Coping with Narcissistic Parental Alienation? Consider These Tips

Parent with determined expression holds child on lap on park bench outside. Child leans toward her but looks awayLittle research on narcissistic parental alienation exists, and many who have experienced this aspect of narcissism are desperate to find help. This article is written to address the issue from a psychological perspective only, in an effort to provide those coping with this situation with tips and strategies. However, it is also possible to seek legal assistance.

What Is Parental Alienation?

Narcissistic parental alienation syndrome refers to the psychological manipulation of a child by an alienating parent (the narcissistic parent). The manipulation typically results in the child’s rejection, disdain, and lack of empathy toward the other, targeted parent.

While parental alienation may occur even when narcissism is not a factor, for the purposes of this article, I will discuss parental alienation that has been instigated by a narcissistic parent.

If you are the “targeted” parent of this syndrome, or if you are trying to help a targeted parent, then the following strategies may be helpful.

You may have to engage, even if you prefer to avoid conflict.

Some of the alienated parents I’ve worked with have called this a battle, while others found this term too light and preferred “war.” Even when you don’t want to fight with your co-parent, their behavior may force you to take action to maintain custody or visitation of your children.

You might have tried to collaborate with your co-parent. You might have suggested finding a therapist together and even tried bringing them to relationship or family counseling. But if the person with narcissism doesn’t want to participate in therapy, does not believe they have done anything wrong, or has no desire to change, you are unlikely to get very far. It helps to understand you do not have a “typical” situation on your hands. The person with narcissism may have already managed to manipulate or damage your sense of self in many ways. You might feel as if they have dashed your dreams for love and crushed your heart. What do you do now that they also seem bound and determined to take away the children you value more than anything else?

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 behaviors they are demonstrating toward you.

A good place to begin is to figure out how to make peace with reality. It’s generally unhelpful to ruminate over the unfairness of it all, your feelings of hatred and hurt, or the fact things have become so difficult. You will likely have these negative thoughts, emotions, and feelings, but you may be able to better process them by talking them over with friends and family or your counselor and by keeping track of them in a journal.

Create a plan and develop your resources.

Dealing with parental alienation is not easy. It can be exceedingly painful when your children resist your attempts to connect or view you as the “bad” parent, which is often the case. In your hurt, or out of a wish to do what’s best for your children, you might wonder if it’s better to give up the fight. But this could mean giving up custody, your right to parent your own children or even see them as much as you’d like.

Battles cannot be fought alone. You will need many resources to navigate the difficult terrain that lies ahead. Some potential resources include allies, legal experts, strong boundaries, self-care strategies, a good counselor, parenting strategies, and personal strength. If a person is manipulating you as well as your children, the manipulation may reach a point where you feel as if you are unable to trust in your own reality. Having a friend or family member present when you need to have discussions with your co-parent may be a helpful way to stay grounded. A good counselor can help you explore the best ways to talk about the situation with your children and may also recommend family counseling.

It can also be helpful to join a support group for parents affected by parental alienation. If you can’t find one locally, you may still be able to find helpful resources and web support. If you can find people who’ve experienced similar situations, their advice may be helpful, at least as a form of support.

Develop a plan, with the help of your counselor and legal aid, to address and face and allegations that may be made against you. Do you have proof to counter claims you know to be lies? Track down proof. Keep a record of any incidents or contradictory statements, without engaging or participating in conflict with your co-parent. Arrange to have a friend or trusted family member when you meet your co-parent to pick up or drop off your children. This can be a good idea for your own well-being and safety, but a witness may also be useful in the event of a legal battle.

The bottom line is, having supportive friends and family can help you get through this challenge. You need these people so you can process your feelings, receive good counsel, and develop a plan to move forward.

Take good care of yourself.

