How to co-parent with a narcissist (without losing your mind)
Updated: May 12, 2021
If you were in a relationship with a narcissist and you have children together, you are facing one of the biggest hurdles you will ever have to overcome.
Custody disputes, co-parenting, arranging access to the children — all of these are nuanced action items which give your narcissist ex a chance to toy with your emotions or enact revenge. This can add stress and headache to your life, and drain your emotional energy.
If you’re sharing parenthood with a narcissist, you’re facing an uphill struggle — but it’s a struggle you can manage with a cool mind and proper planning. There is no greater motivation in life than doing your best and being strong for the sake of your children, so let that be your guiding force.
Is co-parenting with a narcissist even possible?
Let’s be completely honest; the narcissist mind has absolutely no idea how to work as part of a team.
A narcissist is highly unlikely to put the child’s best interests before their own. It will also be difficult to disagree with them on any issue regarding the kids. Narcissists become angry when challenged — they always need to feel that they are “right.”
Because of these personality traits, your task is not to co-parent with, but rather is spite of, your narcissist co-parent. You will need to manage the situation in a way that you ensure that both you and your children are shielded from any anger, controlling behaviour or manipulation they may direct toward you.
In this post, we offer tips for how best to deal with a narcissist in any co-parenting situation. It isn’t easy, but it can be done.
1. Choose your battles wisely and sparingly.
While you don’t want to come across as the antagonist, you’ll need want to keep things real from the start. Be direct. No fluff, no nonsense, and no excuses.
In any co-parenting situation, there are usually a few aspects of the parenting plan that the co-parents don’t agree upon. This is perfectly normal.
However, the motivation that drives the decisions of a narcissist are typically very narrow and self-serving; instead of being driven by a desire to do what is right by the children, a narcissist is almost always driven by what is good for them instead.
So, pick your battles — don’t fight about the insignificant aspects of your parenting plan. Don’t try to get them to see or do things your way; it is highly unlikely that this will ever happen.
2. Avoid conflict when possible.
Regardless of how angry you may feel, you need to try and avoid conflict as much as possible.
Don’t forget; a narcissist thrives on conflict. They love attention, they love causing friction and they derive personal pleasure from one-upping you, “winning” — or simply just ruining your day. In many cases, they will try to sustain a relationship with you by starting a conflict.
When you give a narcissist reasons to fight with you or to argue, you are feeding their negative habits.
Always to keep the conversation on your children. If they try to draw in other topics, steer clear.
To help avoid conflict, arrange to meet in a public place that is considered to be neutral for any picking up or dropping off of the children.
3. Get everything in writing.
With a narcissist, avoid “verbal agreements” wherever possible. A narcissist is unlikely to honer these agreements and may deny anything that can’t be traced back with a paper trail. Ideally, channel all communications via email where they can be tracked and traced with ease.
Make sure that wherever possible, you get agreements confirmed or communicated in writing. It is a fairly typical characteristic of a narcissist to make a promise that they later fail to deliver upon.
For instance, they may refuse to pay child support because they see this as “giving you money” rather than paying to help support their child. Unless you have a written, traceable support agreement, they can say anything in court.
For contentious matters, make sure you keep records of your communications, clearly arranged and in chronological order. In case you need to share this with a lawyer or solicitor later, it is always a good idea to have things organised and easy to access.
4. Always take a ‘worst case scenario’ approach.
No, it certainly isn’t the most positive way to look at things — but optimism can’t get in the way of strategy when co-parenting with a narcissist.
A narcissist isn’t likely to forgive and forget, or suddenly take a more mature approach for the sake of their children. Narcissist are known to focus on unhealthy habits like revenge and hold grudges for ridiculously long periods of time.
Unfortunately, this may lead your narcissist ex to do whatever it takes to try to hurt you — irrespective of the impact this might have on your children. Remember, they see the world through a very selfish lens.
Planning for the worst isn’t just about finances or custody; it is about planning what you are going to say to your ex before having difficult conversations and working through “worst case” scenarios in your head before they occur.
By preparing for key interactions in advance, you are helping yourself to maintain control in a situation, instead of allowing your ex to harm your stability or wellbeing with the element of surprise. Proper planning can help you deal with difficult circumstances with a rational mind — and when children are involved, this is always the best way forward.
5. Set clear boundaries, and stick to them.
Narcissists are pushy by nature. This is why they often do well in business, win court cases, lead companies and rise quickly to the top of organisations. This is also why they are a nightmare when it comes to negotiating co-parenting and divorce agreements.
As you probably experienced when you were married to them, narcissists can wear you out and grind you down emotionally until you eventually give in to whatever their present demands are at the time. Now that you are out of your relationship with them, the emotional abuse put onto your back by your narcissist ex is not something you can allow to continue. Set your boundaries and stick to them.
