The concept of co-parenting with a narcissist does not exist.
There is very little research about narcissistic parenting, narcissistic family dynamics, or the effects that this disorder has on children. Complicating matters is the fact that adult children who do seek therapy do not typically identify growing up in a narcissistic household as the presenting problem.
Whether you choose to stay or leave the toxic relationship with their Narcissistic partner, this person will be your children’s parent forever. So, I guess the questions that you are going to ask me is: How do I help and protect our children so that they are not damaged by my partner’s flaws?
They want to know:
What can I do to help my children feel loved and valued for who they are?
Should I try and explain their Narcissistic parent’s issues to them?
Is there anything that I can do to protect them from my partner’s unfair attacks?
What can I give them that my Narcissistic mate cannot?
The Four Pillars
If you too are struggling with this issue, here are some things that you may find useful.
I have organised my suggestions into four basic groups:
Identity, Love, Permission, and Skills.
I think of them as four pillars that will support your children and help keep them stable, despite your ex's instability and personal limitations. Each one focuses on a crucial aspect of what children need to grow into happy, productive, and self-confident adults. I am making them separate groups here for the purpose of teaching about them. In reality, they blend together to form one sturdy support for the child.
Pillar One: Identity
Children are not born with a clear sense of identity or how they fit into the world. They need adult support in order to form a realistic, stable, and integrated sense of self. Children develop their sense of identity in three major ways:
1. Exploration and Experimentation: As children explore the world around them and experiment with different activities through play or in school, they start to discover what interests them, what they are good at, and how they compare to those around them.
2. Other People’s Reactions: Children are very influenced by how significant people in their lives view them. In 1902 the social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley introduced the concept of “The Looking Glass Self” to explain how our view of ourselves is partly the result of how those around us view us. This means that children notice how adults and other children see them and start to Identity with whatever is “mirrored” back to them.
3. Successes and Failures: As children explore and experiment and compare themselves to other children, they begin to have successes and failures. They find that some things come easily to them, such as carrying a tune or adding up numbers in their head, while others may be a struggle. They also learn that if they persist at things, they will eventually get better at them.
Narcissistic parents generally only recognise and support those aspects of the growing child’s identity that are in accord with their Narcissistic values and enhance their need to see themselves as “special.” Everything else is likely to be devalued as stupid, pointless, or wrong. This is one of the areas in which the non-Narcissistic parent can be an advocate for the child’s exploration of what he or she is naturally drawn to in the world.
Suggestion: This has to be done tactfully so that the Narcissistic parent does not feel attacked. Instead of confronting or criticising the Narcissistic parent for not supporting the child’s exploration of his or her authentic interests, it is best to tie the exploration to something the Narcissistic parent approves of and wants to encourage.
Pillar Two: Love
Children need to feel unconditionally loved in a way that is not dependent on the adult’s mood. Part of feeling loved is knowing that your parents accept you for who you are and love you even though you are not perfect and you make mistakes.
This love needs to be consistent. This does not mean that you cannot chastise your children for bad behaviour or correct them when they are making mistakes. It means that there is an undercurrent of love that exists like background music through everything that happens both good and bad.
Narcissistic parents have some major issues that get in the way of them providing stable, unconditional love. I will just mention two of the main ones here:
Narcissists lack “Object Constancy.”
“Object Constancy” is the psychological term for the capacity to maintain your positive emotions about someone while you are feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, or disappointed by the person. This means that when Narcissistic parents feel any negative feeling towards their children, they completely lose touch with their loving feelings.
Without “Object Constancy,” love turns to hatred very quickly. Therefore, at best the love of Narcissistic parents towards their child has an “on and off” quality. At worst, Narcissistic parents become abusive during the times that they are unable to access their past love for their child.
Narcissists have unstable self-esteem:
Narcissistic parents are preoccupied with trying to keep their shaky self-esteem high. They relate to their children as either assets that reflect well on them and will enhance their self-esteem or deficits that reflect poorly on them and will cause them to lose status.
This combination of a lack of “Object Constancy” and a continual focus on self-esteem enhancement creates a situation of emotional instability for the children.
Sometimes they feel loved and will get a lot of attention and praise, other times they feel that their Narcissistic parent literally despises them. This is very confusing for children and can result in their having two separate and irreconcilable views of themselves as either “special” or “worthless.”
In essence, this would be a recreation of the same identity problem with which the Narcissistic parent is struggling.
This is where the non-Narcissistic parent’s steady love can have a stabilising effect on the children’s identity. You just need to be able to remember that you love your children while they are behaving badly (Object Constancy) and not have your personal self-esteem be dependent on their achievements. We are talking about “good enough loving,” not being a parental Saint.
Pillar 3: Permission
Children need to be given support and permission to explore their world. They also need permission to reach their own conclusions, even if this means that they think differently about an issue than their parents. This last is especially hard for Narcissistic parents because they generally lack the capacity to see the world from any point of view other than their own.
Narcissists suffer from “One-Mindedness: Psychologists call this inability to understand that there can be equally valid, but different ways to view a situation, “One-Mindedness.” People with “One-Mindedness” assume that their view is the only correct one and that anyone who thinks differently from them is 100 percent wrong.
Solution: What you can do to counteract your mate’s influence and limited view of life is to spend quality time alone with your children and simply explore ideas from different perspectives.
Pillar Four: Skill Training
There are a number of important life skills, such as emotional empathy and the ability to apologise, that the Narcissistic parent lacks.
These are relatively easy for the non-Narcissistic parent to teach.
Teaching Emotional Empathy
Narcissists lack emotional empathy. This means that Narcissistic parents cannot feel what their children are feeling in response to their actions. They have to rely on cognitive empathy—thinking and reflecting—in order to understand their impact on their children.
Unfortunately, cognitive empathy requires more motivation and time. It is highly unlikely that angry Narcissistic parents will stop in the middle of a fight to reflect on their impact on their children and spouse.
The non-Narcissistic parent can help their children develop their capacity for emotional empathy. There are two simple ways to do this: You can model empathy and also find opportunities that allow you to explain empathy.
Modelling Empathy: Empathy teaches empathy. You empathise with your children’s experience, they feel your concern and interest, and they internalise an image of a caring and empathic parent. This can be done as simply as catching their gaze from across the room, and smiling when they seem happy, or looking concerned when they appear hurt or unhappy.
Explaining Empathy: This involves pointing out how other people might be feeling during potentially hurtful interactions. This method directs your child’s attention to people’s impact on the feelings of those around them.
It is never easy to be a parent. It is much harder when your co-parent has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The good news is that there is a lot that you can do to minimise the damage of having a Narcissistic parent. You will have to step in and be the one to give your children whatever their Narcissistic parent cannot provide: permission to explore their identity and the world around them, unconditional love, protection from abuse, and reassurance that they are not the cause of their parent’s bad behaviour.
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