Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hey everyone, welcome back. We’re here for another Beyond the Session segment on the Securely Attached podcast, and we have Dr. Rebecca Hershberg joining us again.

Dr. Rebecca (00:52):

Hi, always such a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Sarah (00:55):

So let’s get right into it. I got this email from a listener. How can I navigate my nine year old’s resistance to visiting their dad’s house, especially when I suspect their father might be a narcissist? I’m concerned about the co-parenting situation and its impact on my child’s wellbeing. How can I empower my child to express their feelings without revealing my own apprehensions and still ensuring their safety and emotional health since not going to their father’s is not an option with our custody arrangement? So that’s a tough one.

Dr. Rebecca (01:27):

Such a tough one and it’s so thoughtful. I mean, honestly, part of me feels like this kid is going to be okay based on mom’s thoughtfulness, right? She’s naming the most important things. She worries about the emotional impact of her on her child. She’s aware that she can’t communicate that to her child because that won’t be healthy for her child, and she knows that the custody arrangement is what she is just holding the ball in a way that I’ve worked with a lot of families that have a hard time doing for good reason. And so I guess I want to first say if you’re thinking about all these things and thinking about them as clearly as this person is, then it kind bodes well for the situation. But it is such a tricky one. I have so many clients in this situation and there are no easy answers, although certainly we’ll do our best.

Dr. Sarah (02:22):

No, but I think even just this first thing that you’re pointing to, which is awareness and acceptance of the situation, being able to zoom out and have that bird’s eye view of like, okay, yes, this doesn’t feel good to me. I believe it doesn’t feel good to my child, and there are things about the situation that I don’t have control over, and I accept the reality of that. That’s I think in a big way, step one, because that gives you a little bit of space to focus on the things you can control because this is the tricky part, and I think it’s worth saying this question specifically asks about narcissism thinking that this child’s father, she suspects that he might be a narcissist, but in reality, unless definitively that your ex co-parent or ex-spouse actually carries that diagnosis, it kind of is like, do we need to define narcissism?


Do we need to broaden it up to just like, Hey, there’s a lot of situations where you might be having a separation with a person and have to figure out how to co-parent and you no longer get along. You no longer are able to have an amicable relationship. They might have some legitimate challenges to being able to emotionally support your child and keep their issues with you separate from the way that they’re parenting the child. Not everyone is optimally healthy, unfortunately, and that’s just a reality of things and may very well be why the relationship ended in the first place. But I think whether we’re talking about narcissism explicitly or maybe just a really challenging co-parenting relationship, that first piece of what parts do I need to accept as out of my control is a really good place to start. And then the next step being, let’s think about what I can control and put my efforts there, because you can really feel like your bucket’s draining all over the place if you don’t focus your energy on the things that actually matter that you have some say in.

Dr. Rebecca (04:37):

Yeah, no, I agree with absolutely everything you just said other than the fact that I would say that piece isn’t step one, it’s steps one through 10. I mean, it’s…

Dr. Sarah (04:47):

Returning and returning and returning.

Dr. Rebecca (04:51):

Yeah, I mean it’s so much harder than in some ways this person made it sound right. I mean, again, there’s just so much work that can go into just the awareness and the acceptance piece because it’s very hard as a parent not to feel like you can protect your child from this person who at least according to this question, you really don’t think is in the best interest of your kid. You worry about that person hurting your kid and you have to send them to that person, whether it’s 50% of the time or even just for a weekend here and there, and it can be gut wrenching.


I think coming back over and over again to what is in my control is the way to view this question and what is in your control is your relationship with your child and your being. We are on the right podcast for this, a secure attachment figure to your child. And this question, and I forget the exact phrasing, but it was insightful about without letting your child know about your apprehensions. That’s a tricky line because of course, and there’s certainly been a lot written about the fact that your child is the person who suffers If you badmouth the other parent, your child is biologically driven to attach to both parents whether that stays that way or not. And so that other parent is really important to your child, even if it’s not the healthiest relationship and it does no one any good, if you throw that other parent under the bus, the only thing that can do is really call attention that your child can really develop some discomfort and anxiety around that and have to hold a whole lot more than is developmentally appropriate.


