How to parent in a high conflict divorce

written by

Emma Heptonstall

Emmaheptonstall.com Image

date published

21st February 2022

As a parent, your children are your top priority. Am I right? Unfortunately, if you’re married to a narcissist, the same is not true for them. Parents with narcissistic traits do not, cannot, put the children’s needs in front of their own. So how do you protect your children’s wellbeing and your own? Here’s how to parent in a high conflict divorce. 

What does narcissistic parenting look like?

Before we get into narcissistic parenting, a reminder of how people with narcissistic traits tend to act. They usually display some or all of the following:

  • Unregulated emotions
  • Black and white thinking
  • An inability to accept they are wrong
  • A lack of empathy for what others experience
  • An inflated sense of their own importance 

All of these tendencies affect how they parent. Your children are likely to experience the highs and lows of their narcissistic parent’s volatility just as you did. For example, maybe your soon-to-be-ex will wow them with special experiences, making them feel the centre of the universe – the lovebombing that’s common at the start of relationships with narcissists. And withdraw, leaving your child feeling rejected, neglected or blamed when things don’t go to plan. 

Quite often, as narcissists see their children as extensions of themselves, they will show love when a child is succeeding, and withdraw that love when they don’t ‘succeed’ in the same way. Did your child win the race at sport’s day? They can expect to be showered with affection. Did they come last? It’s unlikely their narcissist parent will praise them for giving it a go. 

If you have more than one child your soon-to-be-ex may respond to each differently. Maybe one child is the golden one, a projection of the narcissist’s own inflated ego. The one that proves how special they are. Whereas their siblings may be ignored or scapegoated. These roles may change over time, leaving your children competing with each other for favour. 

Your children may find they simply don’t feature in their narcissistic parent’s life. EIther the narcissist refuses contact, or only does it on their own terms. And when they are with their children, it’s still all about what the narcissist wants to do, rather than the children’s own needs and interests. 

Your narcissistic ex may also use their time with your children to bad mouth you. Remember, narcissists can’t be wrong. So if your marriage is over, of course it’s your fault, not theirs. And it’s unlikely a narcissist will keep their feelings and opinions to themselves.

There’s no simple blueprint for narcissistic behaviour. It can take different forms and these can change over time. One thing’s for certain – your children are unlikely to experience healthy boundaries or consistency when they are with your ex-spouse. 

What impact does it have on your children? 

It goes without saying that all of this is far from ideal for your children. They have a right to expect to be cared for, respected and loved. It will feel disorientating if they don’t know what to expect each time they are with your narcissistic ex. It can erode their self esteem and sense of safety. 

So, how will this show up? You may witness changes in your children’s behaviour, and changes in their behaviour towards you. 

Anything that undermines a person’s self esteem will leave them vulnerable to poorer mental health. Your child may show signs of being depressed or anxious: not wanting to leave their room, participate in groups, or go to school.

Your child may have outbursts of anger, particularly directed towards you. There are a few reasons for this, and it’s important not to take them personally. For starters, you’re your child’s safe person. This is a good thing: it’s the very best thing you can be. But it does mean they will take any feelings out on you. They can’t possibly be rude to their other parent without fearing rejection. You, on the other hand, offer love consistently.

Your child may also have been told the divorce, or any problems going on, are your fault. So, of course they are going to blame you. And they will be looking for someone to blame, we all do when things don’t go as we want them to. 

None of this is fair, or easy, for you or your children. But what can you do about it?

How can you support your children?

The bad news first: unless there are safeguarding issues, it’s unlikely you can stop your narcissistic ex from seeing your children. They have parental rights, and the courts generally see having contact with both parents and in the best interests of the children. Abuse can be a grey area. You may feel that the volatility and emotional withdrawal that your children experience is a form of abuse – and I understand and agree. But unless you can demonstrate significant harm or neglect it is unlikely you will be able to argue your child should not see their other parent. 

And the other piece of bad news: you are unlikely to be able to change your soon-to-be-ex’s behaviour. They won’t like criticism, or implied criticism, of how they are with your children. 

But all is not lost. The good news is you are more powerful than you realise in your children’s eyes. By being a loving, stable force in their lives you can provide them with the anchor and sanctuary they need to weather the storms provided by their other parent. You may find their mental health improves as they can more clearly relax into the healthy family environment you can provide now you have some distance from your narcissistic spouse. 

Being the safe parent

Don’t underestimate the positive impact you have on your children. You can help to neutralise the harm done by:

  • Showing them you love them unconditionally – it’s not dependent on good grades, or even good behaviour (this doesn’t mean you have to stand for disrespectful behaviour, more on that later!)
  • Regularly help them see their own strengths: ‘You kept going, even though it was hard!’
  • Helping to debunk unhelpful thoughts about themselves: ‘You say you’re stupid, why do you think that? That’s not what I see and here’s why…’
  • Gently reminding them that their other parent behaves like that with others, so they children don’t blame themselves. This is a fine line, as you don’t want to openly criticize them. But you can say things like: ‘It must hurt that Daddy ignored you after the football game. He does that to me sometimes too – it’s not your fault. And you were a fabulous team player. Let’s go and get some ice cream. ’

In ‘standard’ divorces I would strongly urge you to collaborate over parenting styles, and come up with some principles together. But in this case, your role is very much about modelling a healthy family dynamic. You can show your children that whatever happens when they are with their other parent, they are safe with you. 

It may be that your ex-spouse will accept the involvement of a parenting co-ordinator. A parenting co-ordinator is a trained professional who can work with you both to resolve high conflict issues relating to your children. While a narcissist is unlikely to take feedback from you, they may be more willing to work with a third party to reach an agreement. Parenting co-ordinators can be called upon both during and after the divorce process. You can find out more about them here. 

If you’re concerned about your children’s mental health, please do seek help. Unfortunately, CAMHS are very stretched, but it is still worth contacting your GP for a referral. Seek out other avenues too: what does your school or local council have on offer? Are private therapists an option for you? 

Don’t forget about yourself

Parenting is hard at the best of times. Parenting during and after divorce can be even harder. And parenting when your ex-spouse is a narcissist takes the biscuit. So do remember to look after yourself. 

Yes, it’s important that you offer your children love and security. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect! Of course you’re going to shout sometimes. Of course you’re going to have days when you just want to lock yourself in the bedroom and ignore them. That doesn’t make you a bad parent, it makes you human. 

When you recognise why your children are acting out, it’s easier to treat them with compassion. But it doesn’t mean they can get away with everything. They need healthy boundaries. Call them out when they are rude to you. Keep reminding them to pick their clothes off the floor – or whatever it is. Deep down, they want to be parented, not left to roam free. They are children. 

Looking after your own emotional health is more important than ever when you’re parenting alongside a narcissist. It’s draining. You can’t do it alone. And you don’t have to.

Join The Absolute Academy

The Absolute Academy is a private community of women who want to gain control of their divorce and feel better while they do it. A community of women who are there to support each other through divorce. And get my knowledge, coaching and support each week too. 

I know every divorce is unique, especially when it comes to high conflict, and that’s why I hold Q&As every week to answer your individual questions. The Q&A is recorded so you can watch the replay if you can’t attend live. 

Parenting in a high conflict divorce, as well as managing the divorce process, is perhaps the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. Let me and the ladies of The Absolute Academy be there for you. Join us today. 

About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of  The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com

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