7 Good Parenting Practices to Put In Place
When Co-Parenting with a Narcissist*
Narcissists lie. Narcissists gaslight. Abuse happens. And it can happen to our most beloved children. When we leave the abuser, sometimes our vulnerable children are then in a direct line of threat to being lied to and/or abused by our abuser. It breaks our hearts, fills us with anxiety, and gnaws at us with guilt. It can be so painful and infuriating to witness this. We often feel powerless to stop it. However, there are ways we can help.
We want to protect our children from the same manipulations we have suffered and we certainly want to protect our children from the abusive ways of the narcissistic co-parent. While we may not be able to prevent or stop all the insidious types of abuse from happening to them, there are creative ways to buffer and counter the narcissistic abuse done to our children. (NOTE: If you are dealing with reportable, serious child abuse, please seek professional/legal/medical opinions and advice on how to protect them/use the law/use agencies/etc. Please keep in mind you will need a solid legal strategy (with a most-competent attorney) besides any reporting you do.)
Recently on the free social audio app Clubhouse, I co-hosted a room on this topic. A trauma-informed coach and I discussed ways that we help our children through it. Most often, family courts allow parents’ rights and the types of abuse we see don’t rise to the level of the courts intervening. Much of the abuse is psychological, verbal, and emotional. The scars are invisible, and yet we, as moms, can see them so clearly. Often, it’s hard to articulate what is happening to our innocent child in the hands of the narcissist. We just know it’s toxic!
How Do You Protect Your Child?
If you have identified a problem creeping into your relationship with your child, or if you have noticed them filling with anger or cowering in despair, then try some of these solutions to see if it can make a bad situation a bit better. Consider these 7 Parenting Practices protective and preventative. You can think of the hard times/abuse as teachable moments and opportunities to give them tools for handling life. Learning how to heal is essential for them, and there are plenty more bullies and narcissists out there than just your ex. One way that you can help them stay in line with their intuition is by simply asking them questions and allowing them to answer. This gives them a voice. A great question to ask is, “Do you think that’s true?” This can help them to realize that they have the right to their own thoughts and opinions—not just having to have the same ones as the narcissistic or sociopathic ex. Getting kids to think for themselves is where it’s at! Here are 7 more tips and tools that we shared . . .
1. Validate Your Child’s Feelings
No matter the feeling, be okay that your child is feeling it. Be strong enough to be a “loving witness” to their precious feelings. Remind your child that you still love them. If you are hearing how they feel, you may be their safe parent. Honor this role, even though you may have to deal with their difficult emotions.
Pro-Tip: Thank them for telling you how they feel, rather than tell them they shouldn’t feel that way. My child loved hearing that if I were her, I’d probably feel the exact same way. With my reply, she knew that she was heard. This level of validation (empathy, sympathy, and compassion) not only validates their feelings but also validates who they are and their existence. It preserves their self-esteem: their fundamental power (that they are just starting building).
Learning to accept uncomfortable feelings helps to stop some of the added sufferings over our suffering. Be okay will all feelings that aren’t all happy and joyful. After all, all emotions are part of the human experience. Learning to accept how we feel and how they feel can lead us to pose the next powerful question to our children, “Do you want to change how you feel?” If they say yes, then offer them healthy ways to release the energy. (Such as throwing eggs, hitting a pillow, crying under blankets, hugs, taking a run/walk, going to the playground, writing in a journal (keep this safe with you at all times).) They say we have to “feel to heal.” So, let validating your child’s feelings be an opportunity for healing.
2. Help Sort Out the Truth
Children often need help sorting out what’s real and aligning with reality. Most of them believe in fairy tales easily and Santa. There’s a simple game that you can play with your child that can help them sort out the truth, then be able to stand in their truth—even up against an authority figure or adult. This can be very powerful “play therapy.” I call it, “What’s true?” There are other names for this game. The basic principle is that you are going to tell a non-truth (ahead of time: let the child know this is a game with a clear starting point and ending point), and your child is going to state what their truth is and what they believe is true.