Setting and sustaining your boundaries with a person who has little respect for others isn’t going to be easy.
Remember, you are no longer in relationship with this person. You do not need to be concerned with changing their narcissistic behaviour. Your only task is to set and keep firm boundaries to protect yourself and your children — to create and stick to a parenting plan in the best interest of your children.
6. Be confident; your narcissist ex is not in control (regardless of what they think).
One of the most difficult things to do at the start (it gets easier!) is to stay strong and be assertive.
It doesn’t matter how abusive or manipulative they were toward you during your relationship together, nor how long you ensured that treatment. Now you are out of it, you must stand up for yourself and for the rights of your children.
This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of co-parenting with a narcissist. If you’re a passive person by nature, your narcissist ex has likely become used to bulldozing past your wishes and/or getting their own way. Your new, assertive approach will result in an initial pushback because they’ve grown accustomed to overpowering you.
Don’t worry about this pushback. They can yell, scream, and jump up and down — it isn’t your problem. Let them behave like a child if they wish. You can continue with dignity.
A narcissist is unlikely to understand the importance of setting boundaries or the importance of consistency. They may accuse you of being aggressive, or demanding, or both, because they aren’t used to you standing up for yourself. State your case, stay in control, and hold your head high like the confident woman you are.
You’ve go this. We believe in you.
7. Forgive yourself for digressions or mistakes.
You will make mistakes, and you might want to apologise and fall back when you do.
However, when you co-parent with a narcissist, they are likely to take any mistake you make and throw it back at you as ammunition. They know how to blow your weaknesses out of proportion, and may even try to turn your mistakes into evidence that you are an unfit parent or worse. Remember, a narcissist’s focus is winning, not mediation. They are most likely concerned with hurting you and unconcerned with the truth.
If you do make a mistake (which we all do, quite often) don’t dwell on them or allow your narcissist co-parent to use them against you — just do your best to fix it and move on.
8. Put the kids first, always.
Co-parenting with a narcissist means that you are in a relationship with someone who is always going to put their needs ahead of those of their children.
They are likely to use your children as pawns — to provoke empathy, to get their way, to exercise some form of control over you or your happiness.
Because of this, you always need to make sure you’re putting the needs of your children first. They are the ultimate ones who pay the price for their narcissist parent’s poor decisions if things are left in a battle. Do what’s best for them, and let the rest go.
9. Model good behaviour — even when your co-parent isn’t.
As long as your children have at least one positive role model in their lives, they will thrive.
If you can help to demonstrate maturity, responsibility and accountability, the behaviour of your unhealthy co-parent cannot harm them.
Never badmouth your ex-partner when you are co-parenting with a narcissist, and do not stoop to their petty or antagonistic behaviours. Always show your children how to behave as a healthy adult, regardless of the actions of your narcissist co-parent.
10. Encourage your children to stay active and busy.
Try to encourage your child to take part in activities that will enable them to expand their minds and explore their interests. When co-parenting with a narcissist you will likely get pushback on any scheduled activities for the children which their children which impact their parenting time, and may look at scheduling from an “inconvenience” point of view.
Narcissists are territorial and self-involved with their thinking and time.
Regardless of whether or not their regular activities or hobbies impede on the other parent’s schedule; they matter to your child, so push back and stand your ground. Having interests outside of the family unit is valuable to their wellbeing and sense of self, especially in a changing home environment.
Give parallel parenting a try.
In any type of high-conflict situation, working together for the greater good of the children isn’t always possible.
However, parallel parenting presents an ideal solution. Essentially, this style of parenting works well for those who need to find a way to make co-parenting with a narcissist work. It means that both parents are able to make decisions about the children when they are under their care.
The primary goal of parallel parenting is to prevent any type of conflict occurring in front of the children. The second is to limit and reduce the amount of contact between both parents.
One of the initial steps in the process is to make a plan. It will need to be a detailed plan, that is specific, and they are usually found in a custody agreement that will be available for your local court’s administration office. Here are just a few suggestions about what to include in a parallel parenting plan.
Days, dates, and time for visitation, to include the drop-off and return times where possible.
The location of the collection and drop-off point.
Provisions for any cancellations of time with the children and how/if they are made up.
Outline the dispute resolution process.
Aside from this, you might also need to pay attention to other matters, such as which parent will be responsible for different activities or which parent gets to spend holidays with the children. Many choose to do holidays on a rotation.
Finding solutions that work for everyone rather than giving in to the demands of your narcissist co-parent. It’s a hard negotiation, but it’s worth it.
Divorce is hard, and you’re doing a great job.
It is highly unlikely that the narcissist is ever really going to change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in co-parenting with one. For the sake of your children, keep things nice and amicable wherever you can.
Sure, it might be hell at times. But it’s nothing you can’t handle. You’ve come this far, after all — no reason to give up now.
We’re by your side.