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Coparenting with a Narcissist

Dear Carolyn,

I have tried co-parenting our seven and eleven-year-old, and it is just not working. My psychologist says my ex is probably a narcissist. Every time I try to talk with him or even text him, he turns the discussion into something else.  He seems to have no concept of teamwork. He manipulates the children and that scares me. What can I do?


Carolyn Answers…

You are, at best, in a very difficult situation if he is, in fact, a narcissist, and you probably will need to try “parallel parenting” as contrasted to co-parenting. Co-parenting, which requires teamwork, does not generally work with a narcissist. I’ll first give you my concept of a narcissist as a family lawyer, and then I will make some suggestions for parallel parenting of your precious seven and eleven-year-old. We all would like to live in the utopia of “everyone just get along,” but if you have a narcissistic parent, teamwork is not going to work.

A narcissist is generally self-centered, craves admiration, cocky, power hungry, and manipulative. It is a personality disorder, and there is no medication that fixes it. Most therapy doesn’t work either, so you are stuck with this ex, the father of your children, who has a different view of the world. Narcissists rarely change much.

Explore parallel parenting in a court order that is very, very specific regarding each part of the custody of your children. Generally, “loosey goosey” orders do not work with a narcissist parent. The order must be so strong that it eliminates as much conflict as possible between the two parents.  For example, your court order for custody needs:

  1. Very, very specific times and locations for exchanges that are not open to interpretation
  2. Responsibility for transportation must be crystal clear
  3. Perhaps, there needs to be a dispute resolution mechanism if there is truly high conflict, such as a parenting coordinator
  4. Activities should be specified with exactness, or in the alternative, one parent simply needs decision making over extracurricular activities
  5. If the parents live in different school districts, one parent needs to be in charge of selecting the school

Practically, there are some additional things you should do to protect your children. First, keep boundaries very clear. You mentioned that he uses the simplest of things to turn a discussion away from the children. He may see your boundary setting as aggression on your part. If text messages are to be limited to issues related to the children, never respond to one that is unrelated. One useful tool in boundary setting is having your court order have both of you subscribed to But, I have seen people ignore boundaries even with communication limited to this medium.

Next, do not generally admit to mistakes, as this is usually simply ammunition for the narcissist. Keep your mouth shut.

Do what is best for your children and be a good role model. You are the children’s healthy role model and you need to keep this in mind. You will have to be sure to explore your children’s interests with them. Frequently, a narcissist will involve the children in activities favored by the narcissist, without regard to the children’s interests. Their needs may be neglected by the narcissist.

Finally, do not give up on healthy parenting as an aspiration. Keep things as friendly as possible. The ultimate goal is for the children to have relationships with both parents who are conflict-free (thus, the parallel parenting concept). Make conflict-free your goal every time you interact with your kids’ other parent.



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This blog is revised from a previous Ask Carolyn in The Rhino Times.

Send your questions on family law and divorce matters to “Ask Carolyn…” at, or P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro, NC  27427.  Please do not put identifying information in your questions. 

Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation.  The column also uses hypothetical questions.  A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your unique case.  Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn.”