The Mighty Logo

What It's Like Co-Parenting With a Narcissist

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Trying to co-parent with someone who has narcissistically abused you can feel like being partnered with a high school bully for the rest of your life, while perpetually trying to get an A+ on a class project while they’re happy just to pass the class itself.

Sharing a child with a parent who is narcissistic may feel a lot like hugging a beautiful cactus. Right from the start it’s an uphill battle because there’s so much work to be done re-framing and restructuring the order of your life and your child’s life. Without a foundation of teamwork to build trust upon, easy compromises which would normally benefit the child, are going to be much harder to come by.

Navigating the initial years of independence from a person who is narcissistic is like walking through a field of land mines. You never know which step will explode underneath you, but you know you won’t be walking too deeply in there before figuring it out. It takes an enormous amount of patience for oneself, and for the other parent, to come around to finding a way of communicating as clearly, concisely and completely as possible in order to keep confrontation and conflict to a minimum.

It’s important to remember that a child will grow up knowing which parent they feel safe with and which one they don’t, or which parent makes them feel uncomfortable or not. Nothing you can teach your child can shape how the other parent makes them feel.

How a child feels about a parent who is narcissistic is all determined by your child’s direct experiences with them and so for better or worse, you’re only able to do damage control.

When they’re older, sure you can finally tell them all the “behind the scenes” events that happened when they were a child but until then, it’s up to you, safe parent, to find a way to center your focus on what the experiences your child will have.

The likelihood that the parent who is narcissistic will stop being a jerk is very low, so it’s best to remember from the start that their nature is to go anti-you on everything. Be prepared to pick your battles wisely because as you’ve learned by now, sometimes it’s the best option to move on than to win.

Be honest with your child. Now, there’s a difference between being honest about something in a safe way and over-sharing which lays a burden upon your child. While a person who is narcissistic may say something like, “We broke up because he/she yelled at me all the time and never helped me,” a more attuned parent could rephrase it in a more approachable way. One good response could be, “I didn’t feel safe back then, but I know I’m safe now,” or something along those lines. Make your responses vague enough to protect them, but specific enough to be true and honest.

While it’s uncomfortable, you’re likely going to have to communicate with that person fairly regularly. Set your boundaries. Don’t engage with the person when they’re being hostile. Actually, trying to keep all the engagements to a minimum can help discourage the narcissism.

When in doubt about what to do, ask yourself, “What would be best for the child?” Remember to ask the question, “How does this behavior or conversation help my child?”

If the answer is, it doesn’t, stop that communication. If the answer is that it does, persist. If it becomes a conflict, reassess the issue at hand. If you really can’t do anything about it without their consent, you won’t be able to. Sadly sometimes, you’re not going to be able to do what you think is right because the other parent won’t agree. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you know your child could miss out but keep in mind, it’s not your fault.

You can only do so much alone. Not all the conflicts you have with the parent who is narcissistic will end with a resolution. Sometimes the answer will be no answer at all, and sometimes it will be paragraphs and paragraphs of angry accusatory disagreeing statements totally irrelevant to the original topic.

Each person is different in the way they will respond to different ways of communication so this is not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Teaching your child the tools they can use when they’re with the parent who is narcissistic or how to overcome an episode of narcissistic abuse can be priceless gifts for them. Even very young children can participate in therapy and so another way to help your child, and yourself, is to enroll them in a therapy program. Not only will this help establish a third-party mandated reporter relationship for safety but by letting your child unpack emotional confusion to an uninvolved person, you’re helping them adjust to the differences in parenting and households the child is likely experiencing.

While the battle is indeed uphill, co-parenting with a person who is narcissistic isn’t impossible and children do grow up in spite of even the worst parents.

(Melissa Moore, the daughter of infamous serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, grew up to write a book, produce a podcast and has created a support network for other children and families of serial killers, for example.)

Being the safe parent for a child is like being a boat-dock. You are what your child is secured to (they’re the boat) while they’re riding out the relentless waves and tides of unpredictable waters (the parent who is narcissistic. While they float up-and-down with the tides and while waves batter them, you’re there. Holding onto them. You’ll master the grip. It will be tight enough so they don’t float away, but loose enough so they don’t drown when the tides get high.

Learning and changing with your child and their maturity level will be an ongoing process. Some days they’ll need you more than others and they’ll probably have big, confusing feelings about all of it.  The absolute best way to help them and to survive co-parenting with a person who is narcissistic is to keep engaged with your child and yourself. Everyone needs to be able to let themselves relax and enjoy loving and being loved. Your life with your children is for you to live now, with your own choices.

As always, all we can ever do is our best.

Photo credit: AlexLinch/Getty Images

Originally published: August 13, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home