- A narcissistic co-parent often plays the victim with the kids to manipulate them.
- By playing the victim, the co-parent automatically vilifies you without saying anything overtly nasty.
- Kids often rush to protect an attachment figure who they believe is in peril.
A narcissistic co-parent may be jealous of the emotional closeness you have with your children. Fueled by envy, they may not stop until they have successfully sabotaged your relationship with your kids. By playing the victim, they automatically position themselves as the injured party and you as the “antagonist.” Wishing to protect their attachment figure, your kids may rush to their aid. The narcissistic co-parent rewards them when they take his/her side and shames them when they do not. And, just like that, you feel the closeness with your child evaporate as they turn away from you.
It seems unbelievable, but consider these statements spoken to a child by a narcissistic co-parent:
- “I am so alone. My heart is broken. I’m not sure how I’m going to make it.”
- “Your mom took everything from me. I cannot even afford to eat.”
- “Your mom was my world. I have nothing without you guys. I am completely alone and I’ll never be the same.”
- “I love your dad. He’s all I ever wanted. I’m not sure why he wants to hurt me so bad. I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy again.”
These statements not only convince the child that the narcissistic co-parent is the abandoned/abused party, but also “innocent.” You are immediately positioned as the “ruthless and heartless” party and the co-parent accomplishes this without even saying anything overtly negative about you. Your kids may suddenly view you as the “villain.”
This damages the child in the moment and long term. The child is coerced into taking care of the narcissistic co-parent because they fear the parent is lost and broken. The child is convinced that they are the co-parent’s only source of emotional support, so they assume responsibility. This parentification traumatizes a child because they are not emotionally equipped to be in charge of a parent’s well-being. Yet, they may feel as if they do not have a choice. Anxious and consumed with worry because the parent’s health and well-being lie on their shoulders, the child suffers but cannot seem to break free from their position. They believe the co-parent’s life is hanging in the balance and they are the only one who can help.
Burdened and consumed by this role, the child grows more resentful of you because, in their eyes, you are the one causing the suffering. In this case, attempting to help with traditional tactics may not work. Advising the child that the co-parent is an adult and thus responsible for their own mental health and happiness is the correct thing to say, but it may not sit well with a parentified child. Moreover, it may make you seem cold and unkind, like the narcissistic co-parent wants the child to believe.
Using a different strategy may feel “odd,” but desperate times call for desperate measures. First empathize with the child, so they feel like you “get it.” This quickly fosters trust and closeness in the relationship.
- “You are so worried about your mom. I get it. You care a lot.”
- You are so upset because you feel like dad is hurting. I understand, honey. You love him.”
- “All you can think about is your mom because you are so worried. I understand.”
Next, you can try something that may not feel authentic, but it may be better than leaving your child alone in their plight. Consider partnering with the child and volunteering to help. For example, “Let me see if I can get your mom some help. I can find a therapist and I’ll make an appointment and even pay for the session if your mom agrees.”
Chances are the child will reject the idea, but, at the very least, the child views you as wanting to help. In addition, you are communicating to the child that a mental health professional is the most appropriate person to help in this instance.
You may also try saying, “I want to help too. Why don’t we surprise her by sending over her favorite Chinese food tonight? We can ask your aunt to go over to her house and have dinner with her. Our treat.”
This may work but it also may backfire and your child may say, “I want to go be with her and eat with her.” In this instance, gently explain to your daughter that her mom may really need the support of an adult who is better equipped to provide advice and guidance. Allow the child to text her aunt to ask if she will participate in the surprise dinner for her mom. Next, pull up the restaurant’s menu and ask her to select her mom’s favorite dishes. The child may be excited to organize the meal and she may forget about her desire to participate. If she persists, invite her to help you make her aunt’s favorite dessert as a “thank you” for helping. Promise your daughter that you will take it to her aunt the next day.
Although taking the high road is difficult with an ex-partner who is emotionally abusive and lacks empathy and a conscience in an interpersonal relationship, it may be worth it because it may dispel your child’s image of you as the “bad guy.” This is critical. In addition, the narcissistic parent may not see this coming. They expect you to be anxious and defensive when they attempt to gaslight. When you react in a completely different manner, they may be flabbergasted. If you continue to respond supportively and as the “helper,” they may get frustrated and refrain from playing the victim because it is not achieving the desired outcome.
Hold tight as you co-parent with a narcissist. Instead of “picking up your sword” and striking back, remain calm, and take the high road. If the narcissist is the only one “throwing stones,” your kids may eventually see them realistically. Re-establishing the trust in your relationship with your kids places you in a much better position to help them.