Parenting after divorce with a narcissistic ex-spouse is not without its challenges and frustrations. Divorce is never easy, even under the best of circumstances, and can hit children the hardest.
Studies throughout the years have focused on children’s experiences during divorce and the effects on development (Elam et al., 2016; Jackson et al., 2016; Wallerstein et al., 2013; Warshak, 2020; Weaver & Shofield, 2014). Divorcing someone with narcissistic personality disorder—or even just someone with higher levels of narcissistic or argumentative traits—has been found to be more fraught with conflict, both in and out of court, and emotional maltreatment and psychological abuse (Labatut, 2022). Evidence suggests that narcissists in particular have a tendency to use family court to project their failings and shortcomings onto the other parent/former spouse so they can achieve the greatest method of control: custody of the children (Labatut, 2022).
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Parental Conflict Affects Children the Most
Lawyers, judges, and other government organizations tend to forget that children are the ones who are most at risk psychologically, emotionally, and mentally. Divorce and lingering parental conflict have been documented as adverse childhood experiences that can result in emotional distress, fractured relations with the parents and extended families, and emotional disturbances (Dalton et al., 2009; Hadadd et al., 2016; Sarkis, 2016; Visser et al., 2017).
Individuals who are high in narcissism are known to possess personality traits such as low agreeableness and low empathy which can lead to elevated neuroticism, aggressiveness, and interpersonal conflict (Kim & Yu, 2020). This inclination towards arguments and constant conflict often causes serious issues in personal relationships which may then lead to break-ups, divorce, and strained friendships.
Behind closed doors, the children of the union are often the ones who have to deal with their parents’ arguments on a regular basis. Studies have shown that witnessing or experiencing parental conflicts leads to negative outcomes for children (Lange et al., 2022). These impactful effects include post-traumatic stress symptoms (Lange et al., 2022), parental alienation, and mental health issues (Bosch-Brits et al, 2018; O’Hara et al., 2019).
Short- and Long-Term Repercussions on Children
Divorcing a narcissist who instigates conflict on a consistent basis can be problematic for all parties involved and, in some arguments, is considered a form of child neglect (Joyce, 2016). Unfortunately, once a divorce is finalized, narcissistic conflict does not automatically cease. Life does not automatically improve for parents or children of high-conflict divorce once the paperwork is signed. Demby (2016) reports that a small but significant percentage of parents remain engaged in conflict even after the divorce is legally finalized.
This continuous exposure to conflict challenges the short- and long-term adjustment of the children (Demby, 2016) and can hinder the relationships with new people in their parents’ lives. A 2021 study by Lange and colleagues identified a strong correlation between parental conflict and children’s post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS). Most importantly, this study was the first to definitely link child PTSS with high parental conflict.
The prolonged conflict can transform PTSS into post-traumatic stress disorder (Lange et al, 2021). Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in children include physical ones—like frequent headaches or stomachaches—trouble concentrating, irritability, problems at school, trouble sleeping, or regressive behaviors such as wetting the bed (CHOP, nd)
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Helping Your Child Heal
Unfortunately, people who are high in narcissism tend to lack empathy and understanding of others; this often includes their own children. Narcissistic and high-conflict parents may argue in the presence of children, include them in improper adult conversations or situations, deny parenting time or contact, or treat the child as a messenger. Parental alienation and the destruction of parent-child relationships are painfully commonplace among narcissists (Harman et al, 2020). Highly narcissistic parents may even express a desire to harm the other parent and may have no qualms about using children to do so (Harman et al, 2020).
In such cases, it’s likely that the non-narcissistic parent has a long, hard road ahead of them. Above all, they and their remaining family must be dedicated to providing a healthy, safe, and accepting environment for the children.
Children see a lot—both good and bad—and often emulate what they see. Divorce, breakups, and separations should not change a child’s support system or understanding of who loves them. If they see hatred, they may replicate hatred.
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Parents, even those in the middle of a divorce, should focus on teaching them what love actually is, rather than focusing on what it isn’t. Experts advise avoiding name-calling or putting down the other parent; it’s also important not to include the children in adult conversations.
If a child experienced a turbulent household before the divorce, parents should make a particular effort to show them what a peaceful household is, devoid of yelling. If the child’s only knowledge of an adult relationship was constant bickering, name-calling, and a lack of affection, make a point of expressing your affection for them and other family members now. It’s never too late to create a nurturing environment and show children what love is.