Parenting is hard work. Co-parenting can be even more daunting. Co-parenting with someone who has a full-blown personality disorder is extremely challenging. They are often inflexible, defensive, and manage the situation in unhealthy ways, it may feel near impossible at times.

Co-parenting with a Narcissist

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If your parenting partner is narcissist, they may ignore, push, or test your boundaries. Or they might parent with less structure, empathy, or respect than you’d like. They often get angry when you give them feedback or criticism. It can be hard to reach compromises. Their negativity could wear you down.

The challenges of co-parenting with a narcissist

It is very challenging to truly co-parent with someone who is a narcissist and has a limited capacity for empathy. Instead, you need to focus on co-parenting in spite of these narcissistic behaviors, with an emphasis on insulating yourself and your children from the co-parent's manipulation and rage.

Co-parenting alone brings about some unique challenges that take cooperative thinking to overcome. Things like splitting time for custody or holidays can be difficult for even the most agreeable parents.

If you can cooperate, it makes the situation much better for all parties involved, especially the children. But, as you may already know, narcissists may be the opposite of cooperative.

A person who has narcissistic tendencies will always put their needs first. He or she will not put the children first and will attempt to use the children as tools for their agenda.

Since they will not put the needs of your children first, you need to.

People with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have:

• an inflated sense of importance

• an excessive need for attention

• a history of turbulent relationships

• a fundamental lack of empathy for the people around them.

All these things are directly at odds of the traits needed for positive parenting and a good family dynamic.

Your kids need to see one healthy parent. If children have at least one healthy role model in their lives, they will not only survive, they will thrive. You need to show them that although they may not be able to control their unhealthy parent's behavior, they are able to control their own. Don't bad mouth your co-parent to your kids. Although he or she may be doing that about you, show your kids the right way to behave.

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In fact, Melanie Tonia Evans, author of “You Can Thrive After Narcissistic Abuse,” explains that your ex may even try to use your kids against you. Sound familiar? She further explains that along with conflicts, you may experience a number of other challenges while co-parenting with a narcissist, including:

• not agreeing to custody and other arrangements

• not acting nice or agreeable for your child’s sake

• interfering with your child’s routine, appointments, and belongings

You might see a common thread among these challenges — and that’s the narcissist’s need for control.

While this can be frustrating to deal with, unless there is abuse or some other major reason to keep your ex away from your child, it’s generally a good thing to try to find a way to make the situation work with both parents in the child’s life.

And, while you may be tied to this individual through your children for what seems like forever, you can set up some boundaries and find support to make the task a bit less maddening.

How do you make the situation work? Well, there are many ways you can take back the control when it comes to co-parenting.

Tips for co-parenting with a narcissist

Establish a legal parenting plan

Narcissists may want to be in the picture as much as possible. If you strike a legal parenting plan or custody agreement, you’ll have everything in writing. That way, if your ex starts demanding more time or trying to manipulate certain situations, it’s formally enforced by a party outside your relationship.

A plan might include things like who pays for medical costs (or who pays what percentage), visitation schedules for everyday life, and visitation schedules for holidays. Whatever is covered under your custody agreement should be written down and detailed so there are absolutely no grey areas that could be exploited.

Obviously working with a lawyer is an expense, but if you are in South Africa you can approach the Family Advocate or Children’s court, their services are free. 

To find out more about the Family Advocate and where you can find their offices click here!

Establishing a legal plan can help for the duration of your co-parenting years.

Put the plan in writing, sign it, and stick to it.

Expect challenges

If your parenting partner is a narcissist, they probably won’t change. You have to wrap your head around the fact that you’ll have to co-parent with somebody that you just might not like.

Reframing your expectations may also help. If you go into different parenting situations expecting some kickback, you may be less shocked or stressed when issues arise. Alternatively, you may be pleasantly surprised if something goes over relatively easily.

Remember: Co-parenting can be challenging even if parents are generally agreeable. While some situations may be made particularly difficult dealing with a narcissist, some of it is just part of adjusting to the new normal.

Maintain firm boundaries

Narcissists feed on the reactions they get from others — whether good or bad. Setting up boundaries is a way that you can limit your ex’s ability to get you fired up.

For example, you may suggest that you communicate only through text or email. That way, you have some time to react before you respond to requests and other communications coming your way. It also helps you with documentation, which we’ll cover in a minute.

Be clear and specific. Draw the line on what’s OK and what’s not. Don’t let them cross it. Narcissists like control and will do whatever it takes to get it.

These boundaries can extend to your ex’s relationship with your child as well. If your court-ordered agreement allows, consider scheduling specific times when your ex can call to speak with your child during visitations. And stick to your guns. The narcissist may not respond well to having boundaries set at first, but — with time — you’ll find they’re necessary and oh-so helpful.

Narcissists thrive on conflict. They will attempt to bait you as a means of maintaining a relationship with you. If possible, the best thing to do is avoid face-to-face contact. Instead, try to engage in e-mail contact as your primary means of communication, and use phone contact only when necessary. Keep your conversations strictly to the topic of the children and save all your proof of communication. If the conversation turns to other subjects, bring the conversation back to the children. If he or she continues to change the subject, end the conversation as quickly as possible.