I think on the other hand though, there’s a way in which we can go too far in the other direction and almost gaslight our child, pretend like everything is happy and rosy. Like, oh, you’re going to your daddy’s, you’re going to have the best time. And it’s like, no, you’re not right. We both know that daddy can yell a lot or that daddy doesn’t let you play this game that you love or whatever it is. And so walking that line of being there for your child in a very real and authentically present way while holding space for your child’s love or attachment to the other parent, even if it’s something you can’t understand per se.

Dr. Sarah (07:26):

Yeah. I think that’s such a good point. Because I do think, and it’s a hard balance to strike because one requires us to inhibit sharing all of our frustrated feelings with our child, which is important because we don’t want to parenty them. They’re not responsible for holding our struggles about this relationship. And also it is, I think, important to name what’s actually happening and what your point there about not gaslighting your child if they’re feeling or seeing something and you’re like, that’s not happening. It’s not helpful. But also there’s this opportunity, I believe, when we kind objectively and in a compassionate way, which might be very hard to tap into, but to model that compassionate way of reflective functioning. And that is for those of you who have heard me talk about this idea of reflective functioning, it’s super important. It’s one of the biggest predictors of resilience and mental wellness in terms of when tough stuff happens, how do we make sense of it?


And when we’re able to help our child notice their internal experience and reflect on why it’s happening, and similarly reflect on the internal experience of another maybe dad in this case and understand or think about wonder why it might be happening, that is the basis for building reflective functioning. And so for example, instead of saying, oh, everything’s great and dandy over there at dad’s, and you just have to keep going and chin up, buck up, whatever, to say, Hey, this is really tough. And I know I think dad really does struggle with being able to calm down when he’s frustrated or sometimes he has a hard time following through on something he says and validating the feelings that our child might have about that, but also not sort of making this black and white value judgment of like, well, that’s dad’s mean or That’s bad.


So I think the difference is this objective description of like, yeah, this is happening and maybe we can imagine why dad might struggle with this. Have some empathy for the situation. Even if internally you don’t have a whole lot of empathy to share, you’re helping your child imagine why someone might do something that is hurtful to them, not to justify it, not to excuse it, not to say it’s okay, but to help the child make sense of why it might be happening in a way that doesn’t place them as the cause. Our kids tend to do that. They’re egocentric in the way they explain things to themselves, and they might think that they’re doing something to cause this reaction from the parent. And so to help our child understand maybe it’s something that person struggling with, not something you are doing, especially younger kids really need to know that and not blame themselves for things not feeling good at the other parent’s house.

Dr. Rebecca (10:23):

Yeah, no, I think that’s all really, really valid and helpful information and really difficult to execute effectively. And I think, I don’t remember, and I don’t have it in front of me, if this listener’s question specifies at all the age of the child.

Dr. Sarah (10:41):


Dr. Rebecca (10:42):

Nine. Okay, so nine is old enough, I think to really in some ways get pragmatic with the child and say, let’s get you a journal, let’s say, and when things get hard over there, you can write your thoughts or write how you feel, and if you want, we can read it together when you get back or it can just be yours, but sort of giving them coping skills or I wonder if you have a music player and if you listen to your favorite, some of it is kind of just giving your child the tools and the skills. Although I would wonder with a nine-year-old, are they coming to you with any of this, right? Because again, this is different. I feel like some of the examples that we’ve been talking through and the ways to talk would come from maybe a three-year, a four-year-old where they wouldn’t necessarily start a conversation if a 9-year-old.