Sometimes you can give them a suggested reply-sentence starter as a prompt. You can suggest they begin with, “I know my truth and…” As my child got older, I often had to explain that depending on who/where people are coming from, we may have different versions of what’s true. But you can start with colors, and basic, easy to disprove things. This helps a child validate their perspectives of reality and gives them a chance to gain trust within themselves.
3. Help Sort Out The Stories
It can happen that the child is fed stories by the narcissist that are not true or that are grossly exaggerated. Making your own “storytime” to explain your family history can help them know what’s really in their past.
The narcissist can be a “past master”, convincing children of things that never happened. Sometimes, they even try to erase good memories from the child’s mind with ill stories. Be sure to implant good stories and preserve good memories by telling just as many or more happy stories as the toxic co-parent. This can counter what’s being done and create a solid foundation of family and stability in the child’s mind.
4. Give Them A Safe Space
Children need a safe parent. So, be the safe parent for them! Even though it only takes one unhealthy parent to create a high conflict co-parenting situation or custody battle, it only takes one healthy parent to create healthy children. There’s your hope! To help your child stay true to themselves, they need to be able to be themselves!
Give them a safe place to land after parenting time with the narcissist. Have rituals and routines in place to “catch” them as they come back from the other side. They need to feel like they are crossing a threshold back into safety and peace to stay sane themselves. Create a peaceful home. If this means eliminating dating, restricting unhealthy/unhelpful grandparents, moving out of bad environments, getting therapy for PTSD (narcissistic abuse syndrome), going to a domestic violence counselor weekly, attending support groups for yourself, taking parenting classes— do it! Remember: Your life gives them the chance to have a good life outside of narcissistic abuse. This can mean everything to them. So, get healthy and stay sane yourself! Be the safe parent who doesn’t get too emotional, upset, and angry at everything that’s happening. Find ways to eliminate your stress, and you eliminate some of the child’s stress too.
5. Keep it Neutral
Minimizing and de-escalating the conflict by controlling your reactions and behaviors can be key to creating co-parenting stability. Disparaging the other parent to a child is frowned upon by the court and often written as direct orders to refrain from such behavior in parenting agreements. No matter how tempting it is, don’t.
If you already have made this mistake, then apologize and stand up to mistakes. You may need to just apologize to your therapist and yourself—and not draw more attention to the mistake. You don’t want this used against you! Make amends to your children by going forward with better self-boundaries. Not drawing the kids into a conflict that should be handled by adults protects their right to a childhood. If they ask questions, give them assurance that it’s being handled in a civil and professional way. You can say, “These are adult things, honey/sweetie.” This lets them know that they aren’t responsible in a compassionate and gentle way. If things are getting changed in the orders or agreements, you can simply say, “There are rules/laws and a process that we all have to follow.” This lets them know that you are respectful of authority and this is above them right now. Basically, any way to take the pressure off of them is helpful. Remember: They can be stressed out too by change!
Sadly, sometimes kids put the blame on themselves. Let the child know you are handling it in a mature way—even the losses. You can also say that you disagree with things without making them feel like they need to defend you or the other parent. This can get tricky, so limit your amount of disagreeable things and focus on what you do agree with. The key is to not add the conflict. It’s okay to quietly disagree, too. You can even teach your child how to quietly disagree. This can be essential if you are dealing with a sociopathic, unsafe ex.
6. Don’t Ask Too Many Questions
Children get stressed when they are interrogated. I know, you want to know what they did with your ex, where they went, and if they have eaten since the ex won’t tell you anything. But don’t put them on the spot and make them feel like they are under security or surveillance. This can be a mistake and add unnecessary stress. I have made it myself.
A way around this is to ask your child if there is anything they want to share with you. This gives them the choice to speak. If your child is shy or withholding, you can always ask very casually, “Is there anything you would like to say/tell me?” Remember to be positive with your responses and neutral in your reactions to what they say. They are watching you for any sign that what they said was not okay. Be a good listener who just listens.
