Learning to co-parent with someone you have divorced or separated from is HARD. In many situations, the parent of your children may have an undiagnosed underlying mental health condition that complicates your efforts to co-parent. One of the most frequent factors that creates a high-conflict divorce or family law case is if the other parent has a personality disorder, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). People who have NPD often have an over-inflated belief about their self-importance and a lack of empathy for the pain or hardships of others including their co-parent and even their own children. NPD and other personality disorders often make transitioning the family unit from an intact family to separate households feel difficult, if not impossible. In some situations the other parent is actually formally diagnosed, but in many circumstances, the other parent has not had a formal diagnosis, but is actively exhibiting a significant number- or all- of the traits of narcissistic personality disorder.
If you are dealing with a co-parent with personality disorders, what strategies can you use to learn to raise children with a high conflict personality disordered person?
- Consider the reality of parallel parenting rather than striving to co-parent. How is parallel parenting different than co-parenting? In co-parenting, both parents cooperate and work together to agree on a parenting style and strategy to try to give children consistent expectations and routines in each home. Co-parenting and parental cooperation is the ideal approach for many children, it allows clearly defined, consistent rules to establish routines, structure and consistency. Co-parenting with cooperative parents after a separation or divorce minimizes the possibility of a child favoriting one parent or becoming alienated from a parent. Co-parenting with a narcissist can feel impossible as it is only effective when parents are able to respect one another and deal with kindness and empathy toward one another’s efforts and goals for the children.
A parallel parenting approach is one where each parent in a separate household makes their own rules and neither parent discusses them or tries to coordinate them with the other parent. Parallel parenting often requires in depth conflict management skills, attention to detail and focus on the needs of the children to make sure they are getting met. In parallel parenting, the parent that institutes such a policy to deal with another parent who has a personality disorder needs to work to make sure there are no loopholes in the parenting structure to minimize the possibility of the personality disordered parent creating havoc and stress in the children’s lives. How is this accomplished?
- Create a detailed parenting plan with clearly outlined consequences, requirements and expectations. This is where a lawyer knowledgeable about parenting with a narcissist is necessary. A narcissist or other personality disordered parent must see that there are swift consequences for his or her unreasonable behavior. If parenting time is denied, for example, it is important that a motion is filed to address enforcement so that the parent learns a consequence. Narcissists often believe they are entitled to cross boundaries and the belief that there will be certain and sure consequences for violating a boundary is more likely to deter the behavior.
- Focus on Keeping the Relationship/Interactions with a Narcissistic Parent as Business-Like as Possible. Parenting with a personality disordered parent can feel, at times, like a full-time job, however, the results of making this effort can mean a significant and meaningful impact on the well-being of your children and their view of their childhood. Document everything. Only use written communication to speak with the other parent. Use a communication app for parenting or use only text message, email or other written forms of communication. Putting communication and agreements in writing will ensure that the other parent is unable to twist your words, claim misunderstanding or worse yet, gaslight you by trying to allege you said something different than what you actually communicated. It is also important that you swiftly and consistently establish and maintain clear boundaries with a personality disordered parent.
- Minimize Verbal Communications and Emotional Contacts/interactions with a Narcissistic Parent. How do you do this? Arrange for exchanges to be at a public location or through a third party or safe exchange program, or ideally, if your children are school-aged, use exchanges through school, or daycare, for primary exchanges. This will allow your children transition periods and minimize any direct contacts. Seek a parenting plan that requires that all information regarding the needs of the children be in writing and that the exchanges not involve any parent-to-parent contact. Referencing the information about boundaries above, consistently enforce the boundary of not having verbal communications. Do not allow a personality disordered parent to draw you into crossing the boundary of no verbal communication “occasionally”.
- Keep your life as private and separate from the personality disordered parent as possible. Do not become involved in details of the other parent’s life. Do not share excessive or unnecessary details of your life with the other parent. Narcissists are characterized by learning seemingly innocent details or information about your life and using the information to their manipulative gain and benefit in a way that suits their needs or agenda. They will try to use information they gain or garner as ammunition against you to upset, harm or manipulate you down the hard. Simply do not allow them the opportunity to do this.