The Challenges of Raising Children with a Narcissistic Co-Parent
I have been immersed in preparing for a master class on Co-Parenting with a Narcissist with Dr. Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. In the course of putting together the curriculum I have heard from parents around the world, sharing stories about the extraordinary difficulties inherent in raising a child with a narcissist.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance. Lacking in empathy, they do not acknowledge the needs or feelings of those around them. Remorse or apologies are absent because the narcissist believes he/she can do no wrong; problems are always the fault of others.
There are countless challenges faced by those who are parenting with these types of individuals — married, or after divorce. The narcissistic parent may become enraged if they feel “controlled” in any way. Mundane tasks like picking up snacks for basketball practice or changing a dirty diaper are beneath them. They may drink and drive, believing their driving ability to be so exceptional that they needn’t comply with safety practices, even when children are in the car.
Their need to be the center of attention can make it difficult to respond appropriately to the emotional needs of their children. A little girl shares her excitement over the part she got in the school play and the self-absorbed father makes a demeaning comment, reminding her that he was the star of every school play when he was young.
It can be heartbreaking to watch our children struggling to make sense of their parent’s humiliation, sarcasm, or cruelty, or to see them being lavished with affection solely if they do something that makes that parent look good to others.
Begging, lecturing, and pleading are of no use because this individual is repelled by weakness. Pointing out the detrimental effects of shaming behavior on children can intensify their anger. Asking someone who has no capacity for empathy to behave empathetically will only make things worse.
Below are some of the criteria listed in the DSM 5 for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
When a narcissistic individual wants something he/she can be thoroughly charming. Courtship can be intensely romantic; the narcissist knows how to behave to get what he/she wants. These individuals often have active social lives and may be quite successful in their career. They learn the rules of the game and know how to play well. Even therapists have a difficult recognizing a patient with narcissistic personality disorder.
If you are co-parenting with a narcissist, recognize that you will not — cannot — change the other person. Instead, focus on maintaining a safe and loving relationship with your children so you can lessen the impact of their other parent’s confusing or hurtful behavior.
“It looked like it hurt when Daddy said that being a tree in your school play was nothing compared to him starring in his school productions. Sometimes there are parts of daddy that forget about your feelings. Are you okay?”
In addition, it can be helpful to set up non-negotiable structures and routines. And although it may be difficult, many parents who are raising children with someone who has NPD often find flattery makes things easier. “The kids love it when you’re in the stands for their soccer games; they light up when they see you cheering them on.”
Many people describe their former husband or wife as a narcissist. However being difficult or self-centered does not warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder which results from profound wounding in their early years. As Behary says, “They’re often taught that even having needs for support, love, praise, guidance, discipline, and limits are weaknesses, things to be ashamed of…They’re walled off against their own human needs.”
Beneath the layers of grandiosity and self-importance lies tremendous insecurity, but defenses are nearly impenetrable. If you believe you are co-parenting partner with a true narcissist, learn more, and find support.
For more support, you may want to participate in our online master class on Co-Parenting With a Narcissist. Visit this page for details.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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Susan Stiffelman Family therapist, Author, Parenting With Presence, Parenting Without Power Struggles
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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 11, 2016.