Not long ago I discussed narcissistic personality disorder with Wendy Behary, an expert in the field, for a series I was hosting on Co-Parenting Without Power Struggles. Our conversation was fascinating.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder move through life with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, arrogance, and entitlement. They do not acknowledge the feelings and needs of others. Apologies--which would require the ability to tune in to the feelings of those around them--are typically non-existent.
I discussed the challenges of parenting with these types of individuals--married, or after divorce. Mundane tasks may feel beneath them--things like changing diapers, tidying up toys, or picking up snacks for soccer practice. The narcissistic parent can become enraged if they feel "controlled" in any way. They may refuse to wear a seat belt or may drink and drive, believing their driving ability to be so superior that they needn't comply with safety practices, even with children in the backseat.
Their need to be the center of attention can make it difficult to respond appropriately to the emotional needs of their children. A little girl shares her excitement over the part she got in the school play and the self-absorbed father makes a demeaning comment, reminding her that he was the star of every school play when he was young.
It can be heartbreaking to watch our children struggle to make sense of their parent's sarcasm, manipulation, or cruelty, or to observe them being showered with praise only when they do something that makes that parent look good to others.
Pleading and cajoling are of no use because this individual is repelled by weakness. Pointing out the harmful effects of their shaming behavior on children can intensify their rage. Asking someone incapable of empathy to behave empathetically only makes things worse.
These days, there is a heightened increase in narcissistic personality disorder as the term has found its way into conversations about political candidates. While it is impossible to diagnose someone from afar, it is good that there is more discussion about the role mental health plays in our daily lives.
Below are some of the criteria listed in the DSM 5 for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
When this individual wants something he/she can be thoroughly charming. Courtship may be intensely romantic and compelling; the narcissist knows how to behave to get what he/she wants. These individuals often have active social lives and may be quite successful in their career. They learn the rules of the game and know how to play well. Even therapists have a difficult recognizing a patient with narcissistic personality disorder.
If you are co-parenting with a narcissist, recognize that you will not--cannot--change the other person. Instead, focus on maintaining a safe and loving relationship with your children so you can lessen the impact of their other parent's confusing or hurtful behavior.
"It looked like it hurt when Daddy said that being a tree in your school play was nothing compared to him starring in his school productions. Sometimes there are parts of daddy that forget about your feelings. Are you okay?"
In addition, it can be helpful to set up non-negotiable structures and routines. And although it may be difficult, many parents who are raising children with someone who has NPD often find flattery makes things easier. "The kids love it when you're in the stands for their soccer games; they light up when they see you cheering them on."
Many people describe their former husband or wife as a narcissist. However being difficult or self-centered does not warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder which results from profound wounding in their early years. As Behary says, "They're often taught that even having needs for support, love, praise, guidance, discipline, and limits are weaknesses, things to be ashamed of...They're walled off against their own human needs."
Beneath the layers of grandiosity and self-importance lies tremendous insecurity, but defenses are nearly impenetrable. If you believe you are co-parenting partner with a true narcissist, learn more, and find support.
For more suggestions, you may find the replays of our Co-Parenting Without Power Struggles summit to be of interest. Click here for details.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.