I believe it’s especially important to remember to love yourself through this chapter of your life. Practice forgiveness toward yourself for small mistakes you may have made in the past, as a spouse or as a parent, and offer yourself compassion and understanding instead. If your relationship was characterized by abuse, remember that you are out of it now. Reminding yourself of your resolve to live abuse-free can be a good first step, but then remind yourself that this can extend to include any harsh self-criticism that exists within your own mind. Remember: self-compassion is essential for moving forward.

Your physical health is also important. To maintain good physical health, try to eat nutritious foods and get plenty of sleep and exercise. Be mindful of the link between emotional and physical health: having affirming, safe people in your circle of influence can help you stay positive and keep your wits about you. It can be even more difficult to withstand the pressure if you aren’t taking good care of your health—emotional and physical—so commit to making self-care a top priority.

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.

If you are a religious or spiritual person, turning to spiritual or religious leaders in your community and the higher power you believe in can help you feel both stronger and not alone. Whether you meditate, pray, or connect in some other way, many find it beneficial to “fill” empty psychological reserves in this spiritual way.

Use wisdom.

Think back to strategies your co-parent may have used to manipulate you in the past and remember not to allow these same tactics to work on you now. It may be difficult to realize you are being manipulated as it’s happening, especially when you are primarily concerned for your children. Try to use your own feelings as a guide. Do you feel angry, confused, guilty, or ashamed? Take a moment to consider why you feel that way.

If you believe you are being manipulated, don’t allow yourself to react heatedly, but plan ahead for when the same strategies might be used with your children. Talk over your options with your counselor. Developing firm boundaries and sticking to them can help you avoid “traps.”

If, over the course of the relationship you had with your co-parent, you gained knowledge of the particular tactics they used—lying, gaslighting, boundary violation, anger, or playing the victim, to name a few–you may be able to use this knowledge, even if only to prepare and forewarn yourself.

You may feel anger and other similar emotions toward the other parent. You may have chosen to practice forgiveness. You may understand their actions stem from a mental health concern, such as narcissism. Regardless of how you think of the situation, it can be helpful to remain calm when dealing with the co-parent in person. Try to contain your emotions and feelings instead of giving them the reaction they may be seeking.

Know your weaknesses.

The other parent likely already knows your weaknesses, and they may attempt to use these against you.

I believe that the best way to counteract exploitation of your weaknesses is to know these weaknesses yourself. Be honest and open with yourself. If this is something you struggle with, it can help to explore this with your counselor. Developing your personal strength can help you learn to accept your weaknesses as part of you and embrace them. If there are aspects of these you can and would like to change, you can work on a plan to do so.

But even simply acknowledging your areas of weakness is a great exercise in self-acceptance. Once you can embrace your own fears and perceived faults, these things are likely to lose any hold they have on you. If you are okay with yourself, with all of who you are, it will be much more difficult for someone to use any aspect of your self against you.

Don’t lose focus on your strengths, either, as you consider your weaknesses.

Don’t compete.

Sometimes parents attempt to buy the loyalty of their child(ren) by pulling out all the bells and whistles when it comes to promises, gifts, and privileges. The parent may not explicitly state these things are exchanged for the children’s loyalty, but this is generally implied or clearly communicated non-verbally.

It can be difficult to resist the urge to compete, but instead, try to focus on yourself and your own parenting values. It is still important for you to understand the dilemma your children are facing. Without a full understanding of the situation, these bells and whistles are attractive to them. Understand this, and also the manipulative tactics at play.

What may bring you greater peace of mind than an attempt to compete with your co-parent is consideration of what you have to offer your children. What are your personal strengths and values? While they may not be tangible or have monetary value, “gifts” of intrinsic value will sustain your children throughout their lives:

No matter what is going on in your personal life, particularly with regards to the challenges you are facing with your co-parent and children, it can help to avoid expending all of your energy focusing on what doesn’t work. Maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult, but try to practice gratitude by waking up each morning and welcoming the day.

