Parenting with a Narcissist After Divorce: Set Your Boundaries, Empower Your Children

Parenting with a Narcissist After Divorce: Set Your Boundaries, Empower Your Children

NarcNote from Tina: I recently came across an article titled, “How Narcissists Abuse Children During Divorce” and felt myself jumping up and down in my seat saying, “Yes!  Yes!  Yes! THIS is what is happening in my life!” — I felt like the Author had interviewed us and written about my custody battle.  I hadn’t read anything that came so close to describing Seth and what he was doing to us.  I quickly contacted the Author, Paula Lovgren and asked her to guest blog for One Mom’s Battle.  I was honored when she said, “Yes!”.

Parenting with a Narcissist After Divorce: Set Your Boundaries, Empower Your Children

by Paula Lovgren

To parent your children with a narcissistic (N) parent, very little, if any of the traditional divorce/parenting advice is going to apply. Co-parenting? Not likely. Your number one job as the non-narcissist parent is to reduce conflict. You have to, because he won’t.* The N parent thrives on drama he creates because it provides him with narcissistic supply. He will take any form of supply he can get, even if it’s negative. Don’t engage with him. Reducing conflict with him is the best way to protect your children from the N’s behavior.

How can you do this? The following steps are pretty easy in theory, but as anyone dealing with an N knows, nothing is easy. The N’s behavior may escalate as he realizes you are disengaging with him. That can be scary for you. Stand your ground. In time, hopefully, when the N realizes that he’s not getting any supply, he’ll move on to other sources leaving you and your children in relative peace.

1. No face-to-face or phone conversations

The best way for the N to lie, manipulate and abuse is in conversations either on the phone or in person. It’s not necessary to put yourself in this position. Your job as a parent is to communicate important information about your children to the other parent. Communicating means to convey information, make known, reveal clearly. Nowhere in the definition of communicate does it mention talking.

Fortunately, we now have at our disposal a myriad of ways to communicate. Unfortunately, this has also led us (and in turn, our narcissistic abusers) to believe that we must be available at all times, to all people. Even if you are parenting with a former spouse it’s not necessary for them to every phone number, email address or social media contact. In fact, if you’re dealing with an N, they should not. One phone number to contact the kids, one email address to contact you and an emergency contact should they need to get a hold of you on short notice is all they need.

I suggest setting up a free web-based email account that can be accessed from any computer to be used only for communicating with the N parent. This is the only email address for you he should have access to. Sure, he may continue to rant, name call, threaten and otherwise try to bait you. Now you have it all in writing in one place. If he wants to put his bad behavior in black and white, well, good for you. Now you have a record and concrete evidence of his nasty behavior. You also have all agreements, schedule changes, and any other pertinent information in writing. That’s communication.

If you can have a separate phone for the kids, do it, even if it’s a cell phone that stays in the home and travels with you and the children on trips. The N does not need a personal phone number for you regardless of what he may think. He’s abused the privilege.. There are many free texting apps, if you have a smartphone, where he can still text you in emergencies without having your personal number. If he abuses this privilege, block him. You can also have a family member or close friend be the emergency contact who will then contact you in rare circumstances.

2. Have an iron-clad divorce decree

Get visitation schedules, holidays, phone calls, activities, pick-up/drop-off times and places and anything else that you see as potentially being a problem between you and the other parent explicitly written out in the divorce decree or marital termination agreement. Try to leave as little as possible open to negotiation after the divorce is final.

The divorce decree is your shield. At first, it may seem constraining because you, too, will have to abide by those agreements. However, in the long run, it will be easier and less stressful than trying to negotiate with an unreliable and unreasonable person. In addition, when you follow the decree as it’s written, anything he does in opposition to that is highlighted. Don’t argue with him. Let him hang himself with his own behavior. Just more good documentation for you.

3. Get healthy.

You have come out of an abusive relationship and now, you need to be as emotionally healthy as possible for your children. As easy as it is to write a list of what to do when divorcing a narcissist, every single one of us knows that it’s anything but easy. It takes time, healing and a really good support system to help you disengage from a narcissist and his crazy-making ways.

Seek counseling or a support group that focuses on abusive/narcissistic relationships. The N isn’t likely to change. Having a support system will help you hold your boundaries with him and focus your attention on yourself and your children instead of his antics. He’s had enough of your time and attention. Don’t give him anymore.

4. Validate and empower your children.

If reducing conflict with the other parent is your number one job, a close second is validating and empowering your children. You know how the N operates and he will treat his children no differently. You can’t change him and unless there is verifiable, concrete evidence that his children aren’t safe with him (physical/sexual abuse, drug/alcohol addiction) your children will most likely have to spend time with him.