It’s okay to let your child vent and not try to offer solutions and fixes immediately. Sometimes bringing up the situation days later when emotions have worn off is the best teachable moment to aim for. Remember, the other parent is pathologically jealous and may already be questioning them incessantly or digging for dirt on you. Don’t re-traumatize them with the same thing.
7. Don’t Put Them in the Middle
The other parent will often do this. You can take steps to take them out of the middle of the conflict. You can say things like, “Oh, sorry honey, but that’s something I have to handle with dad. I’ve got this!” And voila, the child knows that you have big shoulders and they don’t have to be a ping pong. This also means that you don’t ask the child to send messages back and forth. Do your parenting through the court-ordered means and stick to communication methods.
To help, you can give them 1-liners to say but do this carefully because this can set off the narcissistic rage in your ex. For example, some moms suggest that their children learn to speak up and say, “Please don’t talk about my mom.” This definitely shocks the other parent and there can be backlash with any boundary being set. Having a child stand up to a bully that we ourselves have a hard time standing up to is not advisable. I made this mistake several times in her childhood and immediately stopped helping her with this when I saw the trauma that would get stirred up in her. My child would be in a ball crying whenever I said you can speak up to dad about this/that. (Obviously, she couldn’t safely.) However, this is a good skill to have (to be able to stand up to a bully or speak up). Some kids benefit from the encouragement to do this at a young age, and this wards off the playground bully and stops them from being silent doormats. Only you can decide what’s right in your situation. Be mindful of this. It’s not a good idea to have a narcissist think that the child is on your side, especially if they are doing unsupervised visits. You could be setting them up to be abused or neglected. Keep them out of the middle as best as you can. This may mean that you suffer more injustice as a trade-off. I know the frustration with this but protecting their one-and-only childhood is of the utmost importance. Get help if you are suffering from co-parenting abuse. (Read my Co-Parenting Abuse blog here.)
If you have read a tip that you think could be helpful in your situation, please take one and see if you can apply it. You may have read many great suggestions and feel overwhelmed. Many of us had to make adjustments to our parenting style and many “course corrections” when we went wrong. No one is perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Be gentle with yourself, and keep it simple when you start changing. Maybe pick only one of these to focus on per week. This would give you 7 weeks of change to create healthy co-parenting habits. You can print or save this information for later. We are always a work in progress and so is our parenting.
The Bottom Line In Co-Parenting with a Narcissist
You will need parenting support for this most difficult journey. Get the support you need to deal with this dilemma of co-parenting with an abusive, toxic ex. Be sure to get the professionals to help you with this. Your options are parenting classes, therapists, domestic violence counselors, life coaches, parenting coaches, narcissistic abuse experts, legal counsel, skilled/knowledgeable attorneys, and more. If you would like to hear us speak from our experience, you can listen to our FREE Clubhouse Room which is available in a replay here.
—Grace W. Wroldson, mother, survivor, thriver, certified life coach, and author of 5 self-help books available on Amazon.
—Co-host Sophie B. from SurThrive Coaching
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- Co-Parenting with a Narcissist: 7 Self-Rules to Stay Sane (A Survivor’s Story)
- How-To Fight a Narcissist in Family Court and Win: Super-Smart Strategies for Success
- Co-Parenting with a Sociopath: Survival and Sanity Guide
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*Disclaimer: These are the thoughts and opinions of the author only—based on her experience and successes. Situations, cases, and details vary greatly. So, what worked for this author may not work for you. The author is not a licensed mental health professional and doesn’t have any degrees in child psychology. If you are dealing with this, it’s best to get qualified professionals to help you and your child with abuse. This is not a substitute for any needed psychotherapy/counseling for your and your children. The author is not liable to any harm, injury, or litigation as the result of these tips. Please always ask your attorney, counsel, or solicitor how to best handle co-parenting situations.