  1. Empathy
  2. Validation
  3. Love
  4. Security
  5. Stability
  6. Kindness
  7. Strength
  8. Good role-modeling
  9. Truth
  10. Presence
  11. Attunement
  12. Healthy attachment
  13. Abuse-free environment

Your children may not immediately recognize the worth of these values, but be constant in your demonstration of love and affection for them, and commit to practicing these values, even when it is difficult.

Enjoy your life.

No matter what is going on in your personal life, particularly with regards to the challenges you are facing with your co-parent and children, it can help to avoid expending all of your energy focusing on what doesn’t work. Maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult, but try to practice gratitude by waking up each morning and welcoming the day. Notice the good things you do have and keep in mind the things in life you are thankful for, instead of focusing on the negative.

Another helpful practice is demonstrating resilience and confidence each day to your children. You do this by living these values, by genuinely showing your children your strength and love for them. Children may naturally gravitate toward strength. If you can show yourself and your children unwavering and positive strength through the process of living well, you may be able to minimize any damage caused by the other parent. This may, in fact, be one of the most important things you do for your children in the long run.

I hope some of these strategies are helpful as you attempt to manage the challenges that may come your way when co-parenting while experiencing parental alienation. Narcissistic abuse is often so personalized and insidious that it can be difficult for people who have not experienced it to fully understand how daunting and far-reaching it can be. Regardless of how much support you have, you may feel alone, as if other people in your life have no clue what you are up against.

But remember that you are not alone. Developing trust and faith in yourself, and prioritizing your well-being, can help you remain strong. If you aren’t already working with a compassionate therapist or counselor, finding one who has training or experience appropriate for your situation can also be of great benefit.

References:

  1. Childress, C. A. (2015). An attachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.
  2. Darnell, D. (2008). Symptoms of parental alienation. PsyCare. Retrieved from https://www.parentalalienation.com/articles/symptoms-parental-alienation.html
  3. Simon, G. (2011). Character disturbance. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers Publishers Inc.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD, therapist in La Habra, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 19 comments
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  • Ty

    Ty

    January 15th, 2018 at 3:46 PM

    What you are defending and advising is the enabler of a malignant narcissist. Children, the victims, have little cash and are therefore not represented? Co-parenting? There is no such thing with a malignant narcissist. There is running from a malignant narcissist, that’s all, just running. While I understand that therapy with a narcissist and their enabler can be cash cow while the children suffer you really are on shaky moral ground. I’m on to you. Repent. Help people in need. Find a way.

  • Zoegotmojo

    Zoegotmojo

    June 30th, 2019 at 8:36 AM

    ^^^This. Well put, Ty.

  • M.

    M.

    January 17th, 2018 at 11:14 AM

    Best to try to get full custody of the child if possible though this is hard if they have manipulated your kid or the court into thinking YOU are the problem.
    Good luck.

  • Laraly

    Laraly

    August 24th, 2018 at 7:35 AM

    It is a tough situation. I wrote about this
    momisawake.wordpress.com/

  • Jules

    Jules

    January 29th, 2019 at 10:43 PM

    There needs to be different guidelines for addressing parental alienation when the child is under 12, 12-18, and over 18. I see a lot of father’s successfully alienating the mother once the child reaches adolescence, and this is the most likely from what I’ve observed to extend into the adult years. My ex refused to see the children (one a baby) for five years after our divorce, then commenced occasional contact when they were in middle childhood, and pounced once they entered the difficult period of adolescence. This is perhaps the time a single mother most needs support, yet he exploited the opportunity. The dynamics are different in each period and the legal options.

  • Michele

    Michele

    June 5th, 2019 at 10:41 AM

    Jules
    That was spot on. I had the same thing happen. Seeking further resources on the neglect and abandonment and then the seeping in at adolescence and eventual “take-over” and alienation of the mom at that point. Do you have any further information??

