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Co parenting with a narcissist: Navigating the Challenges with a Narcissistic Ex

Co-parenting with an individual possessing a full-fledged personality disorder is exceptionally demanding, according to Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, the author of “Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life.”

Narcissists exhibit a highly unstable self-image, often displaying inflexibility, defensiveness, and managing situations in unhealthy ways.

In the case of a parenting partner with narcissistic tendencies, they may disregard, challenge, or test established boundaries.

Co parenting with a narcissist
Co parenting with a narcissist

Their approach to parenting may lack the desired structure, empathy, or respect.

When provided with feedback or criticism, they frequently react with anger, making compromise challenging and subjecting you to their negativity.

It’s crucial to differentiate between possessing narcissistic traits and having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a recognized mental health condition.

While someone with narcissistic traits may not necessarily be mentally unwell or have a personality disorder, understanding this distinction is vital.

Narcissism itself exists on a spectrum, where some traits may be mild and not necessarily impactful on others.

These traits may encompass a grandiose self-view, arrogant behavior, self-serving thoughts, and a craving for admiration. The primary concern is ensuring that these traits do not negatively affect the well-being of the children involved, such as the narcissistic parent prioritizing their needs over the child’s.

Additionally, other narcissistic traits, such as a lack of empathy, can pose challenges in co-parenting.

Parenting with someone experiencing empathy issues may create difficulties, as they may struggle to comprehend and relate to the child’s or the other parent’s perspectives.

However, the question remains: “How can you regain control in the context of co-parenting?”

Establish a legal parenting plan

Narcissists may desire extensive involvement in parenting matters. By creating a legal parenting plan or custody agreement, you ensure that all details are documented. This written agreement serves as a formal enforcement mechanism by an impartial party outside your relationship, preventing your ex from demanding additional time or manipulating situations.

The plan should address various aspects such as responsibility for medical costs (including payment percentages), visitation schedules for regular days, and plans for holidays. It is crucial to provide a thorough and detailed documentation to eliminate any potential ambiguities that could be exploited.

While working with a lawyer incurs expenses, establishing a legal plan proves beneficial for the entirety of your co-parenting years.

Take advantage of court services

A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a court-appointed, neutral individual responsible for safeguarding the “best interest of a child.” You have the option to request the appointment of a GAL.

The guardian familiarizes themselves with your child’s situation and makes recommendations to the court based on the child’s needs. In the context of co-parenting, this may involve determining where the child will primarily reside or specifying the extent of contact with each parent.

In contrast, mediators act as intermediaries for communication and resolution between parents. Depending on jurisdiction, they may be mandatory in custody disputes or optional in others.

Mediators assist in resolving the issues that led you and your ex to court. They don’t issue orders or provide advice. Instead, parents collaborate on a parenting plan during mediation, which is then presented to a judge and subsequently becomes a court-ordered arrangement.

Maintain firm boundaries

Narcissists thrive on eliciting reactions from others, whether positive or negative. Establishing boundaries is a method to control your ex’s ability to provoke strong emotions in you.

For instance, propose communicating solely through text or email, providing a buffer that allows you time to compose your responses to requests and other communications. This approach also aids in documentation, a topic we’ll delve into shortly.

Extend these boundaries to your ex’s interactions with your child. If your court-ordered agreement permits, consider scheduling specific times for your ex to communicate with your child during visitations. Maintain steadfast adherence to these boundaries. Initially, the narcissist may resist such limitations, but over time, you’ll realize their necessity and significant benefits.

Parent with empathy

Navigating the complexities of co-parenting can be challenging, but make a conscious effort to prioritize your child. Practicing empathetic parenting involves placing yourself in your child’s shoes and responding to situations with their feelings as a primary consideration.

Assist your child in recognizing and expressing their emotions, whether it’s sadness, frustration, or anger. Providing them with the tools to articulate their feelings enables better communication and coping during difficult times. Remember that your child may not be receiving this positive modeling or understanding from their narcissistic parent, underscoring the heightened significance of your empathetic approach.

Avoid speaking ill of the other parent in front of the kids

Additionally, it is advisable to refrain from engaging in conflicts with your ex, avoiding specific name-calling or airing complaints publicly. Instead, consider confiding in a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Keeping such disagreements private prevents putting your child in the center of an unwanted situation, reducing stress and the burden of taking sides.

Avoid emotional arguments

Once more, strive to minimize emotional involvement. Your ex may derive satisfaction from witnessing your heightened anxiety or distress, so refrain from providing them that gratification. Additionally, avoid involving your child in arguments or using them as a mediator or information gatherer. Maintain direct communication with your ex.

If maintaining emotional distance proves challenging, consider approaching communications with your ex as a professional obligation. While complete agreement may not be attainable, the focus should be on collaborative efforts. This mindset can assist you in navigating difficult discussions and minimizing conflicts.

Expect challenges

Adjusting your expectations can be beneficial. If you anticipate some resistance in various parenting scenarios, you may experience less shock or stress when challenges arise. Conversely, you might find pleasant surprises if situations unfold more smoothly than expected.

Keep in mind that co-parenting can be challenging even in amicable situations. While dealing with a narcissist may exacerbate difficulties, some challenges are inherent in adapting to the changes that come with establishing a new normal.

Document everything

Record everything meticulously, either in written form or by maintaining a digital log of significant details. This may encompass dates and times when your ex-partner fails to adhere to agreed-upon visitation schedules or instances of suspected abuse or neglect. Capture any deviations from the agreed-upon terms or situations that feel amiss, as this documentation becomes crucial if legal action is necessary.

