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How to Talk To Your Child About Their Toxic Parent

by | May 27, 2023 | 28 comments

The term “narcissism” on this blog is used to describe a specific set of personality traits. It is not intended to be used as a professional diagnosis.

TINY - Pins - Short (1)Are you unsure how to talk to your child about their toxic parent?

How exactly do you go about explaining narcissism to a child?

It’s tough because, on the one hand, you want to be honest with your child, but on the other hand, you don’t want to bad mouth your ex.

Ultimately, your child needs to understand the situation – they need to understand why their other parent treats them the way they do.

I remember how hard it was to explain my ex’s behaviors to my daughter. She figured out quite a bit on her own, but there were times when I was asked:

“Does Daddy love me?”

Helping your child come to terms with a toxic parent is complex, but you are not alone in this struggle!

In fact, many parents find themselves in similar situations, trying to navigate the delicate balance of protecting their child while addressing the painful reality of a toxic parent.

So let’s take a look at how to do that:

Nurturing Open Communication: Supporting Your Child Every Step of the Way

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Talking to your child about their toxic or narcissistic parent is never easy. How do you explain the situation to a child without badmouthing your ex?

It’s important to approach the conversation with consideration and care.

By doing so, you can establish a foundation of trust and understanding and support your child as they figure out how to deal with having a toxic parent.

Creating a Safe Haven: Providing Comfort and Support

When initiating a conversation with your child about their toxic parent, it’s crucial to create a safe and comforting environment. Choose a quiet and cozy space where your child feels secure and at ease.

This could be their bedroom, a favorite spot in the house, or even a peaceful outdoor setting. By selecting a location that promotes a sense of security, you set the stage for open and honest communication.

Let your child know that this conversation is a judgment-free zone where their emotions are respected, and their experiences are heard.

Reassure them that you are there to support them every step of the way.

Encourage them to express themselves freely, emphasizing that their feelings are valid and important. By providing this safe haven, you establish trust and show your child that their emotional well-being is a top priority.

Validating Their Emotions: Embracing Empathy and Understanding

During the conversation, it’s vital to validate your child’s emotions, allowing them to feel heard and understood. Show empathy and compassion as they express their thoughts and feelings about their toxic parent.

Let them know that it’s natural to have a range of emotions, including confusion, sadness, anger, or even a sense of loss.

Listen attentively without interruption, offering your full presence and support.

Reflect back their emotions by saying things like, “I can see that you’re feeling hurt when your other parent says those things,” or “It’s completely normal to feel upset when they behave in that manner.”

Validating their emotions helps your child feel acknowledged and reassures them that their experiences are real and significant.

Avoid dismissing or belittling their feelings, as this can undermine their trust and discourage open communication. Instead, foster an atmosphere of understanding, reminding them that their emotions are a valid response to their parent’s toxic behavior.

Through validation, you reinforce their sense of self-worth and demonstrate your unwavering support.

Providing Age-Appropriate Explanations: Tailoring Your Approach

When talking to your child about their toxic parent, it’s essential to provide explanations that match their age and level of understanding. Younger children may require simplified explanations that convey the main message clearly and succinctly.

Focus on the impact of their toxic parent’s behavior on your child’s well-being rather than delving into complex psychological concepts.

For instance, you can say, “Sometimes, people act in hurtful ways, even parents. It’s not your fault, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Your [other parent] might be struggling with their own feelings and take them out on others, including you. But always remember, you are loved, and I am here for you.”

With older children, you can gradually introduce more nuanced explanations.

Use relatable examples to help them understand the behavior patterns of a toxic parent. Explain that toxic behavior often stems from deep-seated insecurities, emotional struggles, or unresolved issues.

Reinforce that their parent’s behavior is not a reflection of their worth or character.

Remember, the key is to provide explanations that resonate with your child’s unique perspective and development.

By tailoring your approach to their age, you empower them with the understanding they need to navigate the complexities of their relationship with a toxic parent.

Recognizing Narcissistic Behavior: Helping Your Child Understand

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So, how exactly do you talk to your child about their narcissistic parent?

Understanding narcissism and its effects on your child can be a valuable aspect of the conversation.

Introducing this topic can provide insight into the toxic parent’s behavior and empower your child with knowledge. Here’s how you can approach it:

Begin by explaining that some people have personality traits associated with narcissism. Assure your child that this isn’t about labeling or judging their parent but about understanding certain behaviors.

Use simple language and relatable examples to help them grasp the concept.

For instance, you could say, “Sometimes, people like your other parent may have a hard time empathizing with others. They may often think about themselves and have difficulty considering how their actions affect others’ feelings. It’s like when you want to play a game, but they only want to play what they want, without considering what you enjoy.”