  • Jross

    Jross

    March 5th, 2019 at 4:50 PM

    I’m a mother going thru this exact situation with my three sons father hes a narc..we agree for them too be with him til I got our living situation together just took n bored…he called n said he decided he should keep em since we are over..He’s denied me too see em he would make excuse n get in arguments or don’t answer or tell me he’s busy..he jumped on me stole my phone n saw I was mingling mind you he had two girlfriends then..He’s been using that against me since last October..I get harassed n called names all the time trying too reach out..I feel helpless I want full custody cause he’s only going too make matters worse for me even finding a reason too fight me..he told my sons about my personal life and say I live with another man which I had too explain too my son it wasn’t true..my youngest refuses too say I love you..I can’t let him win! I love my babies I have proof would it work???

  • Jill N.

    Jill N.

    March 18th, 2019 at 3:08 PM

    I am going through this very same evil practice called parental alienation its devestatingly heartbreaking . I am crushed in constant agony and seperation anxiety to say the least . If there is a lawyer out there im looking for advice on how to takle this and save my gifts from this terible mental and emotional abuse. May God grant me the grace to carry on.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    July 2nd, 2019 at 7:39 AM

    I’m a survivor. It took my ex 10 years to complete his mission and he’s done a good job. I had 3 children and 2 grandchildren – now he has them. First, for any parent going through this (male or female), document Document DOCUMENT. Parental Alientaion has quickly become an epidemic in this country and most family courts are starting to penalize the aggressive alienator. You MUST have concrete documentation though. If you can afford it, please PLEASE start to take your children to a therapist. The damage that is being done to them is irreparable. Getting them into therapy earlier in the process will not only provide you with concrete documentation but may just save your relationship with your child(ren). This is something I wish I had done from the beginning. Lastly, realize that this has nothing to do with what is best for your child – this has everything to do with the other parent deciding to be judge, jury and executioner. It’s taken me 10 years to realize that I was a great mom. He almost destroyed me…ALMOST. I’m still standing and I’m thriving in my recovery. My prayers for any parent having to mourn a living child.

  • Richard

    Richard

    August 14th, 2019 at 4:30 AM

    Im losing my mind. My daughter, who I took care of from age 6 months to 4 years, wanted to move to her kmoms , shes in usa, Im in Russia. Im american, mom russian. Mom loves usa, i love it here. Mother is narcisisstic, her new husband is overly strict and also narcissistic, they lie to my daughter, control her thought, her speech, all toys, books Ive bought have been banned. They have hijacked her whatsapp and pretend to be her, calling me a bad dad, a liar…shes nine and would never say these things. Im a manly man. This has been a punch to my soul, daily, I cannot speak to my daughter, at all. When we last spoke he was standing over her, so her conversation was robotic. I cant afford a lawyer and still will fly for a custody court date. I honestly feel like Im losing it. I cant sleep, im anxious. Mostly concerned for her, my daughter. I refuse to respond to him or my ex, Im too angry and Im sure theyre recording everything. Maybe all of this is a ruse to get me to react? How to react?what to do?

  • Marissa

    Marissa

    June 15th, 2019 at 1:42 PM

    We are going through this with a narcissistic mother. It’s very difficult to know how to handle it. It’s going down a bit of a disastrous path. We are at the point where we don’t know what to do next, beyond thinking that she has such a bad mother but she will have to find her own way forward. A lot of people have bad mothers.. but I don’t believe we will be able to get custody or improve it as she is so very awful!

  • JWH

    JWH

    July 7th, 2019 at 10:57 PM

    There is no negotiating with a narcissist. My ex, who was threatened because my daughter and I were so close, went to work on her for two full years before my angel turned on me. My ex laughs at me when I point out her crimes. She also kidnapped my child and has conveniently forgotten that fact. All I can do is remind my daughter of my unconditional love and that my door is always open to her. At some point she’s going to connect the dots and realize I’m not the monster her mother and grandmother paint me to be.

