Think you might be co-parenting with a narcissist? Experts share the telltale signs and describe how to best navigate stressful moments that might arise.
Co-parenting involves two separated or divorced parents taking care of their children together. It can be challenging for a bevy of reasons, from coordinating schedules to managing difficult emotions. But when your former partner also happens to be a narcissist, a situation that might already feel like an uphill battle can become even worse.
“A narcissistic parent/former partner tends to prioritize their needs above all others, which most often shows up as pushing boundaries or breaking agreements,” says Stephanie Macadaan, a Bay Area-based licensed marriage and family therapist and creator of The Happy Couple Plan. “Dealing with a narcissist is often difficult due to a lack of empathy and a tendency for them to push back with criticism, anger, or defensiveness.”
Here’s how Macadaan and other experts say you can tell if you’re co-parenting with a narcissist, plus tips for navigating stressful moments that can arise.
How to Tell You’re Co-Parenting With a Narcissist
If you’re in the midst of a split—or if you’re attempting to approach parenting in a new way—you might notice self-centered or other eyebrow-raising behaviors from your partner. But certain traits specifically indicate narcissism, says Macadaan.
- They struggle to stick to agreements.
- They refuse to be flexible.
- They’ll put the kids in the middle of disagreements between the two of you.
- They’ll use manipulation when they want something.
- Due to envy, they may try to spoil good things you experience with criticism or punishing behaviors.
- They offer love and affection only as a conditional reward rather than as a natural expression.
- They may also be rigid in their thoughts and demeanor to control their children or partners.
- They’ll punish loved ones for their lack of obedience or for challenging their authority.
- They’ll boast excessively.
- They demonstrate feelings of personal superiority.
- They lack empathy.
As with any behavior, narcissism can vary in degree of severity, points out Macadaan. Your former partner might have narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
“We all have narcissistic aspects to our personality that help build self-esteem and self-worth,” explains Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles. “The difference with NPD is that the person has a persistent way of constantly feeling wounded, wronged, and victimized and can’t tolerate your success when set alongside theirs. They do this to such an extent that they are always upset and can’t sustain relationships that require them to give and take. They are entitled and feel no shame in it.”
Niro Feliciano, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and anxiety specialist in Wilton, Connecticut, adds, “One defining diagnostic quality is that people with NPD are devoid of genuine empathy. They can not feel much for anyone or anything other than themselves. Their own self-image and well-being is of utmost importance to them and central to the way in which they navigate life.”
These behaviors stem from childhood wounds. “They may have been emotionally abused and made to feel bad for having any needs,” says Raymond.
And people with NPD always externalize blame; they are never at fault. “They do not have functional, healthy relationships and can’t maintain them, yet they can easily find new friends because they often are charismatic—the life of the party and people are attracted to their confidence,” explains Feliciano. “And they are hot or cold. You are either all bad or all good to them.”
Distinguishing the difference between narcissistic traits and NPD requires evaluation by a licensed psychologist.
It also bears noting that NPD doesn’t occur spontaneously. “It doesn’t just happen after you have a child with them,” says Jann Blackstone, PsyD, a certified divorce and stepfamily mediator and co-author of Coparenting through Divorce or Separation. “Your ex may have developed this behavior as a coping mechanism or response to what has happened to them in the past.”
Traits of Children of Narcissistic Parents
Being subjected to a parent’s narcissistic behaviors might also have long-term effects on kids. Here are a few common traits, according to Macadaan:
- Becoming a “people pleaser”
- Feeling guilty about their own needs/wants
- Becoming a “parent” to the narcissist by taking on responsibilities for them
- A lack of self-worth due to an envious parent downplaying their successes
- Anxiety or depression due to managing difficult interpersonal dynamics with their parent
- Ending up in relationships with narcissistic partners because it’s what feels familiar to them
“Remember, though, children are resilient and highly individual,” points out Dr. Nealon. “We cannot assume that all children who have grown up with a narcissist parent will develop such traits.”
But kids thrive emotionally when they have parents who are focused on their emotional well-being and growth—not on their own needs to the exclusion of the child’s, explains Dr. Nealon. “And given what we understand about a narcissist’s risk to become emotional volatile, children living with narcissistic parents are at greater risk for physical abuse, making it essential to address narcissistic behaviors early and seriously,” she notes. 8 Best Co-Parenting Apps to Download After Divorce
How to Cope With a Narcissist Co-Parent
Given how frustrating and hurtful narcissistic behaviors can be—not to mention the potential downstream effects—it’s natural to want to take a proactive approach. But addressing these traits with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder is often pointless, as they generally refuse to view themselves as problematic, explains Macadaan. “Accepting the situation versus trying to change the narcissistic co-parent is key to avoiding wasting your energy and setting yourself up for disappointment,” she says.
Feliciano agrees, adding, “Narcissists will view everything as negative and critical and will not take ownership for their own behavior. They can’t see another perspective when it comes to criticism.”
Instead, you might simply need to recognize these behaviors for what they are and shore yourself up to deal with them, she says. “This means being able to hold your boundaries, have court orders in place to provide a structure, not falling into drama or putting the kids in the middle, and getting the support you need to emotionally handle the challenging dynamics,” says Macadaan.
Feliciano recommends telling your child when a behavior is not their fault or an honest mistake is made.
Having a support system of trusted people is also important so that you don’t feel alone and have a place to process your feelings, explains Macadaan. “Counseling for you and your children is often helpful in holding boundaries and not being pulled into the chaos narcissists often try to create,” she concludes. “Self care is of the utmost importance to keep you healthy, grounded, and focused.”
Why You Might Need to Trade Co-Parenting for Parallel Parenting
If you’re truly dealing with a co-parent who has NPD, you may have to “parallel parent,” explains Dr. Blackstone. “This means you develop a parenting plan that minimizes contact between parents while allowing both to spend adequate time with their children,” she notes. “The parents split responsibilities, like arranging drop-off and pick-ups at school so they do not have to interact and alternating attendance at the children’s extracurricular activities. They may use a co-parenting app that includes messaging and a calendar that records communication and allows them to notify each other of their schedules without discussion.”
The bottom line, according to Dr. Blackstone: By accepting that a co-parent who has NPD can’t change and you can’t “fix” them, checking your vulnerability (which can be perceived as weakness and sets you up for being taken advantage of), setting and sticking to boundaries, and avoiding arguments, it’s possible to find a way forward.