Co-Parenting with any parent on the other side can be challenging, even when both parents are completely “normal” but just disagree. But when one parent has emotional issues or personality disorders, the challenges are far greater, especially when the other is a narcissist parent who is self-centered and lacks empathy.
At Graham.Law, we often hear how the other parent is a “narcissist.” And while some high-functioning or successful people may exhibit some of the traits associated with narcissism, most of the time this is one parent’s opinion, and there has never been a formal clinical diagnosis.
Narcissism is more than just thinking that you’re the smartest guy in the room and the world revolves around you. It is formally known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and has an official entry in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, from the American Psychiatric Association – basically the “Bible” for mental health professionals).
What is a Narcissist Parent?
I am not a doctor or a therapist, so cannot say medically what a narcissist is; this post is based upon common understandings of the term, not mental health definitions . You can consult with the DSM or even psychology websites for more information, but the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the federal National Institutes of Health, defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD for short) as: “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
And because narcissism is one of the DSM’s “Cluster B” personality disorders, typically narcissistic people will have overtly emotional and unpredictable behavior.
The PsychDB website summarizes the DSM criteria for NPD as a person who exhibits five or more of a list of traits, which list includes a grandiose sense of self-importance, being preoccupied with success power & brilliance, believing they are special, having a sense of entitlement, and more. And because the narcissist is right while everyone else is wrong, most do not see an issue requiring therapy, so there is typically no diagnosis.
This post assumes that a narcissist parent is someone with narcissistic tendencies, rather than someone with a formal diagnosis. So how can the other parent successfully handle narcissism in a co-parenting relationship?
Clients themselves often know what solutions work best for them better than anyone – after all, they endured the narcissism during years of marriage, and accumulated a wealth of knowledge on what sets off the other parent, and maybe even how to persuade the other parent to do the right thing. But the flipside is that narcissists are often abusive – not necessarily physically, but emotionally and verbally, so the way a spouse coped during the marriage may have been to walk away – not an option with co-parenting when engagement with the narcissist parent is required.
How Does Narcissism Affect Co-Parenting?
A narcissist parent needs to be in control. And that means viewing a co-parenting relationship as a contest with a winner and loser, not as a process for the benefit of the children. Since a narcissistic parent believes himself to be superior, he will impose his will on the other parent, often by manipulating reality or making the other parent seem inferior (e.g. “gaslighting”).
You cannot beat a narcissist at his own game, which, sadly, is how the narcissist may view things. Follow the old adage: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
Ultimately, as with any other personality disorder, simply proving narcissism in court won’t do much for child custody. Judges are concerned with how a parent’s behavior affects the children, not what someone’s diagnosis may be. A narcissistic parent may view the children as objects to be controlled, and to be manipulated against the other parent, but absent evidence of actual alienating or other behavior which hurts the children, proving a link between narcissism and parenting will be next-to-impossible.
Successful Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
This may sound defeatist, but when dealing with a narcissistic co-parent, “success” is defined by protecting the children’s best interests, and preserving one’s own sanity, not convincing the other parent to get help. A mental health professional can better assess chances of “changing” a narcissistic parent, but the experience of the family law attorneys at Graham.Law is akin to Kyle Reese explaining what they were up against in 1984’s The Terminator:
“The Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead!”
Have A Well-Written Parenting Plan
The starting point for successful co-parenting with a narcissist is a solid parenting plan with little room for maneuver.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and if the parenting plan is ambiguous, the narcissist parent will find a way to exploit it. And that’s almost impossible to stop altogether. At Graham.Law, our model parenting plan starts at 22 pages. Now that’s overkill in most cases, and we typically end up with 8-12 pages or so by the time we sign the agreement.
But with a narcissist on the other side, even 22 pages won’t prevent all disputes. Dealing with a narcissist co-parent is like “whack-a-mole” – even with a 50-page plan, a determined parent will find creative ways to violate the “spirit” of the plan, even if she adheres to the letter of it. We can reduce the opportunity for dispute on a weekly basis, not not completely eradicate it.
But while many parenting plans assume some degree of flexibility, and often favor vagueness over a rigid plan which may not work in a few years, with a narcissist that is not possible. Everything must be spelled out, because even the tiniest missing detail (e.g. time of the exchange on a school day when a child is sick) is a loophole to be exploited.
