Counter parenting is when you are needing to spend incredible amounts of energy undoing the damage done by the other parent. Before you can make healthy steps with your child, you first have to do some repair work. I am doing a mini-series of posts on specific aspects of that damage and how to counter parent it.
Damage - Lack of Self and Lack of Boundaries
The child is not encouraged to develop their own sense of self.
The child will not learn how to set healthy boundaries in relationships.
Narcissistic parents have no boundaries. This plays out physically, mentally, emotionally, and certainly in other ways too. The parent goes into the child’s room any time they please. Even when our oldest son was 17, my narcissistic husband would still go barging into his room without knocking. They search through their stuff anytime they want. Bathroom doors are not allowed to be locked. Trackers are put on their phones, with or without their knowledge. Things are not discussed with respect and compassion. They are just done in an air of entitlement and control. Often these boundary offenses are done in the name of protecting the child. The acts can seem genuine and positive, thus leaving everyone confused over their own feelings of frustration.
Communication happens whenever the narcissistic parent wants and in whatever way they want. The kids are told what to think, when to think and how to think. The children are not allowed to have their own feelings and thoughts. If they try to and their own thoughts are in conflict with the narcissistic parent, the children are met with overwhelming friction. The child thus does not feel safe to voice their own thoughts and opinions.Thus the kids doubt their own feelings and carry a sense of powerlessness. They learn to fear their independent thinking.
Counter Parenting - When to Fight and When to Step Aside
As the counter parent, do not try to convince your child to just put up with it or that it's OK. Do not encourage them to stuff it under the rug. That’s what we are all experts at, and it is not a healthy approach. This is simply not OK. Setting healthy boundaries with others is not only good for your relationships, it is also vitally necessary.
Your child’s ability to understand and set boundaries depends largely on their age and maturity. Your younger kids will not be able to do this yet and will need you to go to bat for them. When their narcissistic parent has crossed what you think are reasonable boundaries, then you will need to step in. This is not easy, and it is exhausting. But you must dig in and do it. Choose your battles though. You can’t possibly fight every battle that will come your way. Some things are more important than others. You have to decide in your own given situation.
One extremely necessary thing to realize is that as your kids get older, don't keep fighting their fight for them. Gradually let them start doing this for themselves. Listen to your heart and their heart too. You will learn when it's time to step aside more and more. It is important that they learn to start setting boundaries while still living in the safety of your parenting. For me this is part of the reason why I did not divorce their father earlier. I felt like it was vitally important that I was around to offer them emotional safety while they learned how to handle him. You see he will always be their father. So they are going to have to find a way to handle him later in life. I want to give them a solid head-start on that relationship, as I realize it will be a tricky one.
Trapped in Conversations
Narcissistic parents like to feel in charge. They want to talk about what they want to talk about, when they want to talk about it. If there is a topic that the kids don't really want to talk about at the time, then this can prove to be extremely offensive to the narcissistic parent. Remember they want things on their terms, not anyone else’s. The parent takes it personally and gets rather defensive. So the children feel obligated to talk with him/her. For my boys, I have worked hard to make sure they know that it is OK to say, “I don't want to talk about this right now.” Or even, “I don’t want to have this conversation.”
If you don’t know already, you must learn about circular conversations. These conversations are the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life. They are devastating and will suck all the energy out of you. After one of these conversations with his father, I found our 14 year old son curled up in his closet floor with a stuffed animal saying, “I hate myself” over and over. If their narcissistic parent traps your children in a circular conversation, then they must know what this is and what to do about it. First and foremost, you must learn yourself. Read about circular conversations. Here's my article on it to get you started. Identify them and learn what to do about them. You have to take charge of these conversations. A narcissist will never end this conversation. They will go round and round and round for hours on end, attacking you both overtly and covertly. You will start by asking him about something he did and find yourself defending everything you have ever said or done. It is unbelievable! You have to be the one to stop it. You simply say, “I'm done,” and walk away. Do NOT try to find closure or reconciliation. This may sound harsh, but trying to find reconciliation only keeps you trapped in this conversation for longer. This is exactly what the narcissist wants. Help your kids learn what these conversations are. Talk to them about it. Let them read the articles. This is not normal and healthy conversation, and they must realize that. They also must know how to get it stopped. Teach them to say, “I'm done talking now,” and walk away. It really is that simple.
Invasion of Personal Space
Another example of an overstepped boundary is when the narcissistic parent feels entitled to enter the child’s room anytime they please. This is with or without permission from the child and whether the child is present or not. Our 17-year old son tells me that his dad still barges into his room, even when the door is closed, opening his door anytime he pleases without ever knocking. He has pointed out to me how many times he was fussed at so hard for entering the parent’s room without knocking, even if the door was already open. He got fussed at for even putting his hand on the door knob before waiting for an answer from within. Yet that same father feels entitled to enter his son’s room whenever he pleases and has no need to respect his son’s privacy. Kids need to feel that it is okay to want their own space and their own privacy. They need to learn that it is okay to protect that.
So what do you do? When the kids are young, this isn’t too much of an issue, unless other things are going on that shouldn’t be. For us, this became more of an issue as the kids started to become young teenagers. It was when modesty started to hit. It is better for the young teenagers to be the ones to speak up to the narcissistic parent, than for it to be you. They can say, “It makes me very uncomfortable when you do not knock before you come in.” Or simply, “Can you please knock before you come in?” They do not need to offer a long explanation. Long explanations are simply breeding grounds for circular conversations. Keep it short, simple and honest.
Setting Healthy Boundaries with You
One of the best ways for your child to learn healthy boundary setting is for them to set these boundaries with you. I know this may not feel good to you, especially when their other parent is doing so much damage. But if they don’t learn how to set positive boundaries with you, who will they learn it with? You are their best bet for them to be able to build this important skill.
It is okay for them to set these boundaries with me too! They can tell you that they don’t want to talk about a certain topic. It is important as you try to show emotional growth and health by not getting offended and defensive. I had to learn this over the years. It took some time. But I eventually realized that it is not only okay, but it is also extremely helpful to our relationship too. Healthy boundary setting does not threaten the security of our relationship. Instead it strengthens it. As they begin to trust that you will honor their boundaries, they begin to trust you more. Knowing their boundaries will not be overstepped allows them to relax and lower their guard. This allows their real self to start to show through. Thus these boundaries are exactly what is needed to provide a breeding ground for a secure sense of self.
Mini-Series of blog posts
I am writing a mini-series of posts on how to reduce the damage done by the “other” parent. If you would like to receive these by email, simply join my mailing list below. Your email will not be shared with anyone, but this will ensure that you don’t miss any of this series.
Feel free to reach out to me if I can be of help in any way. You are not fighting this battle alone!