As much as we want to, we really can’t protect our children from the N’s insidious behavior. As much as we believe it’s better for them to be shielded from it, they deserve to spend time with their other parent. Regardless of his behavior, your children love their other parent. They might not always like him, but they do love him and they do deserve the right to make up their own mind about their parent. I’m not going to lie, this is really hard. Really, really hard. As a therapist once said to me, “you have to let your children make up their own mind or they may turn their anger on you for cutting their parent out of their life. They won’t understand why, only that you ruined that relationship.” Ouch! Better to let the N do it himself.

What you can do is be your children’s number one support system and sounding board. Validate, validate, validate! You know how the N lies, manipulates and distorts reality. It’s not bashing your former spouse to validate your child’s feelings or to say that certain behavior is not okay. They need to be supported in their own reality because they already know something is wrong. They are looking for a mooring place in the rocky sea the N creates. Use neutral statements, like “I’m sorry that happened”, “I’ll bet that feels bad” or just simply “Ouch”. Above all, let your children know that their parent’s behavior and treatment of them has nothing whatsoever do with them.

Lastly, don’t take it all on yourself. Children can benefit greatly from having a therapist who specializes in working with children. Play therapy is wonderful. Children don’t even know that they are in “therapy”. They just know they have a really good friend who listens to them. Having a neutral third party validate the same things that you are takes away the “mom versus dad” mentality. They will begin to trust their own thoughts and feelings about the situation and to realize on their own that their parent’s behavior is not okay.

Reducing conflict with an N parent will often feel like an ineffective battle at best and additional fuel to the abusive fire at worst. At the outset, the N’s behavior is likely to escalate as he realizes he’s losing control. Stay strong and keep your focus on yourself and your children, not the N’s antics. Hopefully, when he realizes he’s playing his games with himself, he’ll get the message and find his narcissistic supply elsewhere.

*I realize that narcissists come in both genders. I only use “he” because that’s my experience. Same rules apply if the narcissist in your life is a “she”.

Paula Lovgren is a divorced mom of two kids and three cats. She has forged a workable parallel parenting arrangement with her former spouse and considers it a win. In addition, she is a freelance writer, garden designer and all around chauffeur for her kids. But not her cats.

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26 Responses

  1. Gosh, I wish I knew this information before the decree was created. Unfortunately, most of it was vague with absolutely no consequence for his actions. Even though I had records of how many cancelled visits he had, and the paperwork specified that if he missed two months in a row of being late (after 10 days) with paying arrears it will be due in full– the courts didn’t do a think to make him pay for the extra costs to me, nor did they make him pay up– even the courts fail!

    I went back to court representing myself (and up to my eyeballs in debt to lawyers who failed my children), and had to go to mediation to request more support for the time I actually spent with our kids. Well, all my ex had to do was ask for more time with my son– and he got it! He had 15% time with our kids but I had record that he only spent about 6%, but the mediator granted him 25%! How’s that for a legal slap across the face?

    Let other women who are still going through divorce learn from my mistake: fire your lawyer and get help for free. There are free sources out there if you do your homework. That, and Tina can help a lot with advice on legal stuff.

  2. I had good advice from the beginning in regards to allowing my children to make up their own minds about their father. And yes, it is really really hard. I have allowed them to do this and he has 50/50 custody. They love their father and begrudgingly, I have worked hard at making sure they get to do this positively, honestly and protectively.

    Being there for the kids as their validator, supported and sounding board does get easier. With time and practice of course. And I may not always succeed, but I am consistent.

    Very good advice given in this article. Here here!

  3. Thanks for this really helpful article. I’m nearly 10 years post divorce and am a much wiser woman than I was back then. My dilemma now revolves around how to best be there for my kids as they try and navigate their dad’s controlling behavior. Right now, it revolves around baseball. He wants my oldest son to play. My oldest son does not want to play. Driving my son home from his dad’s he said “Mom, dad said I shouldn’t let you manipulate me into not playing, but that’s what exactly what he is doing by trying to make me play.” It was a big moment to hear him say that – a kind of victory for me – the first time I heard my son who is now 13 try to make sense of what must feel like a never ending conflict between the two people he loves most – simply because my ex is always acting like we’re in battle. But it’s really no “victory” at all to see what both my sons must come to terms with. I hate this so much. My kids’ dad simply has no real understanding of who they are, has no empathy with what they feel and is constantly trying to manipulate their reality. It’s as abusive as if he was giving them a black eye or breaking their bones, and the only protection I can provide is being a loving mom when they come home from visiting their dad.

  4. Thank you thank you thank you.

    I really needed to hear this tonight.

    Wed night my daughter was asking me why Daddy lies. Were Daddy’s lies why I was so angry with him? etc etc etc.

    She is seven, and extremely smart, even if her intelligence does not always appear as “book learning”.

