Narcissistic Parents - An Interview with Dr. Karyl McBride, Ph.D., LMFT
A painful divorce is hard on any family, but particular circumstances can make this situation even more challenging. Raising children with a narcissistic parent can make co-parenting difficult and even put your kids in an unhealthy living situation.
Dr. Karyl McBride is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in treating clients with dysfunctional family issues. She is also the author of two books: the best-selling Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, and her latest book, Will I Ever Be Free of You?: How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family. In her latest book, she pulls from her experience in treating children and parents who faced the reality of living with a narcissist and creates a guide to help these individuals navigate a divorce and what comes after.
We spoke with Dr. McBride to discuss the impact that a narcissist can have on the divorce process, on their children, and what a parent can do to protect them self and their child from this behavior during and after a divorce.
What is a narcissistic relationship? What makes it so unhealthy?
If someone is in a relationship with a narcissist, they will not feel loved or appreciated by the narcissist because narcissists are not able to provide empathy or tune in emotionally to other people. They put on a grandiose show and display of affection at the beginning of the relationship so people can feel swept off their feet, but the narcissist is unable to sustain this. Their main focus is on themselves and getting their own selfish needs met. The partner will eventually feel very used and become exhausted trying to be good enough for the narcissistic partner. They will be put down, criticized, judged, and emotionally abused in many ways. The abuse can also become physical and sexual. This relationship is not reciprocal and give and take like a healthy relationship should be. The self-esteem of the partner of the narcissist will erode, and most people in these kinds of relationships describe losing themselves to please the narcissist.
On your website, you write, “The court system assumes that both parties in most high-conflict divorces are at fault, but a narcissist can wreak havoc in the divorce process.” How does a narcissist wreak havoc in a divorce?
While there are high-conflict divorce cases where both parties are at fault, the cases I have seen where one partner is a narcissist are not understood well by the courts or the divorce professionals. In these cases, the non-narcissist partner has to stay in the court process to protect the emotional well-being and safety of the child and can appear to the professionals as a fighter too. The narcissist has to win at all cost and will continue to file motions, increase attorney fees and court hearings, to get their way. The courtroom becomes a stage for their manipulation, lies, false allegations and courtroom grandiosity. The children are always hurt in these cases and are often drug through unbelievable conflict with the parents. While mediation is usually court ordered, it is typically just one more expense, to no avail, unless the narcissist gets exactly what they want.
How does having a narcissistic parent impact a child?
A narcissistic parent is not capable of empathy and unconditional love. The narcissistic parent is always there when they need the child, rather than being there for the child. The child’s feelings are not validated, and often shame and humiliation are used to control the child. The narcissistic parent is only interested in things of importance to them rather than being invested in the unique qualities and desires of the child. Children do not get their emotional needs met with a narcissistic parent and they grow up feeling unloved, not good enough, and unable to trust their own feelings. They exhibit self-doubt and learn not to give themselves credit. They often become quite co-dependent because that is what the narcissist expects and trains them to do. The children feel a tremendous loss of a parent they should have had but did not.
How can a parent protect their child from this behavior?
First and most important, practice empathic parenting. Empathy is the antithesis to narcissism. Teach the child about tuning into their own feelings, validate those feelings, and help the child learn to manage feelings. Help them to be assertive with the narcissistic parent and to learn about setting good boundaries.
Help the children learn how to get out of the middle and gently stand up to the narcissist when they disparage the other parent. Because the child will likely internalize the message of “I’m not good enough” it is important to reinforce that the child is good enough and loved for who they are and not for what they do. If the child is suffering, find a good child therapist who does talk therapy about divorce and not just play therapy.
Can using communication tools like those on OurFamilyWizard be helpful in a high-conflict co-parenting situation where narcissism is present?
As a clinician and marriage and family therapist, I recommend OurFamilyWizard to any family that is involved in a high conflict divorce. It has many benefits, as it keeps the conversations all in one place and keeps the communication documented. It provides a calendar for events and can prove against many unfair allegations made by the narcissist.
Here are some points made by one of my clients after using it in a difficult divorce:
- The system time stamps everything. For example, it shows the time and date a message was sent, if a message has been read or not and it also shows when each party has last logged on. This prevents the game playing of, “Oh, I never received that email,” or, “I haven’t checked my messages,” or, “I sent you an email, but it must have gotten lost.”
- All messages are locked and can’t be altered once sent.
- There is an event history. For example, you can put an appointment on the calendar, and it automatically sends the other party notice. It also shows when the event was entered, so there’s no game playing by saying, “I didn’t know about that appointment.” Neither party can delete an event once it’s entered and has already occurred. If it’s edited (i.e. appointment rescheduled), there is an edit trail. Again, the system automatically updates the other party, so there’s no need for additional messages.
- You can set up notifications to be sent on a “Daily Digest.” Therefore, the system sends an email or text message at 5:00 PM daily if the other party sent a message, added an event, or posted any other activity for you to view within the previous 24 hours. This way, you can keep your email free from the conflict. You can also then control when you decide to deal with issues rather than be constantly slapped in the face with onslaughts of communication. There’s nothing more upsetting than checking your email before bed only to have a "nastygram" from your co-parent. I’ve found this really cuts down on the unnecessary communication because my co-parent knows I’m only going to see it once a day.
- There’s a Trade/Swap feature which is awesome. It takes out all the nonsense when making a trade if used. Basically, it's used if you want a trade you send your co-parent a request to trade or swap parenting time. It asks all the specifics like dates, times, what you’re offering in return, etc. You can set a timeframe for responding. There is also a reporting tool for this feature. This is helpful if you have a co-parent that doesn’t answer requests promptly because the system tracks this, too.
- This is an all-encompassing site. Therefore, messages, calendars, documents, and more are all kept in one place. Again, you can upload a medical report for example, and the system time stamps everything and notifies your co-parent. This really cuts down on a lot of back and forth.
- Tonemeter alerts you to potential “buzz words” that might create conflict or come across negatively.
- You can add the child as a user which is helpful in managing the schedule and keeping track of correspondence with the child and parent.
- You can also add professionals such as a parenting coordinator or attorney as a professional user to oversee your activity on the website.
- Printing out emails for court is very simple, and again, everything is time-stamped when it prints out.
How is your book, Will I Ever Be Free of You?, helpful when someone is divorcing a narcissist? Do you also focus on the needs of children in these families?
In my book, Will I Ever Be Free of You?, I teach about the dynamics of narcissism, how to navigate these court cases, how to find the trained professionals to help you, and how to heal from the trauma for the adult and the children. Because the narcissist is grandiose in the need for praise and attention, overestimates their own abilities, and diminishes people around them with emotional abuse, most people need help with the divorce process and the healing afterward. Being in an intimate relationship with a narcissist destroys one’s hopes, dreams, and peace of mind, erodes emotional health and finances of the family. Don’t go it alone. You will need all the support you can find.
Karyl McBride, Ph.D., LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Denver, Colorado with thirty-five plus years of public and private practice. She specializes in treating clients with dysfunctional family issues. For the past many years, Dr. McBride has been involved in private research regarding parental narcissism and the debilitating effects of narcissism in relationships. She has treated many adult children of narcissistic parents in her private practice.
Dr. McBride also has extensive clinical experience in the fields of trauma, sexual abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and stepfamily therapy, marital and family therapy, specialized trauma treatment in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and individual adjustment issues related to anxiety, depression, and life transitions.