Consider involving an impartial individual, such as a neighbor, to serve as a witness to the described events, especially in cases of delayed or missed pick-ups/drop-offs. The evidence gathered can be utilized in court proceedings to strengthen your case for custody, emphasizing the importance of documenting even the smallest details.

Consider counseling

If you find the situation overwhelming, consider seeking assistance. A licensed therapist can provide valuable support in addressing challenges and finding solutions for particularly difficult scenarios. Even engaging in discussions about your emotions with a neutral individual can help you gain perspective and reevaluate your circumstances.

Therapy is also beneficial for your child. Their feelings about the divorce may differ from yours. Explore local school or community groups for children of divorce. Additionally, if you observe your child struggling or exhibiting challenging behavior, consult your pediatrician for a referral to a child or adolescent therapist.

Maintain perspective on conflicts

In the most challenging moments, recognize the nature of the challenge you face. Despite projecting bold confidence, the narcissist harbors extreme sensitivity to criticism and likely possesses low self-esteem beneath the surface. Your conflicts are more about protecting their ego than addressing the actual situations.

Understanding this dynamic is a significant step. The key is to maintain your sanity and ensure your child’s safety. Advocate for your child, prioritizing their well-being. Shifting the focus away from constant disputes and directing your efforts toward what truly matters will ultimately strengthen your relationship with your children in the long run.

Try parallel parenting

Consider adopting a parallel parenting approach when traditional co-parenting proves challenging. Unlike co-parenting, parallel parenting minimizes contact with the ex-partner, allowing each parent to independently raise the child during their custody periods.

In this arrangement, parents refrain from attending events like school concerts, sports activities, or parent-teacher conferences together. Neutral locations are chosen for pick-ups/drop-offs during visitations, and communication is limited to essential matters. While this approach may initially seem unsettling for the child, it effectively eliminates conflicts between parents, offering potential benefits.

Parallel parenting
Parallel parenting

With sufficient distancing, there is a possibility that improved communication and cooperation may develop between you and your ex-partner over time.

Avoid these behaviors when co-parenting with a narcissist:

  1. Refrain from engaging in arguments. Narcissists employ tactics that make it challenging to prevail in arguments, often using circular communication to confuse and overwhelm. Respond with clear and brief answers, devoid of emotion. Avoid over-explaining or providing excessive information, employing the “grey rock method.”
  2. Do not succumb to fear. Recognize that narcissists thrive on instilling fear. Understand their motivations and desires for attention and praise. Acknowledge their positive actions but maintain firm boundaries.
  3. Resist the urge to control everything. While fulfilling your parenting responsibilities, allow some flexibility in handling the narcissist’s parenting approach. Focus on essential aspects, ensuring your children return well-fed and unharmed.
  4. Avoid exploiting your child. Resist using your child as a means to gain an advantage. Narcissistic partners may attempt to manipulate your child for personal gain or to gather private information. Refrain from participating in such behaviors.

The challenges of co-parenting with a narcissist

Co-parenting alone poses unique challenges that require cooperative efforts, particularly in aspects like custody arrangements and holiday planning.

However, dealing with a narcissistic co-parent introduces distinct obstacles due to traits such as an inflated sense of importance, constant need for attention, history of turbulent relationships, and lack of empathy.

These characteristics are counterproductive to positive parenting and a healthy family dynamic.

Melanie Tonia Evans, author of “You Can Thrive After Narcissistic Abuse,” highlights additional challenges in co-parenting with a narcissist, including disagreements over custody, a lack of cooperation for the child’s well-being, and interference with the child’s routine, appointments, and belongings.

A common thread running through these challenges is the narcissist’s strong desire for control.

Despite the frustrations, it is generally advisable to find ways to make the situation work with both parents involved in the child’s life, unless there is evidence of abuse or compelling reasons to keep the ex away from the child.

It may be challenging to shield kids from a co-parent’s personality issues when you’re not present to witness the situation,” Ettensohn advises. Instead, focus on what you can control:

  1. Communication with your child: Have age-appropriate conversations to help them understand their other parent’s behavior. Emphasize that the parent’s actions are about them, not the child.
  2. Be mindful of your words: Avoid making negative remarks about your co-parent, as this can potentially turn your child against you and create a sense of obligation to pick sides. Be cautious of non-verbal cues, conversations within earshot, and comparisons between your child and the narcissistic parent.
  3. Vigilance for signs of abuse: Pay attention to any behavior that may indicate physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
  4. Exhibit healthy parenting: While you can’t control how your partner parents, you can counterbalance it with healthy parenting practices. Serve as a positive role model, guide your child through challenges, and provide acceptance, warmth, realistic appraisal, and consistency as an antidote to the partner’s narcissism.

Despite the difficulties of co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-husband, Blake maintains perspective, noting that children only need one high-functioning parent to grow into thriving adults.


Co-parenting with a narcissist can seem incredibly challenging. However, adjusting your approach to gain more control over the situation is crucial.

Refrain from engaging in your ex’s attempts to provoke a reaction and seek support from your network and available court and community services.

Implementing certain tips can help you navigate this challenging dynamic, mitigating potential emotional or mental repercussions for both you and the child.

Strategies include establishing clear boundaries, meticulous documentation and legal planning, prioritizing love and empathy for the child, and actively seeking assistance from support groups.

Most importantly, maintain open communication with your child throughout the co-parenting process.

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