Emphasize that narcissistic behavior is not their fault and that they shouldn’t take it personally. Let them know that it’s the toxic parent’s own struggle and has nothing to do with their worth as a person.

Encourage your child to focus on building their own self-esteem and understanding that their value comes from within. Reinforce their unique qualities, talents, and strengths.

Help your child recognize that they have the power to define their own self-worth, independent of any negative messages or behavior from their toxic parent.

By introducing the concept of narcissism in a gentle and age-appropriate manner, you equip your child with the tools to better comprehend and navigate the challenging dynamics with their toxic parent.

This understanding can empower them to establish healthy boundaries and maintain a sense of self-worth and resilience.

Learn More: 6 Tips for Explaining Narcissism to a Child

How to Talk to Your Child About Their Toxic Parent Examples: Letting Love Guide the Way

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Sometimes, providing examples can help your child better understand and relate to the situation. Here are some examples to inspire your conversation:

Explaining Behavior Patterns

Imagine sitting down with your child and saying, “You know, sweetheart, sometimes your other parent may say things that hurt you. It’s important to remember that their words don’t define who you are. They might be feeling unhappy themselves, and unfortunately, they express it in a hurtful way. But always remember, you are amazing just the way you are.”

Teaching Boundaries

Encourage your child to set healthy boundaries and empower them to assert themselves when faced with toxic behavior. You could lovingly say, “It’s okay to let your other parent know when their behavior crosses a line. You have the right to feel safe, and you have the right to feel respected. Your feelings matter, and I’m here to support you in establishing boundaries that make you feel comfortable.”

Reinforcing Unconditional Love

Remind your child of the unwavering love and support you have for them, regardless of their toxic parent’s behavior. Wrap your arms around them and say, “Even though your other parent may not always show it, please know that my love for you is never-ending. You are incredibly special, and I am here to give you all the love, care, and support you deserve.”

Encouraging Support Systems

Emphasize the importance of seeking support from trusted individuals who can help your child navigate this challenging situation. Offer a warm smile and say, “Remember, you don’t have to face this alone. Many people care about you, like your family, friends, and teachers. It’s okay to talk about your feelings and seek the help you need.”

Take a Listen:

Talking To Your Child About Their Toxic Parent – You Got This!

Having a talk with your child about their toxic parent is a courageous and compassionate step towards supporting their emotional well-being.

By creating a safe haven, validating their emotions, providing age-appropriate explanations, and introducing the concept of narcissism, you are equipping your child with the tools they need to navigate this challenging situation.

Remember, as you engage in these conversations, your warm and loving presence is essential. Let your child feel your unwavering support, reassurance, and understanding.

Above all, know that you are making a significant difference in your child’s life by addressing this challenging topic with empathy and understanding.

Your love and support will help guide them toward a future filled with resilience, growth, and happiness.

You are not alone, and together, you and your child can navigate the complexities of their relationship with a toxic parent, empowering them to flourish and thrive in the face of adversity.

Are you dealing with a toxic ex? How do you approach this with your child? Let me know in the comments!

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28 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Great advices!

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Thank you. I’ve been searching for help on this subject. Really helpful. Do you have any input on helping boys of narcissistic mothers?

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      I can’t speak much on the topic of raising boys (since I only have a daughter) but I can imagine that boys dealing with narcissistic abuse may be more likely to internalize the pain than girls. I would really focus on creating a safe space for him to open up about the way he feels by listening and validating his emotions.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        I have a 5 year old son. His father just accepted an 8 year plea deal for an aggravated assault on me. He’s heard and seen too much and often questions “why does daddy act so mean?” I have him in therapy to work out his feelings. He shuts down pretty easily because he is so afraid of being a disappointment. His dad manipulated him to keep secrets by buying gifts. He intimidated him with his size and rage. Called him a mama’s boy and a cry baby if he cried even a little. He has been having nightmares of a “monster” breaking in the house and taking him away. So, yes, I agree that boys seem to internalize a lot more and need help to learn expressing their feelings.

        Reply
        • Chelsy

          Your poor little guy 🙁 I’m glad you’ve taken the steps to get him into therapy. I know it is extremely difficult now, but you are raising a strong, emotionally-healthy boy by addressing the issues that most would sweep under the rug. He is going to develop resilience and learn how to treat other people right – both men and women. I know it sucks that you can’t control how his father treats him but you have obviously taken control of how you are parenting him and, even if the narc doesn’t realize it, that’s a huge power move on your part. Thanks for your comment <3

          Reply
        • Avatar

          I dunno Im so lost.. My 5 kids are dealing with the names..and all kinds of stuff.

          Reply
      • Avatar

        My kiddos have left home now, my baby is 20. My husband and I are separated. Looking back and at the time, I just thought he was strict (I felt like that’s how he is and I could live with that.)

        I can see more clearly now. And feel so bad for them to know that their father is an a$$, yet they still try to please him! A wasted life-long pursuit, if you ask me.

        My concern is is, how to talk about this to young adults. My 3 kids and I have never spoken about his toxic ways. Only they vent about his “jerk-ish” ways. His father is a classic narcissist, but I believe my husband is not, just toxic, displaying rains of one. Any tips/thoughts/advice on talking about this with young adult children?

        Reply
        • Chelsy

          At this point, there is probably little you can say to change the way your kids view their father. They’re going to have to discover his toxicity on their own. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t support your children! Be the safe place they can go to when they need help and support. Where you see their father putting them down, lift them up. Parenting with a toxic person, whether your children are grown or not, involves a lot of damage control and damage prevention by focusing on your own parenting skills.

          Reply
  3. Avatar

    Thank you for this article. My seven year old daughter is currently navigating to rough waters in dealing with her Narcissist Father. I love that you mentioned it is important for the other parent to keep their feelings out of the equation, and focus on the child’s feelings first. My daughter often says, “I don’t love Daddy, he is so mean.” Any advice on how I should respond to those statements?

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      Omg, my daughter is the same age and says the exact same thing sometimes! While I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation for her, I help her focus on the “nice” things her father has said or done. I also tell her that her daddy loves her, just in a different way – and that he will always love himself first. If these sorts of statements don’t change her opinion of her father, there’s really nothing you can do. He is behaving in a way that is negatively framing his relationship with his daughter and it will bite him the ass one day – you just have to mitigate her struggles in the meantime. Try to have as much of a positive attitude toward her father as you can and continue to support and validate her emotions.

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    How to explain to my children ( 8 and 5 ) why their grandma isn’t coming anymore for visits ? My husband and I had to exclude her from our lives due to her extreme narcissistic behavior . Thank you for your input

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      Congratulations on establishing firm and difficult boundaries for the sake of your children! 🙂 That’s a really tough thing to do. As far as explaining it to them, you need to be honest without going into the gory details. They’re going to feel “unloved” by their grandmother to a certain degree because we all expect our grandmothers to love us. However, they need to understand the importance of avoiding toxic people and it’s okay to tell them that grandma’s behaviors are hurtful because she loves herself more than anyone else. Explain it in a way so that they don’t feel at fault or blame themselves for their grandmother’s absence.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    After 6 years of living hell, I finally had the strength to leave my narcissistic, sociopathic husband.
    After 4 years fighting and üs winning every court – we’re still nowhere.
    I was 6 month pregnant with our second son when he attacked me out of the blue for the first time physically – Sam 3years old had to watch it.
    After he attacked me while holding our 3rd son Lee 6months in my arms and in front of Sam 6 and Tom 3, I knew that I must act. Act to protect our boys, to show them that this is not how love and family should be. To give them the chances to be good people, even if it meant to break up this family.
    Still 4 years down I’m certain that I made the right choice to leave. I’ve hurt my boys with the decisions I made, but it was the only way to keep them safe. To give them the chance to be a self loving and a free adult.
    And all I have to do now, is keeping the monster of hurting them from far away

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      Dealing with a narcissist is a step-by-step process and you have definitely conquered one of the hardest steps by leaving your ex for the sake and safety of your children. 🙂 However, the next steps involve more time, growth, and patience. As you continue to learn how to deal with your ex and mitigate conflict, you’ll find that the situation can get better. It’ll never be perfect but it can be better. 🙂 Thanks for leaving a comment! <3

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Hi I wish I saw this article 40 years ago my 3 children and I have been suffering for so long I had no idea what I was dealing with my children are now adults
        He has ruined our lives

        Reply
  6. Avatar

    I think the hardest is for children to learn how to put boundaries to their toxic parent and how we, the parents, can help them to that. Its difficult as well, for kids to know the ways he/she manipulates them. The best for the other parent is to always be true, calm and give safety to his/her children.

