What Is Counterparenting? How to Handle a Saboteur

Counterparenting is the opposite of co-parenting. Rather than setting aside differences to parent effectively, one parent actively works against the other. This is a parenting arrangement you should avoid.

Counterparents may think they're punishing the other parent, but ultimately they're hurting their own child. Many counterparents are narcissists who only care about getting their way to assume control over how the child is raised.

If you're dealing with a counterparent, you'll have to work twice as hard to undo the damage done.

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Examples of counterparenting

Counterparenting means intentionally working against a co-parent to undermine how they're raising the children. The counterparent is not doing this because the way the other parent is raising the child is harmful. Rather, they do it to spite the other parent.

Counterparents often:

  • Let their kids do things the other parent would never allow
  • Badmouth the other parent in the presence of the child
  • Tell the child the other parent is to blame when something goes wrong
  • Prevent the other parent from speaking with the child during visits
  • Encourage the child to be insubordinate
  • Tell the child the other parent doesn't care about them
  • Disobey court orders

Counterparenting by a narcissist

Narcissistic counterparents place themselves at the center of everything rather than prioritizing their children. To a narcissistic counterparent, the most important part of parenting is "winning." They want to:

  • Have sole authority over how the child is raised
  • Become the favored parent
  • Control who is involved in the child's life

Narcissistic counterparents believe only they know what is best for the child. Plus, they feel that the other parent has wronged them in some way and should be punished. In turn, they target the softest spot for a parent – their child.

Effects of counterparenting on children

While the counterparent might think they're only hurting their ex, they're doing far more damage to their child.

For a counterparent, the child's needs and emotions are secondary to spiting the other parent. As a result, the child doesn't get the love and affection they need. They might feel unloved and develop self-esteem issues.

If a narcissistic counterparent is involved with their child, they may try to get the child to emulate them. They'll do things like making the child participate in a sport they used to play even if the child doesn't like it. Children in this situation lack a sense of self and hold themselves to unrealistic standards to try to appease the counterparent.

Counterparents also have a habit of guilt-tripping their children. For example, if the child talks about a gift the other parent bought them, the counterparent will say "I guess nothing I give you is good enough" to discourage the child from speaking positively about the parent. The child has to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting them.

As the child gets older, they might distance themselves from the counterparent as they realize how the counterparent's actions have affected them.

Countering counterparenting

Encourage your child to confide in you. Being around a counterparent can be emotionally exhausting for your child. Let them know that it's okay to express their emotions. Ask about their time visiting the other parent without prying too much. This will give them a comfortable space to open up.

Stick to your guns. Don't change up what you're doing because the other parent is trying to undermine you. When the child does something that's unacceptable in your home, dole out the appropriate disciplinary response. The child may start adhering to your rules even when they're not under your roof.

Consider switching the parenting arrangement. If you're attempting to co-parent, you'll need to communicate often with the counterparent. This gives them myriad opportunities to sabotage what you think is best for your child. Consider switching to a different arrangement like parallel parenting, which doesn't require much communication or cooperation between parents.

Expect the counterparent's behavior. Anticipating what the counterparent will do next could help you develop strategies to deal with their behavior. Plus, if you go to court, showing patterns in their behavior will help your case. Make note of everything they do that's in direct opposition to what you do, like letting the kids stay up late on school nights or dropping the kids off late for visits.

Don't stoop to their level. The urge to lash out at the counterparent will be strong. However, leveling accusations and name-calling will only embolden their behavior. If you'd like to know more about what's happening while your kids are with them, ask open-ended questions: "What did Ryan have for dinner last night?", "What time did he go to sleep?"

Monitoring counterparenting behavior

Counterparents think the rules don't apply to them. It's important you make note of all their actions in case you have to go back to court or begin a court case.

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