Co-parenting with someone who shows narcissistic traits is tough — but there are ways to cope. Here are some tips.
Co-parenting, which is a shared parenting arrangement by two people who aren’t in a relationship and are living apart, can be challenging, even under the best circumstances.
After all, you’re making decisions about your kids’ education, medical care, religious upbringing, and other important things with a person whom you may not like or agree with.
But co-parenting can be particularly challenging if you’re trying to do it with someone who has narcissistic traits or lives with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a personality disorder that affects approximately 6.2% of U.S. adults.
“NPD is when someone has an inflated sense of self,” explains Alexander Burgemeester, a neuropsychologist and founder and creator of The Narcissistic Life. This can make them seem self-centered, lacking in empathy, or entitled. They may also have a big need for attention and recognition, which can make it difficult to make decisions together.
“It goes far beyond having a ‘big ego’ and can actually threaten the relationship they have with others,” Burgemeester says. Because they could be more focused on themselves they may not realize the impact their actions have on others, whether that’s you or their child.
Not everyone who exhibits narcissistic traits has NPD — only a mental health professional can diagnose the personality disorder.
Most people display at least one narcissistic trait at some point, but that doesn’t mean they have NPD. It’s important not to assign the label just because we see one or two of the traits.
However, some people exhibit more than one narcissistic trait, and someone with NPD tends to exhibit most, if not all, of the traits in a more severe, frequent, and long lasting manner.
Some of these narcissistic traits, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), include:
- exaggerated self-importance or feelings of superiority
- low empathy for others
- strong beliefs that they’re special
- constant need for attention, praise, and admiration
- desire for special treatment
- a tendency to envy others
- assumptions that others must be jealous or envious of them
- a habit of using manipulation tactics or exploiting others
People who display narcissistic traits or live with NPD can be challenging to deal with when you’re trying to co-parent. Some of the challenges you may encounter include:
They may prioritize their own needs over yours or your child’s
“Someone who has narcissistic traits tends to put themselves first,” explains Burgemeester. This means they may ignore or test your boundaries and disregard your requests, especially if it’s inconvenient to them or gets in the way of their own wants, needs, or emotions.
In addition, they also may not be able to put their child’s needs first, says John Carnesecchi, a licensed social worker who specializes in diverse mediation and family therapy. This could result in them:
- not being willing to stop arguing in front of your child
- fighting custody and other agreements you’ve made
- refusing to be flexible
- canceling or changing your kid’s appointments or routine to suit their needs
They may be sensitive to criticism
In their attempt to gain praise and attention, people with NPD or narcissistic traits can be very sensitive to criticism, seeing even constructive feedback as a personal attack. This can lead to increased conflict.
They may make you the ‘bad guy’
In an attempt to make themselves look better, they may cast you as “the bad guy” in your separation or any parenting decision that your child doesn’t like. This is because people with NPD tend to externalize blame because they don’t believe they’re ever at fault for something that goes wrong.
They may also parent with less structure or rules than you do to seem like the “fun” parent and gain praise and admiration from your kids. And, since they tend to show low empathy, they may show little empathy for how this makes you look to your kids.
They may try to manipulate you or the kids
“One of the biggest challenges a family faces when there is a parent who has these narcissistic traits is that they will exploit the co-parent or children in order to get something they want,” explains Burgemeester.
For example, he says, “they may force the co-parent to do what they say in order to avoid being put down and talking ill about them in front of the kids. This can seriously affect the children and their perception of their parents.”
They might also try to offer your kids love and affection only as conditional rewards or punish them for their lack of obedience or for challenging their authority.
While it may be challenging, it’s possible to co-parent with someone with narcissistic traits. Here are some tips you can try:
Establish a firm, legal parenting plan
It’s important to set clear boundaries for yourself and your kids — such as who has the kids, what you’re OK and not OK with — and to ensure those boundaries can be legally maintained.
“In order to successfully co-parent with someone who has narcissistic traits, you need to establish a solid parenting plan, and to make sure anything you both decide upon is documented,” says Burgemeester. This will protect you and your kids should your co-parent try to disregard your wishes.
“You want to make sure you have proof of every conversation or deal you had when it comes to your children,” he adds.
Carnesecchi recommends using a lawyer to hash out co-parenting schedules and legal agreements on:
- medical decisions
You can also ask for a court-appointed person, or guardian ad litem, to help determine what’s best for your kids, or hire a mediator to serve as a go-between for communication between you and your co-parent.
Try to control your emotions around them
People with narcissistic traits or NPD tend to try to get a reaction from people. That’s why, says Carnesecchi, it can be helpful to control your reactions and emotions to their behavior.
“[Try] to stay calm and do not allow their emotional rollercoaster to affect your emotional wellness,” he says. Instead, “keep the relationship as a business relationship and speak only in ‘matter of fact’ terms and do not voice your emotional feelings or share private and personal information.
“You are no longer responsible for coddling your ex, taking care of your ex, and more importantly, you no longer need to feel obligated or committed to subject yourself to manipulation, abuse, and selfish behaviors,” he adds.
Protect your kids from the conflict and negativity
Try to keep any conflict or disagreements you’re having with your co-parent away from your children. This means that you should discuss anything contentious out of ear-shot from your child whenever possible.
Even if your co-parent says something negative about you, try not to do the same thing back as name-calling or ranting just pulls your kids into the middle of things — which could have a negative effect on them in the long term.
Parent with love and empathy
You can’t control your co-parent’s behavior but you can control how you parent your kids — and your love, kindness, and empathy will go a long way.
“[Try] to protect them from negativity and keep your household a peaceful environment,” says Carnesecchi. “Create a loving, safe home. You do not need a two-parent home to give your child a sense of security and confidence.”
“When in your care,” Carnesecchi continues, “allow for open communication, build up their confidence and self-esteem, and teach them coping skills.”
Consider individual or family therapy
If you’re finding it difficult to deal with the challenges co-parenting is presenting you, it’s OK to ask for help. A licensed therapist can work with you individually to help you figure out how to navigate this difficult situation.
You may also consider joining a support group for separated or divorced parents, or a narcissistic abuse recovery support group online.
You can also send your children to a therapist if you think they’re having a difficult time with the new parenting dynamic — or find a family therapist who can see you and your child together if you think that’s appropriate.
The truth is, sometimes, it may not be possible to co-parent with someone with NPD or severe narcissistic traits.
If your ex ever becomes emotionally or physically abusive, no tips or tricks are going to be enough. The only effective remedy is to remove your kids from your ex’s care to keep them safe.
This might mean seeking sole custody or asking for visitation under supervision via court order. This is where the documentation you have can help you begin the process.
Can a parent lose custody for having NPD?
Yes. A parent can lose custody of their child if their narcissistic traits or NPD is not managed and begins to negatively affect their children’s physical or emotional well-being.
If you think you need to remove your child from your ex’s care, you can get help by contacting the department of family and protective services in your area or by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800−799−7233) for more information.
Co-parenting with someone who has narcissistic traits or NPD can be difficult, but there are things you can do to protect yourself, your parenting arrangement, and your children. In most cases, these steps may be enough to allow both of you to continue being in your kids’ lives.
However, if it ever gets to be too difficult, there are therapists and support groups that can help you. Plus, the court system is also there to help in the more serious cases to ensure your children grow up safely.