Co-Parenting With a Narcissist: Tips and Strategies

Co-parenting can be a challenge, but if your ex is a narcissist, it may feel impossible.

Unfortunately, you know how a narcissist puts their selfish desires above their parental responsibilities and cares more about themselves than their child's well-being. You're familiar with how they lie, manipulate, and emotionally abuse in their quest for control and admiration.

And, if you're divorcing a narcissist, you're probably dealing with the effects of a high-conflict custody battle and trying to figure out how to share custody with someone so difficult.

But don't despair — equipped with the right mindset and custody tools, you can develop strategies to reduce conflict and effectively co-parent with a narcissist.

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What is narcissism?

It's important to know exactly what narcissism is when sharing custody with a narcissist ex. This helps you understand what motivates their actions so you're better equipped to deal with them and reduce harm to your child.

Narcissism is more than a tendency to be selfish or self-centered — rather, it's self-involvement so extreme that the person does not care about the effects of their behavior or the needs of others.

Keep in mind that there's a difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and someone who simply has a narcissistic personality. NPD is a mental illness that's diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. To be diagnosed with NPD, an individual must consistently exhibit at least five of the following traits:

  • Grandiose and inflated sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of glory
  • Belief that they are special and better than everyone else
  • Need for excessive admiration, compliments and validation
  • Entitlement and expectation of preferable treatment
  • Lack of empathy and unwillingness to consider the feelings of others
  • Belief that everyone is jealous of them
  • Extreme arrogance and haughty behavior

A person with narcissistic personality traits may consistently behave in any of the above ways but may not meet the NPD criteria or not be officially diagnosed.

It can be helpful to think about narcissism as a spectrum; at one end is someone with a few narcissistic traits that negatively affect others, and at the other is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Where your ex falls on that spectrum, their specific behaviors, and the nature of your relationship all factor into your co-parenting strategies.

What is a narcissistic parent?

A narcissistic parent prioritizes themself over their child — instead of helping the child develop into an emotionally healthy person, a narcissistic parent only cares about using the child to serve their own selfish needs.

A narcissistic parent sees their child as an extension of themself rather than as an individual. They often try to live through their child and punish the child for failing to meet their unreasonable expectations. They are possessive and threatened by their child's independence and relationships with others, especially with the other parent. However, when a child can't be used to serve their selfish needs, a narcissistic parent can be neglectful and outright ignore the child.

Narcissists are volatile and often have sudden outbursts of rage toward their child and others. They actively damage their child's self-esteem and confidence in order to boost their own self-worth. They can be obsessed with controlling their child and their co-parent, and they often lie, guilt-trip, gaslight and use other forms of emotional manipulation to get their way.

Having a narcissistic parent has significant and long-term psychological effects on children, including low self-esteem, internalized shame and guilt and difficulty forming secure emotional attachments.

How to co-parent with a narcissist

To successfully share custody with a narcissist, you need to treat co-parenting like a business relationship: establish detailed rules, set firm boundaries and document everything. You also need to disconnect emotionally, take care to be your child's emotionally-safe parent, and learn how to talk to — and ignore — a narcissist.

Create a detailed parenting plan

A parenting plan establishes rules for how co-parents share parenting responsibilities. Most states require a parenting plan as part of custody orders, and experts always recommend having one.

A detailed, customized plan empowers you to set firm boundaries with your narcissist ex and is one of the most important things you can do to make co-parenting with them manageable.

Your plan should be tailored to your child's specific needs and be strategically designed to protect you and your child from the effects of your ex's narcissism. It should have customized provisions and stipulations for all aspects of co-parenting, including:

  • Communication rules (between parents and between each parent and the child during the other's time)
  • Shared child-rearing guidelines, such as discipline, bedtimes, curfews, screen time, etc.
  • Decision-making rules for your child's education, medical care and religious upbringing
  • Dispute resolution processes for when you disagree on shared parenting decisions
  • Guidelines for sharing parenting expenses not covered by your child support order
  • Rules that parents don't speak negatively about each other in front of the child, use the child to convey information to each other, or use them to get information about each other
  • Any other rules to facilitate a good co-parenting relationship and protect your child's well-being

Many family courts have standard plans that you can or must use, along with requirements for what to include. However, these standard plans are rarely detailed enough for high-conflict cases — especially when a parent is a narcissist.

Because a narcissist is likely to take advantage of any chance to control and manipulate, it's essential you have a comprehensive plan to keep them in check and reduce conflict. You can supplement your court's standard plan with custom provisions or, if your court allows it, submit your own custom parenting plan. (Do both easily with the parenting plan template from Custody X Change.)

Courts can only enforce parenting plans if they're made official by a judge. During the court process (either in a settlement or trial), ask your court to turn your custom parenting plan or supplemental provisions into a court order. If a parenting plan isn't a court order, it's simply an informal agreement that parents must commit to upholding — something a narcissist is unlikely to do.

Follow a detailed parenting time schedule

A parenting time schedule explains the physical custody arrangement — when the child will be with each parent. Often part of a parenting plan, it's also called a visitation, residential or time-sharing schedule.

Requirements for how detailed your schedule must be vary depending on your state's custody laws and local court's rules. Occasionally, family courts simply order a division of parenting time (e.g., a 50/50 split) and leave it up to parents to figure out a specific schedule as they go. This is not recommended when you're co-parenting with a narcissist, who will take advantage of any flexibility to further control and manipulate you and your child.

