Narcissists, Divorce & Your Kids

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Narcissists rule the roost in their household.

They do it by pushing extremes in every aspect of the home, particularly with children. When the marriage ends, the Narcissist continues to maintain extremes.

Their preeminent position by scapegoating the other parent and turning the children against them. Because narcissists are all about the status quo, only the more empathic parent can ensure the safety of the children.

divorcing a narcissist

The Narcissist

Narcissists by definition keep the focus on themselves.

They live at the center. This shows up in the family by making the other parent secondary and to blame for any shortcomings.

Interestingly this dynamic continues with children where one child is “the golden child” and the other the scapegoat. In other words, the children take on the mantles of the parents as assigned by the narcissistic parent. 

The narcissist will do everything in their power to maintain this order in the restructured family. They do this by continuing to scapegoat and even alienate the other parent.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The narcissist is “perfect” and so the other parent receives all the responsibility and blame for the failed marriage.

The children are faced with a choice when this happens. They must either choose one parent over the other or secretly maintain even relations with both parents since the narcissist will not tolerate anything but complete alignment.

The Children

Remember, one child is glorified, the other has been scapegoated.

The scapegoated child yearns for acknowledgment as does the golden child. The lead administrator of rewards is the narcissist while the other parent has always been in a supporting role.

When the narcissist turns on the other parent, naturally the children will side with them. At least until they are mature enough and secure enough in their own identity to take a stand.

The golden child will continue to turn to the narcissist for praise and the attention-starved scapegoat child will do so as well getting the attention they have craved for so long.

The Narcissistic Parent Is Like…

The narcissistic parent is like a charismatic leader and teaches the children their hatred of the other parent.

Essentially they weaponize the child against the other parent. The children are turned in a number of ways; when they come home from the other parent’s home the narcissist may question them and make disparaging remarks.

The narcissist may lean into non-verbal communication. Their child comes home from school after an overnight.

The narcissist will show extreme overstated concern for the child’s well-being. In so doing they are planting the seed of an idea with the child that something is wrong in the other household. They will overlay this with the sentiment that the child is fortunate to be out of that environment and back in the sphere of the narcissistic parent. 

Over time, the child will internalize the contempt and criticism of the other parent perpetrated by the narcissist. After all, they have were exposed to these attitudes for years before the separation/divorce and they are intensified during times of conflict.

The child internalizes the contempt for the other parent rather than becoming the recipient of that contempt. 

Taking Sides

It is not just fear of rejection that initially sides the children more with the narcissistic parent.

It’s the certainty of the narcissistic parent that they have been wronged, that the other parent is causal. The narcissist uses denial of their responsibility and gaslights the children.

The narcissist appears absolutely certain. The non-narcissist, who is higher in empathy, will tend to question themselves and make efforts to take responsibility.

This makes them appear less certain and even vulnerable to the children. To the children, this can even appear supportive of the narcissist at times. 

The children are looking for a survival strategy that will deflect as much negativity as possible. In the face of the standard narcissist/empathic parent dynamic, they naturally side with the narcissist.

Doing so makes them the least vulnerable. Alternatively, they may enjoy the warmth of the empathic parent and pretend that they are completely aligned with the narcissist.

In so doing they can protect themselves from the wrath of the narcissist. Ideally, children will have a relationship with both of their parents. As they mature over -time, they will pick and choose life strategies from their parents.

Creating Safety From Narcissist

The narcissist lives in their own emotional reality. It’s a bubble they create around themselves to protect their own image of themselves. They are almost completely bound by their own mental/emotional state. It is highly unlikely that they are going to change.

The emotional health and well-being of the children will have to reside primarily in the hands of the more empathic parent. The narcissist can not be changed, in fact by definition they resist change.

The empathic parent will need to develop strategies for combatting the attacks of the narcissist. At the same time, they will do this without actually naming or pointing fingers at the narcissistic parent.

The narcissist demands that everyone in the household defines themselves in relation to the narcissist. Only the more empathic parent can ensure the safety of the children.

Once separated, there are a number of steps the empathic parent will need to go through in order to create a healthy environment for themselves and their children:

  • Create a safe space for themselves and their children.
  • Spend some time identifying “the enemy” and developing some empathy for them; what are the qualities of the narcissist? How did they become who they are? Who and what happened to them that they decided to put on this persona?
  • Mourn, release sadness, anger, and blame. Celebrate their newfound freedom.
  • Begin to redefine themselves outside of their relationship with the narcissist.
  • Explore what parts of themselves they gave up and what did they gain in the relationship?
  • Rediscover and prioritize personal values and principles.
  • How do these differ from co-parent?
  • Develop a more detailed personal vision for the future
  • Clarity on the needs of each child in terms of who they are and how they can unfold in the context of their relationships with both parents. What tools will they need?
  • Develop systems, traditions, routines to reinforce and teach values.
  • Strategize managing their relationship with co-parent so that it feels safe, allows kids to have a relationship with them, and prepares them for future hurdles.
  • Celebrate, review, reapply, realign as kids develop and change.

So What Do I Do When Handling With A Narcissist?

This is a tall order, particularly come out of the trauma of years in a relationship with a narcissistic co-parent.

Seeking help from professionals who understand the depth of the problem and how to be thorough and complete in the recovery process will be helpful.

This is literally the journey of a lifetime. Releasing the trauma, helping your children navigate these waters, and creating a blueprint for yourself and them will take concentrated effort and commitment.

Remember, only the more empathic parent can ensure the safety of the children