It’s Narcissist Friday!
From time to time I get a comment or an email asking how to protect the children from the effects of the narcissist in the family. Usually, the scenario is a mother who either is married to a narcissist or is recently separated/divorced from a narcissist. In either case, the continuing relationship of the narcissist with the children is troubling. Even those who divorce usually have custody and visitation connections. Unless gross abuse can be proved, so that one parent loses all rights and contact with the kids, the connection with the narcissist will continue throughout the childhood years.
So what to do? How can you protect the kids from narcissistic abuse? What can you do to help them stay or become healthy and well-adjusted?
Let’s begin by admitting the truth. Narcissists manipulate. They use relationships to feed their own desires. They do not consider other people to be real or valuable or independent. People, even their children, exist to be used. This will not change.
Also, you are not God. You cannot fix or control everything, even when you believe something is most important. Not only will the kids be affected, you will not be able to change that fact. God may be able to change the narcissist’s heart, but you will not. Nor will you be able to prevent all the negative effect of the narcissist.
At the same time, you can do some things. You can show your kids what healthy looks like. Make decisions, take responsibility, find happiness and fulfillment. If you are healthy, they will see the difference between you and the narcissist. Your health, in all respects, is a key part of caring for your children. Find ways to feed your needs. I tell people all the time that they must find the way to health. Get a good counselor. Exercise. Get some fresh air. Eat right. Read good books. Make good friends. Yes, easier said than done, but do it.
I am convinced that children will be drawn to the healthy parent. They may seem like they take advantage of you. They may challenge you and stretch your relationship, but they will know they can do that—while they cannot do that with the narcissist. You will be the safe parent, the reality of their lives. That may sound like you are the boring one, but they will understand the truth eventually. The narcissist can manipulate, but he/she cannot disguise the truth forever.
Teach your children how to set and maintain boundaries. Yes, you need to know this for yourself. Again, get some counsel or education. Boundaries are the narcissist’s bane. The stronger your child maintains a boundary, the more the narcissist will seek to overcome it and, in that struggle, the child will begin to see the truth.
Be honest. That means you can’t make up excuses for the narcissist. If you work hard to smooth the water, telling the children that “daddy didn’t mean those harsh words,” then they will learn either that daddy’s way is acceptable or you are part of the problem. Instead, hold them and love them when they hurt. Show empathy and understanding. They will see that daddy does the same thing to you, and they may realize that daddy is the one with the problem.
Be present and available. Connect with your kids. This has less to do with time than with your willingness to listen. The narcissist only seems like a good listener. Eventually, he/she hates the conversation and pushes the needy person away. Embrace the children in their pain. Don’t tell them how they should feel, let them tell you how they feel. They will find the answers as you listen.
Be patient. Life’s success is not measured by how you think at age 20, as though that is somehow the end of the journey. Your children have a lot of life ahead of them. If you read the comments here, you will see that many people only understand the truth about a narcissistic parent as adults, sometimes as senior adults. You may not live to be vindicated, but your child can still find the way of understanding by remembering your honesty and love after you are gone. I have had many people tell me that they only understood the struggle and strength and goodness of their mothers after.
Don’t forget that the struggles of our lives do bring us strength and independence. Having a narcissistic parent may be more challenging than anyone outside the relationship can understand, but it can also mold your child into someone strong and alive in wonderful ways. Failures and weaknesses often build in us the things we need to survive.
So pray. This is not about you having a good relationship with your kids, no matter how much you want that. Nor is it about you being valued for your struggle and victories. It is about your children finding love and peace in their lives. A narcissistic parent is an obstacle to that, but a healthy parent can do much to prepare the way. Give your concerns to God and trust Him. He loves your children more than you do.
No, you can’t prevent this challenge. It is their path to walk. Don’t try to do it for them. Just walk with them.