Impossible. Infuriating. Insensitive.
These are just a few (acceptable) words parents sharing custody with a narcissist use.
Ex-spouses of a narcissist thought the marriage was tough, only to find the separation or divorce was even worse.
While the newly single childless people can run for the hills, parents are left to figure out custody and co-parenting with another adult whose behavior is more like a child in many ways.
Take a deep breath, and let's look at the clear signs that you are co-parenting with a narcissist and help you do what's best for you and the children.
- Understanding a Narcissist
- 11 Signs You Are Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
- How to Co-Parent with a Narcissist
- How Do Narcissists Treat Their Children?
Understanding a Narcissist
There is no “I” in the word team, but there are three in the word “narcissistic.”
Therein lies the fundamental challenge of dealing with a narcissistic co-parent.
A narcissist has a jaded, elevated, untouchable sense of entitlement and self-esteem.
They believe they are above the rules.
Most importantly, they will do whatever it takes to make themselves look better, even at the expense of the people closest to them.
- Trash Talk: They will speak poorly about a co-parent, even (and especially), in front of the children. This builds up their superior sense of self.
- Self-Centered: They are only concerned with their own wants and needs, they won't be able to prioritize things like fairness, balance, and equality.
- No Boundaries: Whether you agree by handshake or through a court-issued plan, a self-absorbed co-parent will break through boundaries in every effort to keep full control.
- Masters of Masks: There's a good chance most people haven't seen the monster behind the mask. This is because of the manipulative nature of a narcissist. They can feign emotions and charm others to make you look bad (or crazy).
11 Signs You Are Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
Being married to a narcissist isn't the same as parenting with a narcissist, especially when there's a general belief that all parents have unconditional love for their children.
You might have overlooked some of the warning signs as their partner, but you're more protective of the same behavior toward your children.
1. The Time Warp
Not only do narcissists march to the beat of their own demanding drum, but they also work on their own time schedule.
To show how much control they have, they will habitually pick the kids up earlier or drop them off later than agreed.
If you make a big deal about it, they'll use the traditional gaslighting with statements like “Calm Down. The kids wanted to stay longer.”
They might disrespect your time with the children by texting or calling them often, especially if you are doing a family activity. Few things excite a narcissist, like ruining someone else's good time.
2. The Investigator
Narcissists can turn into rogue CIA agents trying to probe the children for information about you, your new partner, or your family routine.
They might cyber-stalk you and the kids to get more information and leave passive-aggressive messages or DMs.
Another secret agent activity is spying on your time with the kids, like “happening” to show up at the theme park the day of your trip or sitting across the street from the restaurant you're at for a birthday party.
Then they'll try to pick a fight about the smallest things, hoping you'll get emotional or enraged.
3. The Cool Parent
Since narcissists need to be on a pedestal, even to their own children, they will let some things slide at their house that you wouldn't allow at yours.
From ice cream for breakfast to horror movies the night before they return home to you, they want to be the “seen” parent.
Your teenager likely won't Instagram the gluten-free meal you made from scratch, but they will post the “just looking” trip to the BMW dealership with dad.
Not only does being a cool parent make them look and feel better, it makes you look like Broom-Hilda.
4. The Drama Never Stops
A self-centered co-parent can start a fight over just about anything. They'll maximize a child's illness to help them look like a better parent or twist the words of a child to accuse you of neglect or abuse.
The attempt to get you riled up is simply to showcase how much control they still have over you.
The bonus is that when you get mad about the never-ending drama, the children see YOU as the cold and calculated one.
They wonder why you are always starting a fight with the other parent, and then they offer more sympathy to the drama inducer.
5. The Gossip King/Queen
Even normal questions like, “How was your day,” and “Did you have fun with your dad at the concert?” can be a ruse to gather more information they can use against you.
Heck, you might not even know about the gossip until it goes around the social circle at PTA.
The egotistical will seem oddly concerned with the weight you've gained and question other parents about how to make sure their kids don't fall into bad nutrition habits.
They might even turn the reports of a date into you having wild sex while the children were two rooms down.
6. The Emotionless Void
This goes beyond one parent being overly protective. Since a person with this type of disorder cannot feel emotions for anyone else, they have little interest in the school nurse calling to say a child is sick.
If the self-serving parent has more important plans the night of the child's school play, they'll blow it off.
This ends up putting you in a bad position to nurture the child without trash-talking the other parent or enabling their poor behavior. It can also re-traumatize you since you've been that victim of careless and hurtful acts.
7. The Jekyll and Hyde
At a certain point, you become used to the narcissist being one person in private and another in public. The monster side could be angry, violent, obtuse, or indifferent.
Yet, at the parent-teacher conference, you see that doting parent who talks about homework help and private tutor (that you never agreed on) and appear very invested in the child's life.
As a partner, it took you a while to figure out you were really involved with a toxic personality – and you were a grown adult! The children have a harder time processing what's happening when mommy or daddy always gives different vibes.
8. The Children Change
In an unfortunate circle of life, these selfish individuals became how they are because of needs that were or weren't met during childhood. They created a false bravado to protect themselves, either knowingly or subconsciously.
They also could have been created by overly doting and rewarding parents who believed their child could do no wrong.
Now you might notice a child developing a sense of recklessness and entitlement. You could see another child withdraw or become a people pleaser to avoid the anxiety a narcissistic co-parenting arrangement stirs.
9. The Reigning Champion
Every co-parenting situation has a time when two parents don't agree. That's normal. Heck, it's normal for married couples.
The twist of the knife with a self-absorbed person is that they are never wrong. You know this because you lived this. You just didn't think they would do it to your children.
