Divorce is never easy on children. Coping with a narcissistic parent makes a stressful situation even more difficult. Learning to identify the games narcissists play can help parents to minimize the emotional abuse children suffer at the hands of a narcissistic parent.
Emotional abuse of children during and after divorce proceedings is one of the most insidious and common problems we hear about from co-parents who contact us via Co-Parenting101.org.
Emotional abuse is generally more difficult to prove than physical abuse, and family court judges and lawyers who have seen it all know that such charges can be slippery and easily thrown around by divorcing parents, without merit.
To some extent, they expect embattled divorcing parents to make damning but ultimately unfounded accusations against each other in an attempt to emerge as the better parent and “win” in the divorce. (This is why children’s issues have no place in an arena that by definition seeks to identify a “winner” and a “loser.”
But that’s a different rant for a different day.) The result can be that accusations of emotional abuse are minimized, not thoroughly investigated, or dismissed outright.
So when accusations of emotional abuse do have merit, the parent making the charge may face an uphill battle to have his/her concerns about the children’s well-being taken seriously.
Narcissists are amongst those who emotionally abuse children during and after divorce. Narcissism is “the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness.” While Freud argued that “healthy narcissism” is essential to normal human development, high levels of narcissism are manifested pathologically as narcissistic personality disorder. While co-parents shouldn’t invest themselves in trying to diagnose their exes, understanding their personality traits or potential disorders can be useful in learning how to deal with them constructively and in ways that benefit the children.
Here’s an excerpt from an article by Paula Lovgren that addresses how narcissists abuse children during and after divorce:
“Narcissists will use people in whatever way is necessary to get what they want. This worldview also applies to their children…During and after divorce, a narcissist’s emotional abuse of their children may seem more direct or blatant.
Narcissists are masters of lying. They will lie to their children and distort reality the same as they do to everyone else. Often, narcissists will sacrifice their children’s well-being in an attempt to save face. This leaves the children feeling confused and unsure of their own reality and judgment. Narcissists will ask their children to lie for them, keep secrets and to spy on the other parent.
Narcissistic parents do not respect their children’s desires. They may make promises to the children in order to gain compliance from the child, then refuse to honor the promises. Children may miss out on birthday parties, sporting events or other activities important to them in order to accommodate the narcissistic parent’s wishes. The children soon learn that what they want is not important when with the narcissistic parent.”
It may seem excessive or restraining but in the long run…written agreements will often be easier than constantly renegotiating with an unreliable and emotionally abusive former spouse.
Divorce is never easy on children. Coping with a narcissistic parent makes a stressful situation even more difficult. Learning to identify the games narcissists play can help parents to minimize the emotional abuse children suffer at the hands of a narcissistic parent.”
The “Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism:”
These behaviors on the part of a narcissistic parent can wreak havoc on a child emotionally:
1. Shamelessness: Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.
2. Magical thinking: Narcissists see themselves as perfect using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.
3. Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reinflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.
4. Envy: A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.
5. Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Any failure to comply will be considered an attack on their superiority and the perpetrator is considered to be an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.
6. Exploitation: Exploitation can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.
7. Bad Boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist will be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and be expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist, there is no boundary between self and other.
Googling “narcissism and divorce” yields a ton of resources which I believe is a testament to just how draining this particular personality trait or disorder can be in a situation that is already difficult and emotionally charged. The conventional wisdom for dealing with narcissists is: Get away from them. But of course, that’s not possible when you must co-parent. And, according to my experience with the court it is difficult to get a change of child custody when dealing with a narcissistic co-parent.
One co-parent we know told her children: “I’m your mother; I can do anything I want with you and to you” in response to their father’s attempt to intervene on their behalf.
So what’s a concerned co-parent to do? Bill Eddy, founder of The High Conflict Institute and author of Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce shared some advice with us on an episode of “Co-Parenting Matters”, “Dealing With High Conflict in Your Co-Parenting Relationship.” According to Eddy, it’s important to realize that you cannot change a narcissist. And certainly trying to convince the narcissist that he’s a narcissist is pretty much a fool’s errand.
Five Tips For Dealing With a Narcissistic Co-Parent:
1. Don’t swing at every pitch: For example, emails that are just rants, attention-seeking, or expressions of self-aggrandizement should be ignored. Address any issue or problem that relates to your child; attack the problem, not the other parent, even if s/he is on the attack. If you do respond, keep it brief, to the point, and business-like.
2. Maintain firm boundaries: Limit your contact and communication, and maintain boundaries to keep the narcissist from inserting him/herself in your household and in your relationship with your children in inappropriate ways.
3. Accept that you can’t win an argument with a narcissist: Give up any efforts to be “right” in the eyes of the narcissist–even if you are. Focus instead on peace and wellness for your children.
4. Don’t take it personally: The narcissist has a disorder that’s about them, not you.
5. Take care of yourself: Divorcing a narcissist with children in the mix means that for some years you will not be able to completely sever ties with this person. Dealing with them can be exhausting and stressful. Commit to self-care to bring yourself some relief. Your martyrdom will not help your children.
Hotchkiss, Sandy & Masterson, James F. Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (2003)
Bancroft, Lundy. When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. New York: Berkley Books, 2004.
Hotchkiss, Sandy. Why is is Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. New York: Free Press, 2002.
Skerritt, Richard. Surviving the Storm: Strategies and Realities for Divorcing a Narcissist. Kennett Square, PA: Dalkeith Press, 2009.
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