I think a lot has to do with monitoring what is your nine year-old’s mood when they’re going to their dad’s house, what is their mood when they come back? How do they seem? How tired are they? How stressed are they? I’ve also worked with families where a parent can’t for the life of them understand how it’s okay when their kid goes to dad given what they think about dad, but their kid seems great and it’s a different relationship. And so again, I think it’s so important to maybe open a conversation that your child wouldn’t feel comfortable opening and to point out things that dad might struggle with that are not their fault, and to help them, as you said, with reflective functioning, and also sometimes to recognize how much of this might be your stuff with this person and that your kid seems to really have a nice time over there, but maybe they’re getting all their emotional needs met from you and they’re okay having just a fun time over at dad’s. They watch movies together and eat popcorn. I mean, we have to also just really look and be present what is actually happening versus our fears of what may happen in the future or our projection of our own experience onto our child.

Dr. Sarah (12:58):

And I think this goes back to something we were saying earlier, which is especially in a custody situation where it’s not a choice to not have the kid go, how do you protect them, increase their resilience and things like that. The best way is to look at your relationship with them. So yes, these are good ideas to give them strategies for how to cope when they’re at the other parents’ house, how to build some reflective functioning capacity in your child so that they can make sense of what is happening to them in a way that’s an external versus internal cause. So they’re not blaming themselves, they know that they can cope, but there’s something to cope with that makes sense, just validate their experience and help them make sense of it. But then there’s this other world that exists outside of their relationship with that other parent and that is their relationship with you and really being like, how do I make sure that when I am with my child, we aren’t always just kind of ruminating on the other parent and how are we creating positive interactions?


How do we make our world bigger than just the, because I can imagine when you’re in this situation, your world can feel very small. There’s so much outside of your control, you only have your child for a reduced amount of time, and everything just feels like there’s a lot of scarcity I would imagine in a situation like this. But to sort of flip the focus and try to bring out a little bit more of an abundance mindset of when I am with my child, how do I make the most of this time? How do we create fun? How do we create joy? How do we create attunement? How do we create mutual delight? Those are things that shore up a secure attachment relationship. And we really do know the research really does support fact that even one secure attachment relationship is a protective factor. And so if you are worried that your partner, ex-partners relationship with your child might be creating an insecure attachment relationship and are worried of what that’s going to do in terms of outcomes for your child, focusing on the fact that your one secure attachment relationship with them could offset that insecure attachment relationship in a meaningful way, that that is where I would put my energy because one, you are in control of that, but two, it’s going to feel good.


It’s going to feel good to build that kind of solid relationship with your child. And in a tricky situation like this, a dose of feeling good is highly, highly what the doctor ordered. We need to find joy in these tough situations. And even if it’s just a distraction from something tough, I think it’s probably a lot more than that. Ultimately it goes deep.

Dr. Rebecca (15:59):

Yeah, no, I agree. And very much falls in that category of what you can control, and in that case, what you can control a hundred percent, I mean not a hundred percent because life is always life, but you can do so much to set the tone of your relationship with your child.

Dr. Sarah (16:18):

And again, don’t put too much pressure on that either because you don’t want to be like, oh my God, this is our one shot to solve this problem. I have to have the best possible relationship with my kid. You might then take that to an extreme and then not, maybe you feel like you have to move into a more permissive parenting style where you’re like, oh, I need to avoid conflict with my child. I need to avoid feeling disciplinarian with my child. And I would caution against that because actually being a secure and reliable and consistent leader, secure base container for your kid is actually critical. And that does mean sometimes setting a limit and holding that limit and allowing your child to be frustrated with you, and that’s not necessarily going to damage your attachment relationship. I think some parents get that confused. They think that conflict damages an attachment relationship and the type of conflict and how it gets resolved maybe, but you can still be the bad guy or the bad cop sometimes and not be at risk of damaging your attachment relationship with your child.


I do think that can sometimes be a bit of a pendulum swing in these kinds of dynamics, family dynamics where you’ve got this really harsh or punitive or critical parent that’s unpredictable that your kid’s having to spend time with. And so you kind of swing in the complete opposite direction to extreme. And I think that’s only making your child ping pong in more extreme directions when they have to go back and forth. You really want to be in the middle, that center of that warmth and clarity and consistency and a rock, not I’m only the fun parent because I know it’s not fun to go to this other parent’s house.

Dr. Rebecca (18:08):

Well, and I’ve also heard the exact opposite of that, which is I’m the safe parent, and so I get all the difficult behavior when my kid is terrified, let’s say, to act out in any way when they’re at the other parent’s house because of the disciplinary practices, let’s say. And so they come back to me and I am trying to be the love and limits or warmth and discipline, whatever you just said, but that idea of hold both and yet my kid is a disaster behaviorally and emotionally, and how do I set limits when I know that in some ways it’s a rebound from this experience of having to hold it, it’s restraint collapse, having to hold it in for the whole weekend. I guess I’m just feeling as we have this conversation, these are just really, I don’t have a one sentence answer to that. I mean, I work with clients on this stuff for years, which is not to say that it’s this impossible mountain to climb. It’s just to say there aren’t easy answers and so much depends on who you are and who your child is and the age of your child and the arrangement with your ex. And if you are struggling with these questions like this, listener is, of course you are, how could you not be? It’s a really, really challenging situation no matter how it’s playing out.

Dr. Sarah (19:36):

And I think it’s not lost on me that you see a lot of clients around this. We in our practice at UPS brand, we get a lot of referrals for co-parenting support and family therapy and child therapy for this. And obviously I think could be very helpful for a child to have a place to process some of this away from the parents in their own safe space. That’s an option. But a lot of times I think parenting support because it can be a very lonely, overwhelming experience, and to have someone to support you in that process to help you troubleshoot situations, to help you kind of get some developmentally informed information to help guide your parenting strategies, that can be really helpful. And there are other resources. I know there’s a lot of parenting divorce groups. That might be a nice option too. If you don’t have one-on-one therapy or parenting support is too much. Even being in a group with other people who are going through this can be incredibly validating. So just don’t feel like you have to do this alone. It’s totally okay and very, very reasonable to seek some support around that. So I just feel like that’s worth saying too because it can be lonely and isolating when you’re doing this.

Dr. Rebecca (21:12):

Yes, a hundred percent.

Dr. Sarah (21:15):

Just to summarize, we’ve got focusing on getting a bird’s eye view of the situation. What can I accept? What’s in my control, what’s not in my control? And having to return to that acceptance, that place of acceptance over and over and over and understanding, we will move into places of non-acceptance and come back to our acceptance and it’s an icky and tough process. And then there’s the piece with what do we do with our child and how do we allow them space to feel their feelings without projecting our own stuff onto them and parenting them, and also without gaslighting them and telling them that everything’s fine when that’s not their experience, but doing that in a way that’s objective rather than judgmental. That helps promote reflective functioning and empathy and compassion on the part of our child towards the parent, and also protects them from self blame. And then to really focus on our own relationship with our kid and to be able to not just focus on our relationship exclusively. We’re white knuckling it because everything ride or die on that relationship. But just the fact that to sort of settle into the fact that this is where my control lives and how do I approach this relationship with some fun and some joy and some playfulness and to try to make our life bigger than just the conflict.


And staying in that middle space of not getting too authoritarian, not getting too permissive, but sort of staying in that warm and loving limits kind of space. And then getting your own support, whether it’s therapy or group or peer support group or journaling, whatever. But don’t feel like you have to do this alone. Super, super a lot, but this is a tough situation. So sending you good vibes, and thank you for asking this question. I hope it helps more parents going through this.

Dr. Rebecca (23:13):

Yeah, I hope so too. This was a really meaningful one.

Dr. Sarah (23:18):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

199. BTS: What are strategies for co-parenting with a narcissist?