As a guardian ad litem and therapist, I have worked with many families suffering at the hands of a narcissistic parent.
Narcissism is defined as an individual who shows an excessive need for admiration; a false sense of entitlement and uniqueness; a marked lack of empathy; arrogant behavior; often exaggerates abilities, talents, or achievements; the belief that they are superior and can only associate with equally special people.
Despite this exaggerated sense of self is a fragile ego that is dependent on external validation. Those individuals who are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) live in a fragmented world in which the authentic self is difficult and painful to access. Frequently at the core is the existence of trauma and a deeply held sense of shame.
Divorces involving a narcissistic parent are notoriously high-conflict regarding parenting time and custody, and its opposite in which the parent “ghosts” the children, leaving the emotional scars of abandonment for years to come.
The narcissist will stop at nothing to “win” the favor of the children, the court, court-appointed therapists, and others. Since the narcissistic parent lacks empathy, they are unable to see the profound damage being caused by their behavior as they are motivated by self-interest.
Parents who lack empathy frequently engage in harmful behaviors such as disparaging the other parent and sharing inappropriate information in an effort to gain ground over the other parent.
This psychological manipulation devalues a child’s self-worth as their needs are invisible to the narcissist. Rendering joint parenting arrangements nearly impossible, the narcissist will look to highlight the other parent’s perceived inadequacies and short-comings in an ongoing costly court procedure that exacerbates the turmoil of the children.
Family courts tend to be limited in their ability and capacity to adequately address and assess personality disorders. With regard to co-parenting post-divorce, families are left to continue the struggle long after court involvement has ended.
10 Signs of Narcissistic Parenting in High-Conflict Divorce:
1) A narcissistic parent often speaks about themselves as the victim in the family situation and cannot get past their own sense of victimization.
A narcissistic parent will go out of their way to speak negatively about the other parent to anyone who will listen. Often this is shared with the children inappropriately.
2) Rapidly shift from idealizing the child(ren) to devaluing them depending on whether or not their own ego needs are being met.
3) Narcissistic parents may be overly indulgent in an effort to gain favor. (i.e. creating a fun-house atmosphere with limited rules), may be neglectful, or show extreme rigidity when it comes to routines.
4) They may hide their lack of empathy in personal relationships by being highly visible in the community in order to gain favor, making it difficult for outsiders to know what may be happening.
5) They may resort to bullying and other forms of psychological abuse in order to maintain expectations.
They often engage in manipulation and verbal abuse in the form of put-downs, sarcasm, overt-criticism, or neglect during parenting time. Expectations may be unrealistic.
6) They sabotage the efforts of the other parent to cooperate on joint decisions pertaining to medical care; academic needs; social and emotional development; financial issues; and, extracurricular activities, even if it negatively impacts the children.
7) They exhibit an inability to empathize with their child(ren); denial of uniqueness of the child, particularly if it threatens their own fragile self-concept.
8) They suffer from extreme moodiness, anger, and rage when children do not conform to expectations. Children may feel that they are walking on eggshells in the presence of the narcissistic parent.
9) They’re jealous of their children’s accomplishments. They may show unloving and irrational behaviors in an effort to distort or diminish the child’s accomplishments, while simultaneously bragging to others about them.
10) The parent-child relationship lacks depth and is focused on achievement, garnering outside validation; and being viewed as superior to others.
What Should You Do If Your Narcissistic Ex is Negatively Impacting Your Children:
Children of narcissistic parents struggle with issues of self-worth – never quite feeling good enough.
Others may struggle with co-dependency, poor boundaries, trauma related anxiety and helplessness, as well as interpersonal difficulty stemming from an insecure attachment with a primary caregiver.
It is crucial that the parent who is attempting to co-parent in this scenario receives professional help and learns to engage in a parallel parenting strategy that limits unnecessary communication and interaction with the narcissist.
Learning to be less emotionally reactive, responding in a manner that reduces conflict and limits an existing destructive dynamic is critical to successful outcomes for children.
The nurturing parent’s primary task in this unhealthy shared parenting arrangement becomes both maintaining one’s psychological energy to continue to be empathic and nurturing toward the children while providing appropriate outlets for emotional expression.
Helping validate children’s experience by providing a safe space to ask questions that allow children to formulate their own conclusions regarding the behaviors of the narcissistic parent will be crucial in helping them develop healthy adult relationships later in life and have fewer negative mental-health outcomes.