Instead, you should have a detailed parenting time schedule that considers your child's needs, has clearly defined start and end times for each visit and rules for when and where exchanges take place. In most states, if parents have a high-conflict custody battle or if a parent requests it, courts will order a detailed physical custody schedule that both parents must follow. If either parent doesn't follow it, the other can ask the court to enforce or modify the custody orders.

When making your custody schedule (either for a settlement or as a request in a trial), consider ways to reduce your interactions with the other parent. Longer visits for each parent mean fewer exchanges and less time interacting with your ex. For example, instead of an every weekend schedule, consider four-day visits every other weekend. The weekend parent gets the same amount of time with the child, but you only see your ex every other week instead of every week.

Additionally, you should calculate your scheduled parenting time to know how much you each spend with your child. With the Custody X Change app, this gets calculated automatically.

You can also mark third-party time when your child is at school or with a caregiver other than a parent. This time is excluded from calculations, giving you a more precise look at how much time your child spends with each parent.

Often, you need parenting time information for child support calculations, and it's also important if you go back to court to get your orders enforced or modified. For example, if your ex regularly cancels visits or goes over their ordered parenting time, you can track your actual parenting time and show the judge reports as evidence.

Set firm communication boundaries

Establishing and sticking to firm communication boundaries is essential when co-parenting with a narcissist, who will use hostile and manipulative communication tactics to try and control you and keep you sucked into their toxic orbit. Setting rules and knowing how to talk to a narcissist can help put a stop to it.

In your parenting plan, set rules that protect you from unwanted, unnecessary, and unhealthy communication from your ex. Assert that you will only discuss your child and co-parenting issues with them, and immediately — but calmly — shutdown attempts to discuss off-limits topics. Set response time frames, and require that they schedule phone calls in advance.

Additionally, do not engage in arguments, and don't take the bait when they try to antagonize you. As you know, narcissists thrive on attention, so often, the best thing you can do is ignore them.

Keep in mind that experts advise against phone and in-person conversations when co-parenting with a narcissist. There's not a record of what's said, it's much harder to ignore them, you don't have time to think of strategic responses, and tension can quickly escalate into outright conflict — often in front of the child.

Instead, try to communicate with the other parent via text or email only, and consider using a messaging service designed for high-conflict co-parenting, like the one from Custody X Change.

It flags combative language before sending messages, giving the sender a chance to change them. If these messages are sent, the hostile language is clearly marked in conversation records that can be submitted to the court if necessary. You can also organize conversations by topic and add attachments to keep communication with your ex organized and well-documented.

Document everything

If you've already gone through the divorce and custody process with a narcissist, you likely learned the importance of keeping records and documenting everything. Unfortunately, the record-keeping doesn't end when the final orders are issued. You never know when a narcissist might make false claims or try to get court orders modified in order to further manipulate you, so it's important to be prepared with documentation of everything related to co-parenting.

This is a big task that becomes manageable — and even easy — with a parenting journal. Electronically organize photos and documents, take notes on interactions with the other parent, track behavior patterns for your child, and record incidents in which the other parent's narcissistic behavior impacts your child.

You can print your parenting journal for the court, and even link it to your lawyer's Custody X Change account.

Use an expense tracker to keep records of parenting expenses and payments to each other. You can also use it to request reimbursements from the other parent for shared expenses, which helps you maintain a business-like dynamic and avoid unnecessary communication.

Be the emotionally healthy parent

A narcissist parent does not prioritize their child's emotional needs. This means that you have to strive to always be the safe parent who is looking out for your child's well-being and healthy emotional development.

Allow and encourage your child to express how they feel, without judgment. Pay attention to how the other parent's narcissism inflicts emotional damage on your child, and develop strategies to prevent it and address it when it does occur.

Of course, this is challenging because the psychological effects of having a narcissist parent are extremely complex. For this reason, experts recommend mental health counseling for children of narcissists. You may also consider counseling for yourself, especially if you have symptoms of narcissistic abuse syndrome. The more you can recover from your relationship with a narcissist, the better equipped you'll be to help your child.

Consider parenting coordination

Professional assistance in the form of parenting coordination can also help you co-parent with a narcissist. A parenting coordinator is a custody expert (usually a mental health professional) who is appointed by the court during a high-conflict case or hired by parents after they get custody orders.

During a court case, a parenting coordinator conducts parenting evaluations and recommends custody arrangements and parenting plan provisions to the judge. After a case, coordinators make sure parents follow the parenting time schedule and facilitate parents' communication and decision-making. Sometimes, they can even make decisions when parents can't agree.

Parallel parenting: When co-parenting doesn't work

Even with the best tools and strategies, successfully co-parenting with a narcissist can be next to impossible if they refuse to cooperate or compromise. If this is your situation, consider parallel parenting as an alternative. In parallel parenting, your interactions with the other parent are extremely limited and each of you parents without involving the other.

The tools you need to co-parent with a narcissist

Creating a parenting plan on your own can feel overwhelming, especially when you need to co-parent with a narcissist. You also need to follow a detailed custody schedule, set communication boundaries and document everything.

Fortunately, Custody X Change empowers you to do all of this and more.

The Custody X Change app walks you through each step of creating a comprehensive parenting plan. And it allows you to create a parenting time schedule from templates or from scratch.

The many co-parenting features — the messaging center, expense tracker, parenting journal and parenting time tracker — equip you to effectively co-parent with a narcissist and secure your child's well-being.

The easiest and most reliable way to co-parent with a narcissist is with Custody X Change.

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