Perhaps you have known for a while that your partner is narcissistic, or perhaps you are just waking up to this reality. If this is new to you, read everything you can about narcissism so you understand what you’re dealing with. Seeing a therapist can be very helpful in dealing with your narcissist spouse provided you find someone who is well-acquainted with narcissism. A therapist unfamiliar with the pathology of narcissism can be invalidating and give dangerously bad advice (read more about why you can’t afford the wrong therapist).
It is important that you understand that with a narcissist parent your children are at risk for lasting emotional and physiological trauma. The more you can do to support them and buffer the harm the better.
Stop Blaming Yourself
To start, let go of self-blame and regret. These are natural feelings of people once they come to understand the true nature of their narcissist spouse.
Chances are when you got involved with your partner you had no idea what you were getting into. Narcissists are skilled at drawing people in and hiding their true nature, for a while. Or perhaps you believed you could heal the narcissist, not understanding that they are by and large “unfixable” because their personality disorder is so ingrained and they are rarely open to changing. Possibly you were raised in a narcissistic home yourself and are repeating the pattern as an adult.
Whatever the reason you involved yourself with a narcissist, wasting energy on regret and blaming yourself will only make matters worse for you and your kids.
How to Support Your Kids
The most important thing you as the healthy adult in the family need to do is respect and protect your kids as much as possible. You can’t change the fact that their other parent is a narcissist. That is something they will have to come to terms with. But you can do a lot to improve the situation for your children and help them develop coping skills.
Validate Their Feelings
A crucial thing to do for your kids is to validate their feelings. Since the narcissist parent routinely invalidates others through various means such as denial, shame, ridicule, and projection, your kids are especially in need of acknowledgement that their feelings are real, that they matter and are valid. Particularly for the child who is scapegoated (constantly targeted by the narcissist parent), it is vital to validate that their feelings of hurt and anger are justified and that they don’t deserve the treatment they are getting.
You may be tempted to try to “protect” yourself and/or kids by denying the truth at home. But denying a child’s rightful feelings protects no one, and it will destroy your child’s trust in you.
Help Them Resist Blaming Themselves
Narcissists are masters at blaming others, often for their own bad behavior. If a narcissist throws a temper tantrum it is because you did something to drive him to it. The narcissist’s mantra is, “You made me do it.” Narcissists must believe they are above reproach to shield themselves from unbearable deep-seated feelings of vulnerability and inferiority. For the narcissist personality, blaming others, particularly a scapegoated child, is as natural and necessary as breathing.
Helping your children understand that the narcissist’s blame is unfounded, unfair, and not their fault is critical to their sense of an accurate reality, as opposed to a highly distorted one engineered by your narcissist spouse. Seeing that they are not to blame will also relieve your kids of a heavy burden that should not be theirs to carry.
Tell the Truth
The fact about truth is that you need to see it and acknowledge it yourself before you can help your kids do the same.
Telling the truth is tricky terrain in the narcissist family. The narcissist thrives on lies and hiding, and she insists on keeping it that way at home. Telling your kids that their father or mother is a narcissist and giving them details can backfire disastrously if they tell the other parent what you said.
Children are able to handle different levels of “truth” depending on their age and maturity level. You have to use your best judgment about when and how much of the truth about your narcissist spouse and family life to talk about with your children. You may want to reserve using the term narcissist, for example, until your child is older. For younger children, explaining that their mother or father is very sensitive to criticism or perceived rejection (read: is pathologically defensive) and overreacts (read: behaves like a caged wolverine) is an approach you could take. Emphasize that your narcissist spouse’s anger (read: rage) is extreme and not your child’s fault or responsibility.
As with many things, kids are usually your best guide to gauging what they are ready to hear. Waiting until your child asks about something often is the right way to introduce information. How you speak with your children will evolve naturally over time as they come to better understand the family dynamics.
Don’t Demonize Your Narcissist Spouse
Be careful not to demonize your spouse (even if he acts like a demon), as this can lead to intense confusion and ambivalence in your kids, who, especially when young, will love and seek approval from their other parent no matter how badly he behaves. Tempering your own feelings about your spouse, who may be highly abusive, can feel next to impossible. But resisting your desire to cut loose with your own hurt, resentment, and anger is imperative in maintaining communication and trust with your kids, who are literally stuck in the middle. As your kids get older you will be able to talk about things more openly and perhaps share information and resources with them about narcissistic personality disorder.
Help Your Kids Develop Resilience
Our most important job as parents is to foster resilience in our children so they can face life’s challenges on their own two stable feet. This is especially true for children in a narcissistic family. The best thing you can do for them is to model and nurture resilience by providing
- unconditional love (of which their other parent is incapable);
- an empathetic response to others;
- encouragement of hard work and accomplishments, without false praise;
- support for an earned sense of competence; and
- reinforcement of confidence in and respect for their own instincts.
Don’t Take Your Kids’ Anger Personally
It’s not fair, but your kids may at times vent their worst frustrations at you. This is because they can not be honest with their narcissist parent, and they trust you enough to act out and show their real feelings. They need to exorcise the pain and trauma they are dealing with, and although it is a double bind for you as someone who already may be taking the brunt of the narcissist’s rages and manipulations, you will be called upon to rise above the madness and be strong for your children. This does not mean, however, that you should put up with abuse from your kids. Your steady devotion and nondefensiveness is a lifeline for your children, but you also need to model self-respect and strength as much as possible.
Dealing with the nightmare of trying to coparent with a narcissist ex? Read The Dos and Don’ts of CoParenting with a Narcissist.
Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear on her blog The Narcissist Family Files and in The Huffington Post and PsychCentral.com. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts).