I work daily with people who have experienced narcissistic abuse. Some grew up in a household with a narcissistic parent. Others are married to someone with narcissism. Still others may simply have a close relationship with a person who is emotionally abusive and has traits of narcissism.
Despite their unique personal circumstances, they are all are seeking help to address and heal from the effects a narcissistic relationship has had on their lives. They generally come to therapy looking not only for help, but also for answers to their questions. In this article, I address eight of the most common questions I am asked by people seeking support for narcissistic and emotional abuse.
1. How do I get my parent/partner/best friend to change?
You cannot change another person. You can only change your own actions and responses, and that can be hard enough! Instead of trying to get someone else to change, I encourage you to simply let that person be who they are. A person who does not want to change will probably not change. Your job is to take care of yourself.
2. How can I keep my children from being hurt by someone with narcissism?
Children tend to be influenced by the people they are around. If you are concerned about your co-parent’s actions and behavior, or if you have reason to believe they are consistently lying and attempting to manipulate your children, you may be dealing with parental alienation syndrome. Some parents with narcissistic traits use this complex form of covert manipulation as a tool to encourage children to reject the other parent. Parental alienation syndrome shares similarities with brainwashing and can have a serious impact on the parent-child relationship.
If you are the other parent in this scenario, then this can be a challenging situation. The best approach to dealing with this type of abuse is to limit the other parent’s influence on the child. If that not possible, here are some suggestions:
- Teach your children critical thinking skills.
- Demonstrate a safe, empathic, non-controlling relationship with your children.
- Focus on the relationship you have with your children. Try to be more “in tune” with your kids. Spend quality time with them.
- Relax and enjoy yourself, your kids, and your life.
- Be the adult. Don’t put yourself in the one-down position. Don’t put yourself in the same position as your children in the family system either.
- Keep your power. Don’t give it to the other parent.
- Seek support from a therapist or counselor. Family therapy can also be helpful.
3. What do I say to them when they text or call?
If you are dealing with a person who is emotionally abusive or manipulative, going “no contact” may be the best solution. Block the person from your phone and on social media. This way you will not have to worry about receiving texts, calls, or messages. If you ever see the person while out, it may be a good idea to avoid them.
If you must talk to this person, keep conversations short, simple, and on topic. Hold on to yourself during the encounter. Don’t get sucked in by attempts to manipulate you. If possible, consider including a third person in the meeting. Ideally, this person is someone you trust to remain non-combative, whose presence can help you remain grounded.
4. How do I handle or respond to the silent treatment?
The best thing to do with the silent treatment is to avoid it. If you know someone you care about is prone to manipulating you with the silent treatment, then you can simply avoid it by staying away from the person when they attempt to use silent treatment. Being in contact with someone who has narcissistic traits is often complicating and confusing. The silent treatment is a powerful manipulation tool. It is a hurtful control tactic. People experiencing silent treatment may feel like they have to do whatever the narcissist wants in order to establish connection again.
Recovering from the effects of narcissistic or emotional abuse can be challenging. But it is possible to heal.
If it is not possible for you to avoid this person, one solution may be to leave the room if you are pointedly being ignored. Surround yourself with safe people instead. The best way to counteract the silent treatment is to take your focus off the other person, connect to someone else, and move on. It may help to remind yourself that the silent treatment is a form of abuse. It is not something you “earned” or “deserved” for something you did or did not do.
5. How do I co-parent with a narcissist?
It is, in most cases, extremely difficult to co-parent with someone who has narcissistic traits. Collaboration and cooperation is often not possible. You have to parent in spite of the fact that the other parent has “issues.” Some people feel as if their children really only have one parent, as in many cases people with narcissism may not be capable of healthy parenting. It’s important to have a support system, especially if, for whatever reason, you have to continue to see and parent with the person (shared custody, for example). A therapist or counselor is often a key part of this support.
6. How do I break free from a narcissistic relationship?
People with narcissism are often described as addictive. The constant cycle of good-bad behavior can create a trauma bond.
The “addiction” to the person with narcissism is really an addiction to the brain chemistry attached to the anticipation and traumatic bonding within the relationship. When a relationship is unfulfilling, you may be left with a constant state of emptiness. This emptiness is temporarily relieved by each positive encounter with the person. In order to overcome this, it may be necessary to entirely abstain. But this can be a difficult journey.
When a relationship feels fulfilling and good, chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins are released in the brain. But chemicals released when trying to detach from a toxic bond, such as cortisol (the stress hormone), are vastly different. They do not feel as good as the “love chemicals,” and you may feel drawn back in to the relationship.
Remind yourself that you may not feel very good for a while. You may experience feelings of withdrawal and grief. But you will heal in time. Turning to friends and family, other members of your support system, practicing self-care, and seeking support from a therapist or counselor are all ways you can work through a difficult breakup.
7. How do I heal from growing up with a narcissistic parent?
Children of narcissistic parents have been developed and conditioned to always evaluate reality based on external reactions. They have learned to use the narcissistic parent as the barometer for how to act and be.
In order to healing to take place, learning to change the vantage point for your identity is an essential step. In other words, it’s important to remember to look within for answers. This shift from what you’ve learned to do in childhood will typically take time and practice to master.
Here are some suggestions to help you on your journey:
- Find your voice.
- Learn how you may have dissociated and/or developed “sub-selves” to cope.
- Work to develop an inner compassionate voice.
- Create self-care mantras: “You are enough.” “You’re not responsible for their feelings.” “It’s not your fault.”
- Connect with safe people, and share your emotions and feelings with them.
- Find a good therapist (who can help you with all of the above).
- Join a support group, such as ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics.)
8. How do I recover from estrangement with my child?
Parents who have been affected by parental alienation may be estranged from their children. This can be very painful. Your emotional energy may be expended in wishing your child would realize the truth and reach out to you for reconciliation. You may feel hopeless or experience grief, depression, or despair.
A counselor can support you and help you work through your feelings. It can also help to:
- Remind yourself that it’s not your fault.
- Live the best life you can.
- Keep lines of communication open.
- Don’t allow yourself to be abused by your child.
- Listen with empathy when and if your child talks to you. Allow them to state their feelings or the truth as they believe it, but do not tolerate disrespect.
- Practice self-care. This can include spending time with loved ones, getting enough sleep, avoiding sad or triggering situations, or pursuing hobbies you enjoy, among other things.
- Offer your love to others. In other words, you have emotional energy to expend in loving ways. Don’t hold it in.
- Try not to give up hope. It can help to live each day with a heart that is open and ready for reconciliation. None of us know what tomorrow will bring.
Recovering from the effects of narcissistic or emotional abuse can be challenging. But it is possible to heal. I encourage you to seek support through this difficult journey. Reach out to your loved ones, and seek the help of a compassionate counselor. You are not alone!
- Arabi, S. (2016). Becoming the narcissist’s nightmare. New York, NY: Archer Publishing.
- Carnes, P.(1997). The betrayal bond: Breaking free from exploitative relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
- Childress, C. A. (2015). An attachment-based model of parental alienation: Foundations. Claremont, CA: Oaksong Press.
- Cori, J. L. (2017). The emotionally absent mother: How to recognize and heal the invisible effects of childhood emotional neglect. New York, NY: The Experiment, LLC.