    When she was 6 she started asking me hypotheticals, “When I grow up, how do I tell if the boy I’m dating is lying to me?” things like that.

    Wed night I made the decision to be a little more specific in my answers.

    She’d already figured out a lot of the details, I just confirmed her questions with answers like, “yes honey, that is why Mommy is mad at daddy.”

    For the last 48 hours I’ve been questioning if that was the right thing to do. Thank you for this entire article.

  5. Thanks! Its so nice to have this network of strong women. Don’t know where I’d be without you all! Thanks for sharing. We can get through this, together! :)

  6. This is great, but you should edit this so it so it says “he or she,” since both fathers and mothers are and can be narcissists. Ignoring that is offensive to fathers who are the involved, giving, nurturing parent.

  7. I have to reiterate getting the visitation schedule to be as precise as possible. And if things change to where the original schedule is no longer feasible, as was my case, file a stipulation to get that in cement as well. I didn’t do that. There were so, so, so many times that the ex would come pick up the kids (while I was at work) and I wouldn’t be informed until they were pulling away from my house. I would get a text from my daughter (not my ex) saying “We’re going to spend the (whatever) with Dad. See you later”.

  8. Tina- I just discovered your blog–thank you for sharing your journey–very helpful as our first court date is fast approaching. I was not able to find a “contact” email address on your site. Do you provide one that I’m not seeing?

  9. Anita, I know that pain well. I also have a 13 year old son and I am thankful every time I hear him say something that suggests he understands his father better, but at the same time I’m sad that he HAS to understand his father better. It’s a very hard place to be with these boys because they want their fathers so badly, but yet their fathers are so awful. Whenever I feel terrible about this I remind myself that if my ex and I stayed together he’d have no comparison. By that I mean that my opinion and my ex’s opinion would have gotten mushed together and my son would have taken it all as one. Now, because he sees me and his dad as two separate entities, with very different opinions, he has the ability to see other options.

  10. Being divorced 10 years from the N in my life, my 14 year old daughter is now the primary target of her N father (as opposed to it being me all the time). I’d rather it be me, because as this article shares, it is hell to let your child suffer abuse. It has been increasingly difficult for her as she tried to become a young adult with her own feelings and ideas. It has also been impossible to get the court to recognize that “traditional” co-parenting does not apply. I have been lectured in front of my ex that we must both behave ourselves and leave our daughter out of the middle – when he is the one insisting he fit her Image Management requirements, and I simply do my best to mitigate the damage to her psyche. And of course, once the N hears the court chastise me, he becomes a greater monster. It has been so hard to find the right ways to support my daughter without crossing the line of alienation. Thankfully, I learned quite a bit about NPD at the time of my divorce, so I have had 10 years to practice what I preach as I lead her through learning how to avoid conflict and believe in herself, no matter how the N tries to tear her down. A counselor this past year has been invaluable as well.

  11. AMAZINGLY spot on article!! My sister has been having to navigate her narc ex’s relentless attempts for years to use their now teenage daughter as a means to unnerve the mother. To many of us it seems as if his bitterness towards the mom exceeds his love and decision making skills regarding his own child – his inner misery has obscured his vision that much, or even worse, he simply doesn’t care about the collateral damage. It’s heartbreaking to have to observe him create a conflict, then watch him wind up the kid and then basically aim her at the mother with both barrels. Still shameful after all these years.

  12. Thanks, Karen. Yes, it is so much better for my kids than it would have been if I stayed with their dad. And it helps to know we are not alone in our challenges.

  13. I wish this advice had been available to me when I divorced, but I also think the reality in these situations is that it is a huge learning process, and denial – or just bewilderment, disbelief at what is happening, shock that no one is coming to the rescue because of the unreal things you’re having to deal with, and the grim reality that justice doesn’t always prevail for you or your children – all that took at least 8 years to sink in for me. When you’re signing those divorce papers, there’s so much you don’t know. A bad divorce and a bad family court judge is where these narcissistic, abusive parents can thrive, it’s where my ex seemed to hit his stride in life. I know, sadly, my story is not unique. I don’t know what it takes to kick this problem off the planet. I am determined to be one small part in making that happen. And I hope it’s one of those societal ills – at least the family court part of this – that people look back and say, wow, I can’t believe that happened to people

  14. Whether my ex and his family are had NPD or not, I will never know, as the definition and diagnoses seem inconclusive and difficult to define. But after leaving my ex ( and his family) I was excluded from day one – cameras were put up around the house – inside and out, I was locked in the house with his parents for a few weeks on my visits, issued with VROs from his mother, arrested for alledged GBH from his father, made out to be violent, abusive, insane and totally irresponsible, because I wanted to leave this man. The children went from having a good relationship with me to now not wanting to talk to me at all and are convinced that I am all the things that I have been made out to be. My ex and his family have removed me from my children’s lives. Despite a three year Court battle. Every trick in the book was used to exploit the system, which is an easy thing to do,whilst this was going on the children were being brainwashed more as I was not able to see them and they had no desire to see me. I can only hope that one day, my children will be able to understand both sides to the story, however, the research I have done on these personality disorders – I am not very hopeful. Added to this scenario, is religous fanatism and high moral judgement. Only an educated mind could hope to combat the superstitouse, infantile and blind following of such madness – well, my children have got me in them!!!

