Do you suspect you may be co-parenting with a narcissist? If you’re wondering what you should do if you co-parent with a narcissist, specialists outline the telltale indicators of potentially stressful situations and how to navigate them best.
Co-parenting consists of two separated or divorced parents caring for their children jointly. This parenting arrangement can be tough for various reasons, including organizing schedules and coping with negative emotions. But if your ex-partner is a narcissist, a situation that may already feel like an uphill battle can become even more difficult.
Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and owner of Renewed Relationships Counseling Group in the Bay Area, Stephanie Macadaan, explains, “A narcissistic parent/former partner tends to prioritize their own needs over those of others, which most often manifests as boundary-pushing or agreement-breaking.” Due to a lack of empathy and a propensity to push back with criticism, rage, or defensiveness, dealing with narcissists is frequently challenging.
Here is how Macadaan and other experts think you can determine whether you’re co-parenting with a narcissist and advice for managing potentially uncomfortable situations.
How to Recognize a Narcissist Parental Partner
If you are in the middle of a breakup or taking a new approach to parenting, your partner may exhibit self-centered or other questionable actions. Macadaan contends, however, that certain characteristics may be indicative of narcissism.
Macadaan and Michele Nealon, Psy.D., president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, offer the following indications that you may be co-parenting with a narcissist:
- People have difficulty adhering to agreements.
- They reject flexibility.
- They will place the children in the middle of your conflicts.
- If they desire something, they will manipulate others.
- Due to envy, someone may attempt to sabotage the wonderful things you encounter through criticism or punitive actions.
- They only exhibit love and devotion as a conditional reward rather than naturally.
- Also, they may be inflexible in thought and behavior in order to exert control over their children or partners.
- They will punish family members for disobedience or for opposing their power.
- They will boast inordinately.
- They have emotions of superiority over others.
- They lack compassion.
Of course, these characteristics are not always indicative of narcissism; for instance, it is not uncommon for parents going through a divorce to put their children in the heart of their conflicts. Like with any activity, the level of narcissism can vary, notes Macadaan. Certain individuals may fit the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnostic criteria.
Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a certified clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles, notes, “We all have narcissistic personality traits that contribute to our self-esteem and self-worth.” “The difference with NPD is that the individual has a persistent way of feeling wounded, offended, and victimized, and cannot tolerate your accomplishment when compared to their own.”
“They do this to such an extreme that they are constantly upset and unable to maintain relationships that require giving and receiving. They are deserving and have no shame about it,” Raymond says.
In Wilton, Connecticut, certified clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and anxiety expert Niro Feliciano notes, “People with NPD lack true empathy, which is a defining diagnostic characteristic. They are unable to have strong feelings for anyone or anything other than themselves. Their personal self-image and well-being are of the biggest significance and fundamental to how they navigate life.”
These behaviors may be the result of childhood trauma. Dr. Raymond states, “They may have been emotionally abused and made to feel guilty for having any needs.”
And individuals with NPD frequently assign blame to others; they are never at fault. Feliciano notes, “They frequently lack functioning, healthy relationships and are unable to maintain them, yet they quickly make new acquaintances since they are often charming — the life of the party — and others are drawn to their confidence.” “They are either hot or chilly. To them, you are either all terrible or all nice.”
A licensed psychologist is required to evaluate the distinction between narcissistic tendencies and NPD.
It should also be noted that NPD does not occur naturally. Jann Blackstone, Psy.D., a trained divorce and stepfamily mediator and co-author of Coparenting Through Divorce or Separation, explains, “It doesn’t only happen because you have a child with them.” Your ex may have adopted this tendency as a coping technique or as a result of their past experiences.
Characteristics of Children of Narcissists
Experiencing a parent’s narcissistic behavior may potentially have long-term consequences for children. According to Macadaan, the following are common characteristics of children raised by narcissistic parents:
- To become a “people-pleaser.”
- Feeling guilty about their desires and needs.
- Being the narcissist’s “parent” by taking on their obligations.
- Having a low sense of self-worth because a jealous parent minimized their accomplishments.
- Feeling anxiety or despair as a result of managing challenging parent-child relationships.
- They end up in relationships with narcissistic spouses since it is what they are accustomed to.
Dr. Nealon notes, however, that children are resilient and very individual. We cannot assume that every child raised by a narcissist would develop these characteristics.
Dr. Nealon argues that children thrive emotionally when their parents are concerned with their emotional well-being and development rather than their personal needs. “And given what we know about a narcissist’s propensity to become emotionally explosive, children living with narcissistic parents are at a higher risk for physical abuse,” she adds.
How to Deal with a Co-Parent Who Is a Narcissist
Given how unpleasant and harmful narcissistic behaviors may be and their potential ripple consequences, it is only natural to desire to take a proactive stance. Macadaan adds that addressing these features with a person who has a narcissistic personality disorder is often futile since they generally refuse to see themselves as problematic.
“Accepting the circumstance rather than attempting to alter the narcissistic co-parent is the key to avoiding energy waste and setting yourself up for disappointment,” she explains.
Feliciano agrees, adding, “Narcissists will perceive everything as negative and critical and will not accept responsibility for their actions. Regarding criticism, they are incapable of seeing another viewpoint.”
She suggests that you may only need to understand these habits for what they are and strengthen yourself to deal with them. “This involves being able to maintain your boundaries, having court orders in place to offer structure, avoiding drama or placing the children in the middle, and receiving the emotional assistance you need to deal with the complex dynamics,” adds Macadaan.
Feliciano suggests addressing your child when a behavior is not their fault or when they have made an honest error.
Macadaan explains that having a reliable support system is also crucial so that you do not feel alone and have a space to process your emotions. She writes, “Counseling for you and your children is often useful in maintaining boundaries and avoiding getting drawn into the chaos that narcissists frequently want to create.” Self-care is crucial for maintaining your health, stability, and concentration.
Why You May Want to Switch From Co-Parenting To Parallel Parenting
Dr. Blackstone adds that if you are actually dealing with a co-parent with NPD, you may need to “parent in parallel.” “This necessitates the creation of a parenting plan that minimizes interaction between parents while allowing them to spend sufficient time with their children,” she explains.
“The parents divide responsibilities, such as coordinating school drop-offs and pick-ups, so they do not have to interact and rotating attendance at their children’s extracurricular activities. They may utilize a co-parenting app with messaging and a calendar that logs conversations and allows them to alert each other of their schedules without consultation.”
According to Dr. Blackstone, it is possible to move forward by accepting that a co-parent with NPD cannot change and that you cannot “fix” them, checking your vulnerability (which can be perceived as a weakness and sets you up to be taken advantage of), setting and sticking to boundaries, and avoiding arguments.