Keep in mind that facts don't matter to a narcissist. They will do or say anything to prove they are right, even if it's a little white lie or outright aggressive, submission-inducing behavior.
Woe is the child who doesn't take the narcissistic parent's side in a disagreement.
10. The Neglecter
The toxic parent will generally ensure a child stays alive, gets fed, and takes a bath, but they don't really have concerns about the child being nurtured or happy.
Every second of time with a narcissist is meant to build up their self-esteem, and that can mean children are met with whiplash-inducing emotions.
Children of narcissists can grow up having no idea what they really want out of life, education, or even dinner. The parent with this disorder controls all that and dismisses any input that goes against their glorious grain.
This can lead to mental and physical impacts on children who internalize the confusion.
11. The Conditions of Love
Parents with unconditional love make decisions based on what is best for the child. A self-centered co-parent will make decisions based on what is right for them.
They will show or withhold love based on how much a child falls in line with that decision.
If a narcissistic parent wants their child to play soccer, they will shower the child with praise for every point scored.
Should the child decide to try basketball, the conniving co-parent could begin to withhold affection and gifts as a punishment for going off the planned path.
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How to Co-Parent with a Narcissist
We can't give you eight magical ways to make narcissism disappear, and you don't want to deprive your children of the other parent in their lives.
Before you tear your hair out, take note of some best practices when dealing with a toxic person during parallel parenting.
1. Be Precise
You must reign this in from the very start to draw the boundaries of co-parenting. Refrain from falling for the requests to handle this outside of court.
Get all the restrictions, timelines, boundaries, and goals in a written document, ideally from a family court or through an attorney.
Even if you know this parent will violate those boundaries, you'll have legal recourse and potentially a custody change down the road if you document every step of expectations and the dates and times when the other parent didn't follow the plan.
2. Be Succinct
One of the trademarks of dealing with a narcissist is to go as much “No Contact” as possible.
If you do have to speak to them or send texts, use as few words as possible. Stick to objective, fact-based information, and don't be baited into an argument.
If you get any harassing, threatening, or defamatory communication in writing, save it through screenshots or email folders to have a paper trail. Know that they are likely doing the same thing. Choose your (few) words wisely.
3. Be Calm
Narcissists get and keep control by knowing how to push your buttons. You are likely more empathetic and emotional than the average person, as empaths are habitually attracted to narcissists initially.
Narcissists don't want you to love or hate them; they just want to know they can upset you. That control makes you appear like a puppet in their charade of life.
Note your body language, tone, and facial expressions, and keep them as neutral as possible.
4. Be the Bigger Person
You can't fight fire with fire because a narcissist's fire is more relentless and toxic. If your co-parent is badmouthing you to your children, don't return fire.
When you must provide an answer, use fact-based compassion to explain why the information they were given isn't accurate.
Children stuck between battling parents can make them feel like they have to choose a side. You can't control your ex's behavior, but you can control your reaction.
5. Be Loving without Overcompensating
If you know your child's needs are being neglected at the narcissist's home, don't overcompensate at your own home.
Overwhelming a child with love or presents will only make them more torn. You cannot make up for the love or attention another parent does or doesn't give.
You do want the child to know that they are in a loving, open, welcoming home when they are with you, no matter what the environment is at the co-parent's home.
6. Be Focused on You
Victims of narcissistic abuse recognize it so much more when it's happening to someone else, and parents are especially protective of their children being victimized.
Avoid temptations to look at your former partner's social media pages or quiz your children about personal items.
You already know your former partner is a self-centered person. You don't need any more evidence. The only thing you should focus on is you and your children. Treat the ex like the empty shell of a human he or she really is.
7. Be Parallel Parents
Most separated parents refer to any parenting as co-parenting, but parallel parenting with a narcissist is the best option. Parallel parenting means limited contact with objective messages only in writing.
Co-parents might plan joint birthday parties for a child. Parallel parents will agree in writing about the dates and times of separate parties.
Co-parents will share feelings, celebrate victories, and collaborate on accountability. Parallel parents will have no contact that involves any emotions or feelings.
8. Be Aware It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
Narcissists aren't going to change. By this point, you know all the lies, tactics, and manipulation that person will try to get their pole position back.
You will deal with this other person's horrible habits for the lie of your child, leaving you with an ongoing attempt to be the no-contact, straight-to-the-point, unreactive parent.
You'll likely want to involve counseling for yourself, but also include your children. While they are resilient, kids need a safe space to speak to someone that involves a neutral third party.
How Do Narcissists Treat Their Children?
This is going to be heartbreaking for a loving parent to hear. Narcissists treat every human, even their offspring, as psychological warfare tools. Since this type of disorder lacks human empathy, they cannot express it to anyone.
A narcissist treats a child as a trophy. Even actions and words that appear to be love are really based on conditions and transactions that continue to foster the person's superior view.
A child who adores them will be showered with the perception of love. A child who pushes back against nonsensical behavior or bad-mouthing the other parent will be met with melancholy or ire.
The gut-wrenching part is that children aren't aware that this type of person is parenting them. The kids internalize every action or lack of emotion and lose self-esteem, independence, and hope.
They feel like they've done something wrong. The more the child falls into a mental health spiral, the more the narcissist will gain control. The child never gets to experience life as a healthy child and doesn't possess a sense of self to thrive as an adult.
If for this reason only, that's why it's imperative for the stable and competent parent to stick to the best practices and provide a safe, loving home focused on self-esteem and emotional stability.
Parallel parenting with a narcissist is truly the healthiest way to move forward, but you're faced with an impossible task.
Allow yourself grace and space to practice your calm, confident behavior as often as necessary. You are the best hope the child has to prosper into adulthood.