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The Narcissistic Parent’s Secret Weapon

How to fight back from parental alienation.

Key points

  • Expecting that a narcissist will not change makes it less likely one will be caught off-guard by that person.
  • Communication with a narcissistic co-parent needs to be brief, boundaried, and businesslike, containing just the facts.
  • The most important advice for those targeted by a narcissist co-parent is to get support.
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

Parental alienation is the process of the psychological manipulation of a child into displaying unjustifiable fear, rejection, disrespect, or hostility towards a targeted parent by the “favored” parent.

What causes a child to reject a parent?

“Nearly all childhood emotional and behavior problems are multi-layered, and parent-child conflicts are no exception. The favored parent’s negative influence is the most obvious ingredient in cases where children unreasonably reject a parent. Other factors include aspects of the current and past family situation, the child’s own personality, and the rejected parent’s response to rejection. In some families, children are more apt to align with a parent who has been historically less available or whose love the children view as more tenuous and contingent upon their undiluted loyalty (defined as sharing the parent’s negative view of the other parent).” —Richard Warshak

Guiding clients through the toxic aftermath of high-conflict divorce and co-parenting is the most difficult job of a psychotherapist. Here are four things to know to lessen the blow and the psychological toll of alienation.

  1. Narcissists are predictable. As sure as the sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar that your ex’s mean-spirited behaviors are sure to follow. Expect a lull here and there, but then it’s back to the badmouthing business as usual. Letting go of unrealistic hopes for change means you won't be caught off-guard when they threaten you with court or a call to the authorities.
  2. Narcissists are psychologically lazy. The narcissist believes they can easily snow people. An unhealthy dose of thought distortion, contempt for authority, and a bully-like disrespect for vulnerable individuals are the culprits. Look closely and watch, however, as the narcissist exerts the minimum amount of effort with little to no credible documentation when making false claims. Like an impulsive child, they tantrum and make outlandish threats, seldom based on reality. A narcissist believes the lies and threats are not only justifiable but thinks the world should too. Unfortunately, some family court attorneys aid and abet this belief. An experienced lawyer recognizes alienation and exerts professional control by advising their client to stop emotionally abusive behaviors. Sometimes you have to call their bluff. The good news is that law enforcement and Child Protective Services (CPS) are increasingly adept at understanding and detecting emotional abuse.
  3. Narcissists do not change. But you can. One of the most effective tactics to affect healthy change is to develop a schedule for co-parenting communication. Caveat: Parenting a toddler or child with special needs requires more contact, but as a general rule, limit your communication to issues of parental concern only. Too often, well-intentioned co-parents get sucked into the vortex of dramatic and dysfunctional correspondence. Instead, define your communication as brief, boundaried, businesslike, and boring. Just the facts, no emotional language or lengthy explanations. For example: “To reduce conflict and save time, barring emergencies, I will respond to your email messages every Monday from 5:00-5:30 p.m. from this point forward.”
  4. Check your worldview mirror. Because the narcissist can make you feel like you’re going crazy, a healthy worldview is imperative. When you believe that the universe is basically a safe place where most people possess goodwill, you trust in the inherent order of life. You recognize that while the divorce and court process is stressful and overwhelming, you trust in your ability to problem-solve.

Perhaps the most important advice for targeted co-parents is to get support. If you’re not in therapy, I recommend a qualified professional to guide you through the maze of high-conflict divorce and parental alienation. Ask people in your inner circle for references, or visit a therapist directory such as the one here on Psychology Today. Narrow your search terms to include clinicians who specialize in "personality disorders," "alienation," "divorce," and "co-parenting."

Parental alienation is an insidious form of child abuse. The hope is that targeted parents will educate and arm themselves with the tools to fight back. Please help spread the word by sharing this post on social media. For additional information, I invite you to read "Forget Co-Parenting With a Narcissist. Do This Instead."

Copyright 2018 Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.

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