Sometimes parental alienation masks another personality disorder
In other posts we have discussed parental alienation, what it is and how it impacts children during and after divorce. We’ve also covered some of the ways a trusting relationship can be re-established, even after damage has been done. The alienation from a parent does not have to be permanent, even if the rebuilding of trust takes time. Parental alienation often happens not because of the malicious actions of one parent but because of a complex set of behaviours that involve both parents and even the extended families. However, in some circumstances the manipulation of the child(ren) is a direct result of a more deep-rooted emotional disorder.
Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or the milder trait of narcissism can be at the heart of parental alienation. Narcissists by definition are controlling and self-absorbed. They are insensitive to different views and the needs of others; and wildly oblivious to the effect of their behaviour on others. They often criticise, undermine and even humiliate others, none more than those closest to them. If their nearest and dearest dares to escape the intolerable situation that is life with the narcissist, they will often seek revenge via the children. The narcissist parent attempts to damage or even destroy the other parent using the children as weapons. Because narcissists are often charming and convincing on the surface, their “protection” of the children against the supposed harmful influence of the other parent can be convincing. But the reality is – they are incapable of acting in the best interests of the child due to their egotism.
Co-parenting with a narcissist
There are ways of coping with a narcissistic partner or ex-partner, and strategies exist for co-parenting with a narcissist, though in this situation parallel parenting is likely to be more successful than co-parenting. Parallel parenting happens when parents share care and contact within strict boundaries and interaction between the parents is reduced to a minimum. Forget attending school parents’ nights together. Each parent has a separate appointment to discuss the child’s progress. Tedious for the teacher? Maybe. But critical for fostering a healthy and safe emotional environment for the child.
Borderline personality disorder
The parent with borderline personality disorder (BPD) has difficulty controlling their emotions. In many ways they are like children. When their emotions become too intense for them to handle, they become angry. They are also hyper-emotional – certain circumstances trigger a much greater emotional response than a healthy adult would display. Although the BPD may be diagnosed and acknowledged, the emotional upheaval of divorce and the subsequent disruption in family life may exacerbate the BPD. It may manifest as parental alienation.
Sufferers of BPD often play – or genuinely think they are – the victim. They blame others for the tragedy in their lives, and as a way of self-soothing they victimise those around them. This is prime parental alienation behaviour – a desire to make the other parent suffer by casting them as incapable, unloving, etc.
The parent with BPD may distort reality, accusing the other parent of flaws that are in fact within themselves, such as selfishness or instability. The BPD parent may also seek to divide the families by lining up allies and positioning anyone not on their side as “the enemy” – a tactic known as “splitting”. They enlist their children as little fighters for their cause, and the children become alienated not only against the other parent but potentially against much-loved grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. The support network that children desperately need in the wake of divorce is eroded and, of course, no one suffers more than the most innocent victims – the children.
Co-parenting with someone with BPD
Much of the advice given for co-parenting with a narcissist applies to someone with BPD. Both are personality disorders and, while the affected individual’s behaviour can be infuriating and exhausting, they deserve an element of compassion (however small!). Most people, given a rational choice, would opt to be well-balanced, mentally healthy, mature adults. But don’t let sympathy turn you into a doormat. Your children need you to provide stability, as their other parent will be incapable. You need to put their interests first, and part of that means putting your interests first. It’s very hard to find the energy a young family demands if you are feeling drained and debilitated by your ex’s treatment of you. Make time for self-care. It’s not selfish; think of it as part of your duty as a parent.
In addition to caring for yourself and setting clear boundaries (practising parallel parenting rather than co-parenting), these tips will help you deal with a BPD parent:
- Acknowledge their feelings. Someone with BPD is acutely emotionally sensitive, but they’re not on another planet. Like any human, they want to be accepted and listened to. Try to see the issue behind the tantrum and acknowledge it in an adult manner. This may make a reasonable conversation more likely…or at least possible.
- Manage your own emotions. This may mean suppressing them. Don’t get sucked into the BPD’s emotional maelstrom. This will only intensify an already volatile situation. Take deep breaths or use whatever coping strategy works for you.
- Don’t take anything personally. Your ex is very likely to blame you for the divorce, and therefore for any distance that has arisen between them and their children. This will happen regardless of who initiated the divorce or whose behaviour triggered it. Blaming others for their problems is a classic BPD tactic. Their coping mechanism for the guilt and shame the divorce has generated in them is to build themselves up by knocking you down. However hard it may be, remember that this is a symptom of the disorder; you are not to blame!
- Be honest with your children, but in an age-appropriate manner. What you tell a six-year-old will be very different from the conversation you have with a 16-year-old (but remember, teenagers are nowhere near as mature and “sorted” as they may appear). Keep the focus on the importance of a safe environment for them and the need to help them maintain their relationship with both parents. It’s OK to say that the other parent has some challenges and you are both working out the best way to manage the situation. Keep your feelings about your ex to yourself and explain the circumstances as unemotionally as possible. Because it is likely the other parent will give the children a different point of view, your calm, rational demeanour will make a stronger and more lasting impression on them.
Do you need help from an attorney?
Do you think your ex is attempting to alienate you from your children? Are you trying to co-parent with someone with a personality disorder and need help? Cape Town attorney Simon Dippenaar & Associates Inc. (SDLAW) is an established Cape Town law firm with extensive expertise in divorce and family law. Whether you are the custodial or non-custodial parent, you have rights in your family law matter. SDLAW will defend and champion your rights and help you arrive at a workable solution, whether you are undergoing divorce or developing a parenting plan post-divorce.
Specialist divorce lawyer SDLAW will safeguard the rights of your children and will help you work towards a brighter future for all of you. Call Simon on 086 099 5146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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REEVA STEENKAMP FOUNDATION ENDORSEMENT “On behalf of all abused woman and children The Reeva Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation would like to thank Simon Dippenaar from SD Law South Africa for going beyond and assisting our client with a very difficult case. Family Law requires a very special person, just being a good lawyer is not enough.”