The problem is that judges don’t necessarily like long, detailed parenting plans (after all, the Colorado Supreme Court’s own fill-in-the-blank parenting plan is only 8 pages long, including captions and signature blocks. And that includes space used on inapplicable provisions where the parents are selecting clauses from multiple checkboxes, so there really are probably about 4 pages or so of actual substance. Better than nothing, but woefully inadequate for co-parenting with a narcissist.
I’ve had judges reject detailed parenting proposals after a contested parenting hearing, and I’ve had judges accept them. The best way to get a detailed parenting plan is to negotiate one – but if the narcissist balks, you will need a custody evaluator on the case who can write a report which includes recommendations for a detailed parenting plan.
Follow the Parenting Plan
This should go without saying, but there’s no point in having a quality parenting plan if you let the narcissist ignore it. The narcissist will self-righteously believe that she’s right no matter what, so parenting plan provisions to the contrary are an annoyance to ignore, not a binding court order. The more you let her get away with it, the more likely you are to wake up one way and realize that she has shaped a whole new parenting arrangement, rather than the one agreed to with lawyers.
So while changing the exchange day or time may make sense when a parent’s work schedule changes, these changes should be few and far between. The narcissist will push for changes or deviations on what feels like a weekly basis, trying to justify all of them as being in the children’s best interests, and accusing you of favoring a piece of paper over the kids. Don’t fall for it. Stick to your guns – a once-in-a-while deviation may be warranted, but get your child custody lawyer involved for permanent or major changes.
Everything Must Be in Writing
This advice is important for any co-parents after a divorce, but don’t let the narcissist get away with parenting plan changes done over the phone or in person – insist that everything be in writing. And that writing should be Talking Parents (basic plan is free to use, but they also have two different paid plans) or Our Family Wizard (paid only).
Narcissists hate accountability – having everything in writing makes it harder to browbeat the other parent into submission. But judges like co-parenting apps which keep logs of all communications, so are suspicious when one parent resists setting up an account. I have seen judges order Talking Parents on their own, even without either parent asking for it, and have never yet seen a judge refuse to order it upon request by one parent.
Deviations Must Be Detailed & Specific
Just as you need a long parenting plan to cover the common areas a narcissist may exploit, so too does any deviation or temporary modification from the parenting plan have to be as detailed to leave no room for later dispute.
If you are letting the other parent have a week of your parenting time during the school year because the other’s family is visiting, you must spell out exactly which week you will receive in return before agreeing to do this. If you give up a week of time in return for some unspecified week in the future at your option, good luck enforcing that against a narcissist who will erect barriers to you ever seeing that make-up parenting time.
Therapy for the Children
Because a narcissistic parent is molding the children in her own image, without intervention she may well succeed and the children end up like her. So make sure the children have a professional they can talk to who will help them find their own way. And a therapist can provide coping skills to help adapt to living with a narcissistic parent, as well as helping the kids when the narcissist invariably puts them in the middle of disputes with the other parent.
Since a narcissist is likely averse to therapy, most of the time they would never willingly agree to let the children see a therapist. So this may mean filing a motion asking the judge to order at least a therapeutic assessment and then therapy if appropriate. (With joint decision-making, don’t paint a target on you by unilaterally engaging a therapist for the children).
Commencing therapy at an earlier age is better, because the narcissist will absolutely turn this around: “your mother thinks you’re crazy and is trying to force you to see a therapist, but I’m on your side, and know it’s her, not you.”
Consider a Parenting Coordiantor
Colorado law (C.R.S. 14-10-128.1) allows the family law judge to appoint a parenting coordinator, which is “a neutral third party to assist in the resolution of disputes between the parties concerning parental responsibilities.”
I would not expect a narcissist to readily agree to a parenting coordinator – after all, if the goal is to bully one’s way to victory, why insert someone into the case whose job is to defuse tension and could put that behavior in check? On the other hand, because the narcissistic parent likely feels that everyone (except the other parent) will agree with him, he may well think a PC will help convince the other parent he is right.
Absent agreement of both parents, a court cannot appoint a PC without making findings, including that the parents have failed to implement the parenting plan and mediation is either inappropriate or was unsuccessful.
If both parents agree, they could go further and anoint the parenting coordinator with decision-making authority, pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-128.3. But unlike a regular parenting coordinator, a PCDM (Parenting Coordinator/Decision-Maker) does require both parents’ consent, and cannot be appointed if one parent objects.
Don’t Give In to Avoid Conflict
If you believe that the narcissist is right about a particular issue, by all means resolve it the right way rather than fighting for the sake of fighting. Resist the temptation to follow the example from the other side and treat every parenting decision as a battle, rather than simply looking for the best outcome for the kids.