Your parenting partner may try to get your attention by over-communicating. They may suddenly tell you about something they need an answer for right away. Try using email only, so you have a chance to take a breath before you respond. And limit communication as much as possible.

Remember that you are not maintaining boundaries to change their behavior. You are maintaining boundaries to keep yourself and your children as healthy and safe as possible.

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Parent with empathy

It may be hard to avoid getting caught up in the dramatics of co-parenting, but try your best to remember your child in all this. Parenting with empathy means putting yourself in your child’s shoes and responding to situations in ways that take their feelings foremost into account.

You can also help your child to recognize their own feelings — whether that’s sadness, frustration, or anger. If they know what they’re feeling, they can better talk about it and work through tough times. And keep in mind that your child is likely not getting this type of positive modelling or understanding from their narcissistic parent, so it’s doubly important.

Avoid emotional arguments

Again, try to keep emotions out of the mix. Your ex is likely to revel in seeing you super anxious or upset. Don’t give them the satisfaction. And when it comes to arguments, avoid using your child as a go-between, negotiator, or to otherwise gather information. Keep things between you and your ex.

If this is especially hard for you to master, try treating your communications with your ex like a job. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you do have to work together. This mindset may help you muscle through rough discussions and keep the conflict to a minimum.

Maintain perspective on conflicts

Even during the worst times, be sure to acknowledge what you’re up against. Underneath that exterior of bold confidence, the narcissist is actually extremely sensitive to criticism and likely has very low self-esteem. Your conflicts are much less about the situations at hand and far more about ego.

Knowing this is half the battle. What’s important is that you stay sane and your child stays safe. Advocate for your child and keep their interests closest to your heart. In the long run, shifting the focus off all the spats and keeping your efforts on what’s truly important will only strengthen your relationship with your kids.

Try not to take personal attacks to heart. Instead, recognize that what they say is more about them than you.

When the narcissist lashes out or makes you angry, try to stay calm. Avoid engaging in insults or blame. Use clear language, words without emotion, strong body language, and voice.

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What to avoid:

Avoid speaking ill of the other parent in front of the kids

Along with this, it’s a good idea to keep conflict with your ex and specific name-calling or other complaints to yourself (or perhaps a trusted friend, family member, or therapist). Ranting just puts your little one in the center of something they didn’t ask to be a part of. It adds stress and the pressure of taking sides.

Don’t argue

Narcissists make it hard to win an argument. They often talk in circles to confuse and overwhelm you. Keep your answers clear and short, without emotion. Don’t explain yourself or give too much information. This is also called the “grey rock method.”

Don’t be afraid of them

They thrive on fear! Narcissists are so easy when you realize what makes them tick. They only want attention and kudos. Stick with your boundaries.

Don’t try to control everything

As long as you do your job, try to let go a bit of what the narcissist is doing in parenting. Do your children come back fed and in one piece? That’s pretty good.

Don’t use your child

Your partner may use your child to get what they want. They might have them spy on you for private information. You may be tempted to do it too, but it’s best not to.

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Try parallel parenting

When all else fails, you may want to consider parallel parenting, which isn’t the same thing as co-parenting. This type of arrangement allows you to stop having contact with your ex as much as possible. In especially toxic situations, parallel parenting allows each parent to parent the way they choose when the child is in their custody.

How does it look? Parents do not attend things like school concerts, sports events, or parent-teacher conferences together. You will also likely choose neutral spots for pick-ups/drop-offs from visitations. Communication only happens when it’s absolutely necessary. While this may sound rather tumultuous for the child, it does take quarrelling between parents out of the equation, which can be beneficial.

Even better, perhaps with enough distancing, you and your ex might be able to eventually build better communication and cooperation.

How to Protect Kids

It may be hard to protect kids from a co-parent’s personality issues when you’re not there to see what’s happening. Focus on what you can control.

Talk to your child.

Help them understand their other parent’s behavior. Make it age-appropriate. Teach them that their parent’s behavior is about that parent, not them.

Watch what you say.

Try not to say negative things about your parenting partner. It can turn your child against you and they might feel obligated to pick sides. Be aware of non-verbal communication, talking to friends and family within earshot, and comparing your child to your narcissist.

Watch for signs of abuse.

Look for anything that crosses the line into physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Be a healthy parent.

You can’t choose how your partner parents your child, but you can offset it with healthy parenting. Be a good role model. Coach your child through rough patches. The antidote to your partner’s narcissism is acceptance, warmth, realistic appraisal, and consistency.

Kids only need one high-functioning parent in order to grow into a thriving adult.

Co-parenting with a narcissist may feel like the most impossible thing ever.

Tweak your approach in ways that allow you to take more control of what you can. Don’t feed into your ex’s incessant need to rile you up. Reach out to your support system for help and don’t hesitate to contact the support services that are in place through the courts and your local community.

Above all else, keep the line of communication open with your child — and keep breathing.

You can do this.

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