As a counselor for victims of narcissistic and sociopathic abuse, I come across about every scenario imaginable and have witnessed, through my work, the worst evils in human behavior.
When dealing with narcissists, sociopaths, borderline personalities and even bi-polar disorder, there is a lot of abuse, pathological lying, blaming, projection of hatred, absolute crazy making behavior including “gaslighting,” and the spreading of vicious rumors about the other parent.
What happens when children are caught in the middle of marriages and relationships where there is a personality disordered or mentally ill parent? Most psychologist will tell us that we don’t talk to our children about “the other” parent in any type of negative way. We encourage our children to love and accept the “other parent” and keep our mouths shut about the abuse that is happening. Well, I have another belief about this.
Some studies will tell us one of the top causes of death among children over the age of ten is suicide. Why do you think this is? I believe it is because, in our emotionally repressed society, we repress and invalidate the emotional reality of our children. To invalidate your children’s feelings is to deny their reality. To deny their reality causes them to feel crazy inside. They not only feel “crazy,” but lonely, isolated, and left alone to suffer in a world where nobody understands them.
Children feel very deeply. They are sensitive. They psychically pick up what is going on in the family dynamic and if you tell them what they are perceiving is inaccurate they are being taught they can’t trust their own “inner knowing.” At an early age we teach our children to doubt themselves, which undermines their self-confidence and their ability to perceive the world accurately.
Of course we all want to protect our children but we must learn the difference between protecting our children from harm and denying their reality. Invalidating the reality of a child is not protection. It is abuse.
Divorce is common in today’s society. Those who suffer abuse at the hands of a spouse are encouraged to get out of the relationship and take their children with them, to give the children a chance to have a peaceful, loving and supportive home. Unfortunately, the court system doesn’t really recognize abuse; especially narcissistic, sociopathic, and borderline abuse. This is because most people with these kind of “Cluster B” personality disorders present as normal, successful, capable people. People who have these kind of personality disorders put a lot of effort into appearing “normal” and being liked and accepted by others. The abuse is hidden. It happens only behind closed doors and usually only the nearest and dearest witness it. The nearest and dearest usually includes the children.
The courts will most often award shared custody to both parents, forcing the children to be with the “disordered” parent half the time. In some cases, with a more sophisticated narcissist or sociopath, full custody is awarded to the disordered person.
Children are usually aware that something is not right with this parent and will go to the other parent seeking answers. If the parent can’t be fully honest with his or her child, there will be problems in the emotional development of that child. The child needs to know he or she can depend on at least one parent for honesty and stability.
Pathological lying is a trait of a personality disordered individual. He or she will not hesitate to say horrible things about the other parent in attempt to discredit that parent. The nature of personality disorders is self-centeredness and the lack of ability to care about anyone but the” Self,” even at the expense of one’s own children. A personality disordered individual will use the children as pawns in order to punish the other parent. He will break all the rules about not bringing a child into the middle of a nasty divorce or battle between parents. In cases of “Parental Alienation Syndrome” the spiteful parent will brainwash and turn the children against the other parent altogether. The court system is completely unaware of such dynamics.
In cases of personality disorders and mental illness, it is important that the healthy parent talks openly and honestly to the children about what is going on. The child already knows something is going on and is most likely hurt, confused and seeking answers. Where are those answers going to come from?
Although I agree we need to talk to our children out of a place of calmness, rather than hostility and anger towards the other parent, we do need to talk to our children about the mental illness of the other parent.
I’ve had clients whose children get very upset when told they must go for their visitation with the other parent. They scream, cry, throw a temper tantrum and refuse to go. They are already experiencing the abuse and neglect of the personality disordered parent. However, if the healthy parent acquiesces to the wishes of the child, he or she could be thrown in jail for violating a court order. Parents are forced, by law, to send their children to the home of an abusive parent when the children are too young to understand why. The children are being sent into a war zone half of their young and fragile lives. The children need as much emotional support as they can get and part of this emotional support involves tactful honesty.