I’ve had many cases where one spouse is difficult and manipulative, likely narcissistic, and in order to “pander” to him, my client will want to give in on financial issues. (If I only let him have the house/pay no spousal support, he will be mollified and see I’m not out for the money). It has never once worked. Bullies don’t go away if they are appeased – when you are co-parents and have to keep dealing with each other, they keep coming back with more demands, expecting you to keep surrendering.
So instead, confer with your attorney, and if pushing back or litigating is both right and it makes sense to do, then do it. Ultimately, resisting the narcissist (for example, with contempt of court if he continually violates the parenting plan) may be the best check against a bully on the other side.
But Don’t Argue in Front of the Kids
Pushing back has an appropriate time/place/manner. A narcissist will not care who is hurt in the battle to win, so will pick fights regardless of whether the children are around (or, worse, because they are present). Don’t fall into that trap – simply advise that this is not an appropriate time for such a discussion, and he needs to reach out in writing.
Don’t Respond Emotionally
Dealing with a narcissistic co-parent probably feels like banging your head against the wall – when everything is a battle, it saps your energy. And narcissists know how to push buttons. If you “lose it” and lash out, you have merely proven their point that they are somehow superior, and given them the satisfaction of provoking you. So as tempting as it is to respond with profanities, stay calm and hold your tongue. If necessary, have someone else review your communications before hitting “send.”
Limit communications to the minimum necessary for co-parenting, rather than engaging in a war of words on every issue which arises. Once you’ve said your piece, don’t keep responding to continued contacts from the other side, other than an occasional “I do not wish to keep discussing the same issue.”
Don’t Let the Narcissist Parent Make Unilateral Decisions
Most parenting plans will have provisions requiring joint decision-making, and also prohibiting a parent from unilaterally selecting the children’s activities. A narcissist will not care much about these limitations, and is likely to sign the kids up for camps, sports, etc, which not only impact your parenting time, but require financial outlay from you.
Don’t let him get away with it. Let him know that since he did not consult with you, you will not be sharing the cost, and will decide at the appropriate time whether to even allow the activity during your time (however, if the activity is good for the kids, and they want to do it, you should not put them in the middle by not letting them do it).
Coping With, Not Changing a Narcissist Co-Parent
There is no curing a narcissist (therapists may disagree, but my experience in child custody cases, sadly, has been that leopards don’t change their spots). Narcissism is something you have to live with, rather than change.
And there is no “winning” against a narcissistic parent who will go to all lengths to avoid losing. Instead, what you can do is follow firm rules, don’t let yourself get baited into pointless arguments, and hope that the result shields the kids from the conflict.
Finally, narcissism can be a major weakness – after all, it is a personality disorder. Because a narcissist thinks she’s right and everyone else is wrong, she may be self-righteous about what she does, and freely admit to what the court may regard as poor parenting behavior.
I did not set out to write a post on how to “battle” a narcissist, but upon reviewing it, that’s what it somehow became. And this comes back to the fact you have to preserve your parental role against constant attack from a narcissist parent, so ultimately it really will seem like managing conflict (or resisting), rather than resolving conflict.
More Information on Co-Parenting
We have two articles in the Colorado Family Law Guide filled with tips on how to co-parent successfully not just for the sake of the kids (which is important!), but also so that you meet a family law judge’s expectations of how a good co-parent should behave:
- Good Co-Parenting Tips, or what you should do and be seen doing to help your child custody care, and
- Bad Co-Parenting Examples which will hurt your custody case.
While these articles are aimed at co-parenting in general, the information in them will be useful when dealing with a narcissist parent on the other side of your case.
FAQ – Dealing with a Narcissist Co-Parent
How to communicate with a narcissist co parent.
Communicating with a narcissist parent on the other side of a child custody case means keeping the focus on the kids, insisting that all communications be in writing, and avoiding getting baited into battles which have nothing to do with the specific issue at hand.
Can you co parent with a narcissist?
Yes. A parent can (and must) co-parent with a narcissist parent on the other side by having well-defined expectations in a detailed parenting plan which leaves little to chance, and then insisting on following the plan rather than letting the narcissist get away with controlling things.
Can a parent lose custody for being a narcissist?
Rarely will a narcissist parent lose custody simply for being narcissistic. Family law courts are concerned with bad behavior resulting from the narcissism, not the narcissism itself. And when the children get older, they may well turn away from the narcissistic co-parent.
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