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One of the more difficult aspects of relationships is trying to blend different personalities. While we all have aspects of our personality that may be less than flattering, mental health professionals distinguish between personality quirks and personality “disorders.” The word disorder sounds so disturbing. But even in the realm of personality disorders, they fall on a continuum, anywhere from mild to severe. The majority of us don’t have the criteria to warrant the term disorder, as a personality disorder is defined like this:
“the essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality functioning”
These impairments have to do with:
1. self – how they view themselves, and
2. interpersonal – how they relate to others, AND also includes
3. the “presence of pathological personality traits.”
One personality disorder that is often seen in divorce counseling is narcissistic personality disorder.
Now many of us have heard the term narcissism, and quite honestly many people have a healthy dose of narcissism. That is what gives a person that charming swagger, infectious confidence, and a love for adventure and risk taking.
In fact, many people are drawn to that level of narcissism in others.
But in this article, I’m talking about a level of narcissism that without a doubt falls into the category of a more serious personality disorder.
What do the mental health people say?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) classifies narcissistic personality disorder like this:
1. Flawed self-functioning in 2 areas:
Identity: extreme need to find self-definition and self-esteem regulation in others; exaggerated self-appraisal either very positive or very negative; self-esteem fluctuations
Self-direction: driven by approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high (see self as exceptional) or too low (sees self as victim); may be unaware of motivations
2. Flawed interpersonal functioning in 2 areas:
Empathy: impaired ability to recognize or identify with others feelings; over or under-estimate own effect on others; tuned into other’s reactions only as it relates to self
Intimacy: relationships are mostly superficial and mainly for building self-esteem; little genuine interest in others
3. Pathological personality traits are as follows:
Grandiosity: has feelings of entitlement; self-centeredness; truly believes one is better than others; condescending toward others
Attention-seeking: there are excessive attempts to attract attention, be the focus of attention; seeks admiration regularly
The DSM5 goes on to say that these criteria do not apply to when a person is drinking, using drugs, or if a person has a medical condition that might impact behavior. And it’s important to consider culture and developmental age too.
A little history on the term narcissism
The term narcissism comes from Greek mythology where a young man, named Narcissus, fell in love with himself after seeing his image in a pool of water. The story goes that because he rejected a love nymph and broke her heart, he angered the gods. As punishment, Narcissus was lured to a pool of water and fell in love with his own reflection. Being so “enraptured” with the beauty of his reflection he would stare into the pool for hours on end until he died.
So what does all this mean in terms of parenting?
In some ways, some narcissistic parents can actually be seen to be good parents. Especially moms. This is because they see their children as an extension of themselves and so give their children the same level of exaggerated over estimation as they give themselves.Because narcissistic parents are experts at making everything look good, the child of the narcissist may not know anything was wrong. A common response in therapy is ‘I had a great childhood with caring parents. I should be happy.’” — Heather Sheafer, writerClick To Tweet
What can often lay beneath the surface, however, is that the child is absorbing the negative aspects of the narcissistic parent.
They observe how the narcissistic parent is demanding and manipulative in getting their needs met above everyone else. Often the child learns to meet the parent’s needs in order to win their love and approval.
Because narcissists don’t have a genuine interest in others, they don’t provide healthy and appropriate nurturing for the child. Although they might be “close” to the child, it’s an unhealthy closeness that often shames the child when they desire normal autonomy as an emerging adult.
In terms of how they relate to others, such as teachers, coaches, counselors, etc, they may be very demanding and critical. They are often that parent standing on the side lines “coaching” their child alongside the coach making sure the coach doesn’t make any bad calls on behalf of their child. This is not to say that every parent who does this is narcissistic, some parents just get really excited when it comes to cheering on their kids.
These narcissistic parents will over-estimate their child’s abilities, demand they get special attention and/or believe their child can do no wrong outside of the home. This is because their kids are living in the same bubble the narcissist has created for him or herself.
Children play different roles determined by the narcissistic parent
To protect the family structure and to give the narcissistic parent that sense of control, they will inadvertently assign their children roles within the family.
One, or more, of the children becomes the “golden child.”
This child is a mirror of the narcissistic parent, they can do no wrong, they are considered the “perfect” child. They are idealized and all that they do is wonderful and highly exaggerated by the narcissistic parent.
Another child or children will become the “scapegoat.” This child is the exact opposite of the golden child. This child can do nothing right. They are blamed for the family problems and are either bullied or just not acknowledged by the narcissistic parent.
These children usually become the punching bag for the entire family as the other family members get caught up in this extremely toxic and unhealthy pattern of relating within the family unit.
It’s human nature to seek safety and turn away from pain and/or danger. In order to avoid the disdain and venom of the narcissistic parent, it feels safer to join with them and turn against the “enemy” aka the assigned “scapegoat” of the family.
These roles can change over time. Especially when the family structure shifts due to divorce or due to other changes within the family.
How does narcissism impact divorce?
In cases of divorce, narcissism can be extremely detrimental to kids and their relationship with the other parent.
Although at one time the narcissist parent might have included the other parent in their narcissism bubble, once there is a split and a “rejection” of the narcissist parent, the other parent becomes the enemy and is targeted with all the same narcissistic disdain this parent has for others.
Once the other parent falls “out of favor” with the narcissist, it is almost impossible to gain back that favor and level of trust no matter what that parent might try to do to appease the narcissistic parent.
Once this happens, the narcissistic parent will make it their mission to ensure the child knows that the other parent is flawed and unfortunately, they will continually sabotage the relationship.
This may be done very overtly, aggressively, passive-aggressively, or the parent may present as a “victim,” or a combination of all of the above. Remember, the narcissistic parent has had years of perfecting their manipulative skills.
And during a divorce, they are masters at presenting themselves as being the “perfect parent,” while equally as skilled as making the other parent look bad.
The children often get caught in the middle because: 1. they are not savvy at manipulation, and 2. there is a deep bond and attachment to their parent, even a narcissistic one.
Some hard truth: Although narcissistic traits do not change much over time, the need to “punish” the other parent usually decreases over time.
What can you do to protect your kids?
- It’s very important that during this time you stay focused on what you know to be true about yourself as a parent, the truth of your children as victims of a narcissistic parent and most of all, the truth about your narcissistic ex.
- Educate yourself on narcissism, including how it impacts your children and what a parent/child relationship looks like with a narcissistic parent.
- Protect your children by role modeling appropriate behaviors that make them feel safe and loved. Don’t bad mouth the other parent, but do acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings when their narcissistic parent makes them feel badly. You can tell the child that mommy or daddy don’t always make the right decisions and educate them on what appropriate decisions look like.
- Have a very clear parenting plan.
- Rally healthy family and friends around you and your children so you all can get extra love and support during this time.
- Share this article about narcissistic personality in custody situations with your attorney.
- Find a counselor or play therapist (depending on the ages of your children) for your child to see for a period of time who specializes in divorce/custody cases, and who understands and knows how to treat families dealing with parental Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Stay strong as you parent your children through this difficult time with an equally difficult personality!
If you know of any additional resources or support about this topic, I would love to hear about them!