In some cases, the disordered parent is kind and caring to the children but vindictive towards the other parent and fills the children’s head full of all sorts of lies and half-truths. This is highly confusing and disturbing to the child who wants to love both parents. If the other parent doesn’t set the record straight she risks losing the respect and love of her own children who are being brainwashed to believe she is to blame for every bad thing that happens in the family dynamic.
Truly I have seen it all and it breaks my heart. I’ve heard stories of young children tugging at their Mother’s leg saying “Mommy please don’t make me go” and stories of teenage children, brainwashed into believing the other parent committed some horrible crime against the family and completely turning on that parent, refusing to have anything to do with them. Often this happens when one parent remains silent and the disordered parent is cursing and blaming the other for tearing the family apart, being crazy, or mentally ill.
Personality disordered people are known for pathological lying and projection, which means they blame and accuse the other parent for doing exactly what it is they are doing. This is a very confusing dynamic. It is not at all uncommon that a pathological parent will accuse the other parent of being mentally ill, and in front of the children. This is a defense mechanism against his or her own mental illness. A disordered individual really needs to believe it is the other person creating the problems because he or she is incapable of taking any responsibility for his or her own actions and behavior.
How to talk to your children depends on the age and awareness level of the kids. Some very young children are extremely aware and others are not so aware. You will need to tune into the cues of your children and listen to their reality and help to guide them. If they asked a question concerning the behavior of the other parent or why you live apart or are divorcing, speak honestly but with tact and speak at the emotional level of your child so he or she can understand what you are saying. Encourage conversation and questions.
It is the nature of a child to love both parents and want the love, attention and approval of both parents. It is important to pay attention to the relationship your child is having with the other parent. If your child is “in love” with the disordered parent, it is important to support that love and acceptance of the other parent but also explain to the child that Mommy and Daddy see things differently. You might use props to demonstrate how when you look through this pair of glasses the world looks different. You might also show your child how life looks without any of the eye glasses and explain this as an “unaltered” view. You might explain that when people have a mental illness they are looking at life through a very different pair of glasses and pick a pair that really distorts their vision so they can get an idea of what you are talking about.
When my son was young I made the mistake of “following the rules” and did not mention to my son that his Father had bi-polar disorder. Since my ex-husband was on medication for bi-polar disorder I believed he would tell his son and I felt it was his place to do so, not mine. When my son came to me, at the age of sixteen, confused and hurt by his Dad’s behavior I asked “did you know your Dad has bi-polar Disorder?” My son got very upset and said “Really? Really? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?” He was angry that he was left in the dark about such an important matter. It was then I realized I made a mistake by not talking to him about his Dad’s disorder earlier. This is why I now encourage parents to talk to their children about their parent’s mental illness or personality disorder. If we don’t, the children will often feel crazy and believe it is somehow their own fault.
People with personality disorders and bi-polar disorder don’t live in the same reality as the “average” individual. In all fairness we all live in a different reality but we can all usually agree that white is white and black is black. A personality disordered person will argue with you that white is black and you are colorblind and be very convincing. You may start to believe that you aren’t seeing things accurately and begin to doubt yourself. You may have to take that “white” piece of paper to a friend and ask “what color is this?” Your friend will likely say “white, are you colorblind?”
To live with a personality disordered individual is to live in a distorted reality and your children will also be living in this distorted reality. You need to get the help you need to align with your own truth, learn to trust yourself and teach your children to trust themselves as well. Narcissistic parents breed children who are either narcissistic themselves or have very low self-esteem, stemming from years of abuse.
As the healthy parent you are your children’s link to sanity and a healthy sense of self-worth. Having one good, kind and loving parent can counteract the effects of the abusive, undermining and mentally ill parent. Be the example of emotional health by learning how to demonstrate it to your children and validate their emotional reality.