  15. Pingback: Parenting with a Narcissist After Divorce: Set Your Boundaries … | Family Advice

  16. This article was gerat!!! So much so that I gave a copy of it to my therapist! Thank you :-)

  17. Thank you, Tina and Paula for the article. Hugely helpful – I wish the parenting coordinator in my case read it. She has 30 years of experience and is fooled by my blatantly narcissistic ex. 30 years of experience working for the court! So frustrating… Which is why the tools in the article are so necessary – we’re in the position of having to protect our kids and ourselves within a system that is not helpful at best and damaging due to failure to recognize or care about abuse at worst. Despite piles of written evidence, I might add. OK, now I am venting :(

    Anyway, thank you SO much for the article.

  18. I think many fathers would disagree. A disclaimer at the end is not ideal, especially since it is so easy to simply write in a gender neutral or inclusive manner in the first place.

  19. Hi Nathan – I’ve been drawing N-wisdom from my female counterparts for a couple decades now (my kids have aged out of the “danger zone”), and know for a fact that most people at the receiving end of narcissists’ abuse are women, by quite a wide margin. I actually don’t personally know, on a FTF basis, any other men who have experienced this, and you will no doubt agree this life-condition is a very lonely place to be. I’ve received boundless support from those great women who have parented their way through our familiar hell (and actually married one of them!). As I read your note, it occurred to me that I now unconsiously swap gender pronouns as I read this kind of material. You probably will too some day, so meanwhile appreciate the fact that you can hear from other men in similar circumstances online. Also know that nearly all women with N-husbands also have encountered N-women, and will not discount your experience.

  20. Hi Bill – Thanks for your thoughts.

    Yes, I believe my situation is rare. I am a very involved, active, emotionally and socially nurturing father. My ex wife, as someone with NPD, is none of that.

    While everyone has unique challenges, I think there are some unique ones for fathers in this type of situation. This is because it is *assumed* that mothers will be loving and caring and dedicated to their children, even that it is “natural” for mothers to be like that. And it’s assumed that it’s just “natural” and expected for a father to be selfish, uncaring and uninvolved.

    Given that these are both false stereotypes, it’s better to not encourage them. And one EXTREMELY SIMPLE way to avoid encouraging them is to just say and write “he or she,” “mothers and fathers,” and so forth. That is far better than what the author did above.

  21. Please correct me if I am wrong but I seem to remember two points that are being overlooked, the author stated the she is writing from “her” experience and therefore uses the pronoun he, secondly she used an astriks and an explanation at the bottom of he post to explain that NPD is not unique to one sex or the other and to change the pronoun to fit your individual situation. Those of us who get lost in the semantics are losing sight of the message and perhaps they have too much time on their hands.

  22. These are lessons I learned far too late. I “suspected” NPD just shortly before our first custody trial, but completely and totally underestimated my ex’s abilities – if I could so clearly see what he was (lying, manipulative and mentally “off”), then there was absolutely no way a modern, intelligent court system and judge would fail to see through him. Wrong!

    PLEASE do not make my mistake – I lost custody of my son because narcissists are able to charm and sway everyone who has not been exposed to their dark side. Male or female, they are able to convince everyone around them that YOU are the one with problems. The only thing that later saved me from a no-contact order was carrying a video camera and tape recorder to “prove” that we were doing nothing wrong. Having said that, do NOT rely on the courts to see through anything, even with this type of evidence. During our second custody battle (I lost again but got way more time), the judge refused to consider the taped phone conversations of him calling me in the middle of the night screaming like a psychopath because our son needed to go to the doctor and I did it on “my time” anyway. Yes, you heard that right – the judge listened to his screaming and his threats and REFUSED to consider them, even though they were legally obtained.

    Unless you have the strongest of evidence – and to date, I still don’t know how much the legal system needs to hear/see before they actually understand – courts will not believe you. The N will convince other people to lie, they will lie, and the judges will believe them. Be wary – the only way to “win” is to NOT ENGAGE them. Short, sweet replies only. Do not be tempted to rant or try to defend yourself because you will come off looking just as bad or even worse than the N you are dealing with.