Both personal experience and professional curiosity lead us to research and develop support services for parents going through separation. One thing that comes up time and time again is how to protect children from emotional abuse and neglect once you have separated. Let’s start by clarifying that what we’re talking about here is the abuse that doesn’t meet the threshold for safeguarding concerns with local authorities. Sometimes as a parent, you know, it’s not right and feel powerless to do anything about it. We want to give you some tools to help you feel more confident in dealing with situations like that.
It can be challenging to focus on parenting during or after separation and divorce. When children need support, warm care and consistent boundaries, parents can feel least equipped to provide it. Separating from a partner who has narcissistic traits can make it more difficult by adding Complex PTSD into the mix and post-separation abuse, including the emotional abuse and neglect of the children. But how does it look?
Badmouthing you to the child – the child comes home and accuses you of something you didn’t do or something which your ex did. As a parent, you are unsure how to respond because you don’t want to draw your child into an adult issue, and you don’t want them to believe the lies either.
Sharing details of your relationship and separation with the child – your ex might be trying to encourage your child to align with them by involving them in adult issues and wanting them to take their side.
Limiting contact (including symbolic communication) – your child isn’t allowed anything of yours at the other parent’s house and aren’t allowed to speak to you when the child is in their other parents care.
Invading the child’s privacy – the child may come home and say, “Mummy went through all my belongings” or “Daddy took my phone”.
Not meeting the child’s emotional needs – your child may say, “Daddy shouts at me when I cry” or “Mummy calls me a baby when I get upset and want to call you”.
Controlling behaviour – the child may come home and say, “I have to stay in my room until 8 am, regardless of when I wake up”.
This is not an exhaustive list, but they are some of the most common examples that come up in our work. Each time you may feel that this isn’t right for your child and that there isn’t much you can do about it. If you attempt to talk to your ex about it, they will deny it and potentially claim that you are coaching your child to make things up. Or they could take it out on the child the next time they see them, and your child will then feel unable to open up to you again. If you contact social services, it can make things worse, and ultimately nothing gets done because it doesn’t meet their thresholds, and often, if you are going through court, they will simply tell you that it is a matter for the court. This leaves you with no recourse.
You may also find that the behaviour your child is describing is triggering for you because you have experienced the same treatment. It can be tough to deal with your emotions in those moments and decide what action to take.
So what can you do?
Firstly, it is helpful to take a step back and look at what happens for us as parents in situations like that and how it might affect our response. When you hear your child tell you something like in the examples above, you could have a strong reaction. Your heart might sink, feeling so sad that your child is experiencing this, or your blood might boil, and anger could take over. “How dare they do this?!” You might even feel like the ground is falling from beneath you. In other words, you may find yourself in a full-blown fight or flight response.
As parents, we go into fight or flight response fairly regularly. The school run alone can quickly push us close to fight or flight! But if you’ve been through a difficult relationship, then a difficult separation into a difficult co-parenting relationship and there is still discomfort and conflict in the background, you are likely to be hypervigilant and so the fight or flight response is much easier and faster to access. It is also a stronger reaction, and it takes longer to self regulate and bring our nervous system back into alignment.
So the first step is to be aware of your triggers so that you can catch them quickly and prevent a fight or flight response (check out this video 4 STEP PROCESS TO MANAGE YOUR TRIGGERS AFTER NARCISSISTIC ABUSE for help with this). From here, you can look at meeting your child on an emotional level. If your child saying: “My other parent, doesn’t let me leave my bedroom until 8am” triggers a fight response, your energy will likely go up, and you’ll feel that you’ve got to do something about it immediately. There’s no time to think or consider, and you might get an idea that you feel just so right about, and you just spring into action. And so emotionally, it would be like a child is in one place, and your response shoots straight past them and into action. We are saying it without judgement. We have been there many times and are talking from experience. The problem with this reaction is that not only is your child left feeling unheard and maybe even afraid of what you are going to do, you could also say something to your child about the other parent that you later regret. Or you might just go and message your ex even though you know that it just will be counterproductive and could even work against you in court.
The other side of this reaction is flight. When we are in flight, we tend to withdraw and focus on keeping ourselves safe. You might feel that it’s just too much for you to deal with this right now. You might become overwhelmed with your own experience, leaving your child feeling unheard and maybe even guilty for hurting you, which can potentially prevent them from sharing things with you in the future.
We appreciate it might be uncomfortable to talk about it. We bring it up because we know that you can regain control and choose to respond in a way that feels good to you once you recognise your triggers and automatic responses. So when you notice that you’re triggered, best take a break, press the pause button until you feel more like your usual self.
Once you feel more grounded, aim to meet your child where they are. Stay curious about their experience, and say something like, “So I hear you have to stay at 8am in the other parent’s house. What’s that like for you?” and then sit back, listen and let them do the talking. If they are in the mood to talk:
- Listen and wait until they naturally pause. When they pause, listen some more. Take a few breaths. The next thing they want to say might naturally come during that pause.
- You could help them to connect with how they feel about it by repeating what they said and checking in with them if you understood it how they meant it.
- You can let them know that you are listening by saying something like: “Can you tell me more about it?”, “How do you feel about it?”
If they don’t feel like talking, it is ok. Saying: “So I hear you have to stay at 8am in the other parent’s house. What’s that like for you?” opens the door for the conversation, invites them to think about it, lets your children know that their experience matters, that you are there for them. That might be enough for now and you can build on it later.
This might not be your typical communication style, and it can take some practice before you feel more confident about managing your triggers. It is worth persevering with it, though, because staying present with children’s experience in moments like that help them to feel safer with their overwhelming or confusing feelings, make their own sense of the situation and trust their gut feelings.
We appreciate that co-parenting with a narcissistic ex is complicated and exhausting, and we hope that this article has provided you with some strategies to protect your child from emotional abuse and neglect. We will be expanding on these strategies as well as introducing more attachment-based parenting practices in our free webinar on Tuesday 25th May at 1.30pm GMT “How To Raise Emotionally Secure Children Whilst Recovering From Narcissistic Abuse”. We would love to see you there.