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When divorce and separation happen and children are involved, it is generally traumatic for all concerned. One aspect of this is that two peoplewho used to be in a relationship have to co-parent as ex-partners. Awkward and uncomfortable as this might be, some find a way for it to work because they put the children’s needs first and realise that the children have a right to see both parents. However, some try to turn ex-partners into ex-parents by alienating their ex-partner from the children in a process called “Parental Alienation”. Worse still, when a narcissist is involved in the process, it can be one of the evil tools used to destroy not only the ex-partner but the children as well. This is child abuse of the highest order.
Jennifer Harman, a researching social psychologist at Colorado State University sums it up:
“Parental alienation involves a set of behaviours that one parent does to damage, destroy, or sever the relationship between their children and the other parent” Harman explains. “Parental alienation is a form of indirect aggression. The true target of this aggression is the other parent, and children are their weapons. Therefore parental alienation is a form of domestic violence.”
There are said to be three types of parental alienation that crank up the level of abuse as they become more intense:
Naive Alienation: Comments unconsciously made (in the heat of the moment) about the ex-partner concerning financial and living situations. These might seem innocent in nature but when processed by the child, can have deep meaning. For example “your father is at home all day, so he can watch your game at school, I have to work”. This might be processed by the child as the father being lazy or out of work.
Intentional Alienation: This is when one parent through active measures tries to paint the other parent in a bad light with the wish to break the child’s bond with the alienated parent. This can be done by insulting the other parent in front of the children or actively withholding visitation rights and contact as well as asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent.
Obsessive Alienation: The most extreme form of alienation that is often at play when one parent is a narcissist. The method of alienation is aggressive and targeted at the child with the aim of completely shattering the bond with the other parent. Here, the child is used actively and without compassion.
All of the above go against the child’s general wish to have a good relationship with both parents and we must not forget that this process can happen on both sides. Children subjected to the effects of parental alienation generally suffer from low self-esteem, self-harm, lack of trust, depression and eventually substance abuse. Self-hatred is especially prevalent as children internalise the hatred targeted at the other parent.
Imagine the scenarios described above when a parent has narcissist tendencies. While there is very little research on this as a concept, I have dealt with a number of cases like this. It can be described as alienation on acid. In all of the cases in question, the narcissist was the parent without residential custody and saw the child infrequently. They generally had more money and opportunity to carry out their evil and the other parent was generally codependent. I am of the firm opinion that co-parenting with a narcissist of any form is virtually impossible as you will see from some of the tactics used (among others). It is my experience that they sometimes just disappear and this one can only hope happens. Until then, the other parent face battles as described below:
- Constant legal challenges to prove the other parent was not a fit parent.
- Constant application for full custody of the child where in reality, this was neither possible nor wanted.
- Divorce proceedings being held up.
- Constant games around visitation, last minute cancelations and late handovers.
- Constant targeted and aggressive conditioning of the child against the other parent.
- Constant contact with the child’s school and other authorities making reports about imaginary abuse by the other parent.
- Painting the other parent as “crazy” and “abusive” to the child and others.
- Telling the child lies about the other parent and asking the child to keep it a secret.
- Exhibiting inappropriate behaviour with new partners around the child.
Over a prolonged period, this can be extremely traumatic for the parent being alienated and they constantly fear “losing” their children to the narcissist. They have to deal daily with the effects of the above and the behavioural and emotional problems of the children. To the extreme, the children might well refuse to connect or withdraw from the parent. It’s not a simple task to co-parent with a hostile adversary, and it can be even more difficult when you want to keep what you’re feeling from spilling over to affect your children. You will have to figure out how to parent your children in spite of the feelings you have for the other parent and the feelings and behaviours they are demonstrating toward you. Here are some useful tips:
- Build a bank of resources: If you are subjected to constant legal challenges, find a good family lawyer who will fight your case. You may need a therapist, a support group or other family services. Some of the above can be provided free or cheaply depending on financial circumstances. If you are facing a narcissist, then maybe the only hope for your children is if you manage to get full custody.
- Self-care strategies: Many people in this situation feel destroyed and avoid the reality of what they are facing. Learning self-care, to set boundaries and avoiding rumination can be very helpful. Please remember that if you have been in a relationship with a narcissist, he or she has already manipulated you. Many will suggest family counselling where further manipulation can take place. Seek help for you to bring healthy self-care strategies into your life.
- Do not retaliate or participate: Many people I come across in this situation have a wish to retaliate against the narcissist or involve themselves in long text conversations with them, playing right into their hands. While this maybe a natural feeling, it must be avoided at all costs. Never retaliate by insulting the narcissist in front of children. Being in a relationship once with the narcissist will give you information concerning the tactics they will use on you and the children. Recognise your weaknesses and develop a solid plan with your therapist to counter this.
- Build a life for you and the children and be stable: A child that has been conditioned to hate you might not recognise your stability immediately. However, consistency in your approach to the children is essential. Show them empathy, good role-modeling, validation, security and consistency. Most of all, create a safe, abuse-free environment with healthy attachment.
- Enjoy being free: While your children are struggling, it might be difficult to realise that you are not living with your worst nightmare any longer and you are moving towards a healthy end for you and your children. Maintain a positive attitude and positive relationships. Enjoy this new freedom with your children away from the daily abuse that can be part of living with a narcissist.