  • JWH

    JWH

    July 8th, 2019 at 12:26 AM

    Me again. While it is tempting to call them malignant narcissists, the expression is redundant. Narcissism is a variation of psychopathy and the inability to empathize. The best advice I can give is what will be will be. Perhaps Jesus was right in advising us to forgive, perhaps karma is right in that what comes around goes around. I launched a contempt lawsuit against the mother that I had no intention of seeing through. I play the long game, which narcissists are incapable of. I just want to be able to show my daughter I fought hard for her, but when the mother threatened to drag her into court and bear false witness, I dropped the case because this would have scarred my daughter for life. The good news is that daughters of narcissist mothers tend to become the opposite. They will outgrow the smothering mother. Narcissists cannot help themselves, they are their own worst enemies.

  • JSB

    JSB

    July 19th, 2019 at 6:31 AM

    We are going through a similar issue, I am the step-dad of a 6 year old boy. My Girlfriends ex is telling him to call me a F***ing loser to my face, telling him lots of negative stuff, mostly name calling. He is also saying negative stuff about other family members on my girlfriends side, as well as mine. He uses his son as leverage against his own parents. If the son does not agree with his Dad, he is disciplined by him. We have never said a single negative thing about his dad whenever he is with us, We are lost at what we can do.

  • Victim

    Victim

    July 24th, 2019 at 6:54 PM

    What do you do when the alienator is also a licensed psychologist and should know better???

  • Ty

    Ty

    July 25th, 2019 at 12:25 PM

    Narcissists are actually attracted to professions like psychology where they can acquire the tools to influence people so there are probably more in this field than the general population. The difference is that they want the tools to exercise control over others to prop their fragile self-esteem not to help.
    They do know better, they just don’t care. They never will get any better than they are now. If it seems like they are then they are probably manipulating you.
    NO CONTACT is the only permanent solution. If it can’t be physical than remove yourself emotionally. Surround yourself with people who respect you. Good luck

  • Hayley

    Hayley

    October 19th, 2019 at 8:40 AM

    What sucks is when the narcissistic alienator father uses his attorney daddy to sabotage both myself and his daughter. Been happening for almost 9 years now. And they are telling me that I am the unfit parent. He is the one that left hardcore drugs in his daughters reach!! I tried protecting her from him yet with his daddy being an attorney, the jerk got 50/50 custody! The system is bogus and doesn’t do what is right and safe for the child. Now we have to wait until she is 15 to at least give her the chance to speak for herself. This whole journey has been so heartbreaking watching a father destroy a little girl.

  • John

    John

    August 15th, 2019 at 9:08 AM

    We had reunification from severe alienation therapy done 5 years ago and used a reward system of a dollar prize per day and $10 if 5 of the days went well at the end of the week and they called on the nights with the x nightly. This worked well for ages 8 to 13 but now at ages 13 and 16 it has all fallen apart. They don’t seem to care about the rewards, they are skipping visitation or say they are staying at a friends house I don’t know or won’t even get into the car to go visit family members (they don’t recognize my side of the family as family since the divorce. So they are breaking the time sharing agreement and the mother never stopped coaching them on what to say. The nights they miss the time sharing I have the police do a wellness check but they say they can’t help. She had Florida DCF visit me for not feeding them and what they do is demand to go out for dinner and if I do not take them out they walk to a restaurant and the mother pays. Luckily the DCF officer said they only need peanut butter and jelly and bread – she recognized the issue and thought I was doing a good job but she said if I take her to court there is a chance the judge will let the kids stay with their mother exclusively if the judge thinks the kids are thinking on their own. The DCF office said I need to pick my battles because they are bad but you could loose them if a judge listens to them even with a history of alienation. My son is said to be depressed by the childs doctor, the school councilor and the reunification therapist but the mother won’t let him go to therapy. I already spent $100K on the divorce and have never been able to bail myself out of debt. Does anybody have any suggestions for me to work with the kids or litigation? I am not afraid to self litigate if needed.

  • Rdm

    Rdm

    September 19th, 2019 at 6:53 PM

    Clearly, article author has never dealt with a narcisitic abuser first hand

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