    Reply
  7. Avatar

    This is so incredibly hard. My ex husband is full blown covert narcissist.
    Our daughter is learning to navigate. I’m grateful for any suggestions. She is in counseling and most recently she said…”I will not alter my reality to make his behavior acceptable.” I thought this was very insightful for a 11 year old.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      That is very insightful for an 11 year old! It seems that your daughter is really gaining perspective on the situation. Apart from validating her feelings and letting her come to her own conclusions about her father, just offer her support and be her safe place. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    How do I discuss my narcissistic husbands behavior with my daughter so she can see that it is wrong? She is only 6 and started making excuses for him- daddy is just daddy. I’m so afraid she’s going to follow in my footsteps and end up with someone like him. I don’t want to disparage him in front of her but I’m very truthful. I tell her he should not speak to her or I the way he does. When he is over the top demeaning or inappropriate I tell him in front of her that his tone or actions are not okay and he turns it around on her saying “look- you got me in trouble”. I always follow up with saying she did nothing wrong and telling him he needs to take responsibility for his own words and actions but I can see the toll this is taking. My lawyer says I will not likely get full custody if I tried and I will not leave my daughter behind. It’s emotionally so taxing for me as a full grown adult. I cannot imagine how hard this is to navigate for her.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      It’s definitely a frustrating situation, and I’m sorry you’re going through it. 🙁 It seems that you are doing everything you can to help your daughter understand the situation – just give it time. As long as you’re honest with her and support her feelings, she will begin to see what he is truly about. As far as custody goes, joint custody only means that you and your ex have to make decisions about your daughter together. It doesn’t affect access or who takes care of the child on a full-time basis. However, access can progress to more balanced time between the two of you.

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    Women can also be narcissists, not just men.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      Absolutely 100%! I’m not sure where in my article I specifically refer to narcissists as men (except for when speaking about my own experience in which my ex is, indeed, a male), but I am very careful to refer to these individuals using gender-neutral terms. Because I am a woman and a mother, this blog is positioned to speak to that audience, but the information is completely relevant to those dealing with narcissistic men and women. Thanks for your feedback!

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    My 13 yr old son called me “gullible” and I immediately had flashbacks of his father calling me names and demeaning me. I’m deathly afraid of him turning out like his dad. How do I talk to him about this before it’s too late? He’s a sweet kid, but sometimes when he’s around him for a weekend he comes home acting like him and it’s killing me.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      Use “I” statements to express how his behavior and words make you feel. For example, “I don’t like being called gullible. It hurts my feelings.” Try to stay away from saying things that accuse your son (like, “When you call me gullible…”) – this will help curb his natural inclination to become defensive. Also, don’t compare his behaviors to his father’s. Just address the behaviors and words. And if the behaviors are extreme or totally disrespectful, consider implementing consequences for his actions.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    Thanks so much for your posts. I’m trying to support my 17 year old daughter through a particularly tough patch with her dad. He’s sent her some messages that are shaming and emotionally immature, calling her stubborn and ungrateful and disrespectful. I have some ideas about her to support my daughter but would like to raise my upset and frustration with my ex. I just don’t know how to do it (or if I should) in such a way that his reaction won’t be to get angry or ignore my message. But I do want to let him know that he can’t treat her like that (and expect her to want to continue a relationship with him). Would really appreciate any advice. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      You’re instincts are bang on here! Especially when it comes to finding ways to support your daughter and teaching her how to be resilient to her father’s comments. You’re also 100% right in expecting an angry or dismissive reaction from your ex. You do have some options here: A. Say something to him, let him rage, and then accept his decision to either change the way he speaks to her or not (probably not); B. Focus on your daughter and let her know that she has the right to set boundaries with him (i.e., limit or cut communication); C. Give your daughter the strength and confidence to address his treatment of her herself.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    I am just realizing I may be married to a narcissist, we have a 17 year old son who seems quiet and unsure of himself, and a 15 year old daughter who is depressed and anxious as a result of constant criticism from him and lack of emotional connection. He is a loving person underneath it all, but is so demeaning to our kids and having angry outbursts, and very high expectations of them. He is demeaning to me also, but I can answer back and tolerate it. Is it possible to protect them from this without ending the relationship? Is it possible for him to change? Is it too late considering their ages – are they permanently damaged from this?
    I regret not recognizing the signs earlier and doing more about it, although I did always stand up for the kids, I didn’t realize how much it was damaging them.

    Reply
    • Chelsy

      It is 100% never too late! I know suggesting therapy seems to be the go-to advice on the internet, but you should really consider getting your kids in to talk to someone. Start with your family doc and they will help you. I can tell you from experience that this will make a huge difference, no matter your kids’ ages. But you also have a lot to consider with the entire situation – if your partner is demeaning your children and affecting their mental health, I really can’t see him being “a loving person” in any way. Start with therapy but consider the fact that staying with their father is likely causing more harm than if you were to leave the relationship. I know it’s a lot to take in and sort out, but start with getting your kids help now and the rest will make sense as you go along.

      Reply

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