Building resilience in children when co-parenting with a narcissist

By Belinda Bryer

5 minute read

The tensions of co-parenting with a narcissist

For anyone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist and has through their own strength and determination, brought that relationship to a final end, there is a deep sense of relief. Walking away from the pain and negativity a narcissist brings into their world is life-changing and marks a new era as they move on from the trouble and anguish they have endured.

There are, however, a significant number of people for whom this separation is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. For these individuals, their lives are forever entangled with their abuser and they must grapple daily with the fact that the person who was responsible for so much pain and suffering in their relationship also played a part in creating the most important thing they have ever known; their children.

Building resilience in children when co-parenting with a narcissist

If this resonates with you, it is because the tension here is real and the impact cannot be minimised. Co-parenting presents an array of challenges for anyone, and the added difficulty of co-parenting with a narcissist only aggravates these issues.

If a relationship has recently ended and if your partner was narcissistic and abusive, it is only natural for you to wish to distance yourself as much as possible. It is likely that you have endured significant suffering at the hands of your partner, and it is highly probable that the manipulative and self-serving behaviours of the narcissist are continuing.

A parent is right to want to protect their children from these behaviours and the potential emotional abuse that can occur as a result.

The initial reaction may be to attempt to cease contact between your children and the narcissist altogether in order to protect them as much as possible however the problem with this is twofold.

Firstly, children have a right to know and maintain a relationship with both of their parents. This is important for a child’s identity and sense of self. If all contact was ended and your partner were to take the matter to court, it is likely that some form of contact would be ordered to occur to maintain this relationship at some level. Only in the most serious of circumstances is contact completely prohibited altogether.*

The second complicating factor when it comes to ceasing all contact is that the end result can actually be counterproductive, and children may build up a picture of the narcissistic parent that is unduly positive. Children may end up placing this parent on a pedestal as they are unaware of, or have forgotten, the negative aspects of the narcissistic behaviour.

Children may find themselves thinking the “grass would be greener” with the other parent, especially when the parent they reside with has been tasked with the gruelling day-to-day work of parenting.

Ways of building resilience in your child when co-parenting with a narcissist

The remainder of this article aims to assist you in your co-parenting with a narcissist and will explore the ways that resilience can be built and encouraged in children as a means of protecting them from the potentially harmful behaviour of the narcissist.

Remember, you will not be able to change the narcissist’s behaviour or personality. So the question is how do you balance co-parenting with keeping your children safe? The answer, for the most part, lies within building resilience within children themselves.

Resilience refers to the ability to recover from difficulties quickly and knowing how to cope despite setbacks and barriers. In children, resilience begins developing from a very young age. Parents are able to assist in the development of resilience in a number of ways.

building resilience when co-parenting with narcissist

Being their safe base

Firstly, by providing a safe and secure “base” for children to return to as they explore and learn about the world. Part of being this safe base is allowing your child to go out into the world, or, in this case, see the narcissistic parent, and then being the calm, safe and secure point to which they return. This is no easy feat. It requires you to put your own emotions to the side momentarily while you listen to your child and take on board whatever it might be that they tell you about what happened while they were with their other parent.

Fostering a strong sense of self

Identity

An important part of resilience is a child’s self-esteem, sense of self and identity. Allowing your child to have a level of autonomy in their life and giving them opportunities to demonstrate responsibility is key.

Internal locus of control

So is encouraging the mastery of new skills to grow confidence and self-belief. This also supports an internal locus of control where the child develops an understanding that they can influence external events rather than considering the opposite as is often an outcome of narcissistic abuse.

Discernment

Helping them develop their discernment and ability to reject negative messages about themselves all increase their resilience and, in turn, provide them with essential skills in how to manage their relationship with their narcissistic parent.

Direction

It is also important that children have a sense of purpose in life and hope for their future. This can be fostered through goal setting and encouraging your children to have aspirations.

Building resilience in children through direction

Modelling healthy relationships

Finally, it is critical that children have access to other healthy relationships outside of their parents. This may be an aunt or uncle, a teacher at school or a spiritual advisor. Building strong and supportive social networks and modelling healthy, respectful relationships assists children in setting their own boundaries and knowing what to expect when it comes to their own relationships with others, including their parents.

The importance of resilience in co-parenting with a narcissist

Building resilience in your children gives them power in their relationship with their narcissistic parent. It teaches them about their own self-worth and makes them less vulnerable to manipulation.

As children get older, resilience will help them to respectfully speak up for themselves and protect them from potentially entering their own dysfunctional relationships.

Ultimately it is about giving them the life skills they will require to maintain healthy boundaries with their narcissistic parent well into adulthood and as they begin to have families of their own.

*  Note: There are, of course, some situations where a child is unable to safely see a parent alone and where the risk of serious abuse is too high. In these situations, it is imperative that the safe parent seeks legal and professional support to explore their options. This may include allowing only supervised visits, obtaining legal orders around contact, or prohibiting contact altogether.

Belinda Bryer has qualifications in psychology, and works in Domestic Violence, supporting families to regain safety & well being. 

Related articles: How to avoid being like a narcissistic parent

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