong motivation. Meanwhile, make sure to document every time they slip up.

When positive reinforcement fails, you might have to resort to legal intervention. If you’re traumatized by an ugly divorce, you know that this is a last resort. The key is not to use this as a threat before you’re really ready to do it, because narcissists tend to act out when they feel threatened.

Judicial intervention after your divorce can be a total game changer, though. Now that your ex has a documented track record of flouting your parenting plan, a judge might see your ex’s parenting so egregious as to warrant revising the terms of your divorce.

In most cases, it’s considered to be in the best interest of the child to maintain a relationship with both parents (hence most divorces resulting in shared custody). However, if a narcissistic parent is infringing upon the parental privileges of the other parent, a court might be willing to resort to extreme measures to protect the child from the unfettered influence of the narcissist.

  • Consider parallel parenting.

If you haven’t heard of parallel parenting, it’s a strategy in which co parents limit direct contact with each other in order to protect themselves and their children from unnecessary conflict.

The way that most co parents accomplish this is by developing then adhering to a parenting plan upon which they agree. Of course, narcissistic parents can sometimes resist agreeing to their ex’s terms, so there is also the option of simply dividing up “spheres of influence” that you and your parallel parent are responsible for.

Once you decide who is making which decisions, you can keep each other apprised of your child’s emotions and behaviors through a shared parallel parenting notebook. When difficult conversations aren’t held contemporaneously, both parties are more likely to keep their cool, which is essential to the wellbeing of your child.

  • Consider counter parenting (where appropriate).

You knew that you couldn’t alter your ex’s behavior entirely, but maybe you’ve tried all of the above and things are only getting worse. That’s when counter parenting comes in.

Counter parenting is when you actively attempt to undo the damage done to your child by their narcissistic parent. 

Having a narcissistic parent usually results in very low self esteem and high levels of anxiety. Counter parenting can be as simple as being attentive to your child’s unique needs, or it may require the help of a mental health professional. Either way, it begins with a commitment to kindness and love.

Counter parenting can also be useful in combating parental alienation, which is when a narcissistic parent strategically fosters a child’s rejection of the other parent. If you put your best effort into making your child feel loved, validated, and protected, your relationship with them will finally begin to heal.

When to Pursue Full Custody

Mother and son

  • If Your Co Parent is Denying You Time with Your Child

If you have a custody agreement in place, it is your ex’s legal obligation to follow it. If they ignore it with impunity and keep you away from your child, it is well within your rights to take them back to court in an effort to eliminate their portion of custody entirely.

  • If Your Child is Afraid of Your Co Parent

If your child is begging you not to drop them off at your ex’s house, it’s at the very least a sign that you need to investigate what is going on there. If you have reason to believe that your child is actually in physical or psychological danger, then it is your job as a parent to protect them to the best of your ability, which includes pursuing full custody.

  • If Your Co Parent is Violent

If you know for a fact that your ex has a history of violence, that alone can be a sufficient reason to pursue full custody. You should note that the past violence need not have been toward your child to warrant this response. Any history is evidence that your co parent is incapable of controlling their anger, and you need to protect your child from their rage before something irreversible happens.