Family Court System

Courtroom Insights: Narcissistic Personality Disorder Affects Parenting and Child Development

Two individuals who once comprised a loving marriage, now bear titles of defendant and plaintiff, standing before the family court among a plethora of custody cases. Judges and family relation officers laboriously examine intimate details of a family, attempting to make reasonable decisions affecting multiple lives. Their rulings directly affect the future care and psychological development of children. Court officials are highly experienced and educated, yet they often lack knowledge in Cluster B disorders, specifically narcissistic personality disordered individuals or NPD. Cases involving NPD parents can be supremely pernicious in child custody cases. Our court system has a drastic need to be educated on this disorder, and how it creates high conflict divorces and continued abuse.

Often the court is the instrument used as a surrogate to persistent cruelty. As a clinical psychologist I have treated women who make up the majority of victims, and children who have endured the effects of narcissistic abuse. I hope to convey clarity to judges and family relation personnel in order to strengthen their insight.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Mentalization:         

A psychological diagnosis is the process of determining which condition explains an individual’s symptoms. The symptoms associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, affect the development of how children mentalize, or in other words, their reflective functioning, which is a vital psychological function. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM- 5 is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. NPD is one of the four Cluster B personality disorders characterized by a dysregulation of emotions, thinking and behavior. Importantly, pathological traits of a personality disorder are stable throughout one’s life and consistent across situations. Significant impairments occur in identity as well as interpersonal functioning, such as empathy and intimacy, and are not due to substance abuse or a general medical condition. If court officials can appreciate this one area of psychological health when trying to determine a high conflict divorce settlement involving custody, children benefit immeasurably.

Mentalizing refers to the ability to perceive and understand oneself and others in terms of their own as well as other people’s feelings, beliefs, intentions and desires. It is reasoning about one’s own and others’ behavior. It is thinking about why they are feeling or reacting in a particular manner, allowing them to know how their behavior and actions are shaped by another’s ability to do the same. It involves considering and understanding why they and other people behave in defined ways. It is distinguishing inner from outer reality, and pretend from real modes of functioning. This ability is imperative for successful relationships, the foundation of our existence. An inability to do so leaves individuals exposed to meaninglessness, chaos, anxiety and the perpetuation of additional personality disorders, and consequently, more high conflict divorces.

Our reflective self develops at the beginning of infancy through parent-child interactions. It is reliant on the parent’s capacity to provide accurate mental mirroring which originates from the mother’s or father’s reflective functioning. It begins simply with the infant’s ability to be sensitive to another person’s gaze or facial expressions, and then developing into awareness of the disharmony between their affective state and other persons.

At two-years old, children become curious about others’ pain or distress, and begin to show empathy. At three-years old, children understand others have differing feelings from their own. It is not until approximately six-years of age that a child fully understands other individuals have different thoughts. Limited reflective functioning can cause unhealthy interpersonal relationships. It may trigger anxiety, and cause aggressive and destructive behaviors. Parents with low reflective functioning produce children with low reflective functioning as well as attachment-insecurity. To break the cycle, court officials who receive education in Cluster B personality disorders, can be of service.

DSM-5 Criteria and the Ability to Charm:

The criteria receiving the most attention with narcissistic personality disorder are impairments in:

  • Inability to empathize
  • Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or the suffering of others
  • Lacking remorse after hurting or mistreating another
  • Exploitation by deceit or coercion; lying
  • The use of dominance or intimidation to control others

Judges may believe they have the ability to recognize these traits in an individual standing before their bench, however, the pathology is covered by an inauthentic, competent persona. The action before the court could constitute covert abuse if the litigants have a history of multiple legal actions. Charm, misrepresentation of self, embellishment, and fabrication are vehicles used by the NPD parent in their submissions, believing most of their own lies. Facades are built as the burden of proof. The NPD parent persists with deceitful hyper-focus toward the ex spouse, expending energy continuing the insidious abuse. This is not easily seen or believed by others, and court officials often succumb to the fallacious view portrayed by the NPD parent. This is because the narcissist has an impeccable ability to blame the victim, and has no ability for self reflection.

Parents with NPD have common features. Often they fall on various points of the financial spectrum, yet it is the NPD parent who exhausts their counterpart with endless court activity, having larger incomes or support to continue battling. They are most effective at hiding the wolf in sheep’s clothing, due to representation. They often remarry fairly quickly, and create a false image of a secure home life misleading the court’s perspective, thus mistakenly receiving custody of the children. Unfortunately, the NPD parent is unable to modulate the child’s internal world to guide healthy development and ensure an ability to mentalize. It cannot be stressed enough how proficient they are at deceiving others, fabricating an inauthentic lifestyle hidden from the awareness of their new spouse, family, boss, coworkers, and even their own children. Understandably, court officials get misled and are mistaken in their recommendations and rulings pertaining to custody.

How Narcissistic Personality Disorder Psychologically Harms Children:

In order for children to have successful interpersonal relations, they need to be aware of and understand how they and others think or feel. This development depends upon the presence of a psychologically healthy caregiver. This growth can be hindered by the NPD parent if the court grants them custody. NPD parents devote a hatred or destructiveness towards others who make any demands on them, including their children who unequivocally need their parents for development. Even without custody, the NPD parent’s character armor finds expression through chronic superiority, derisive envious attitudes and contemptuous behavior. It is directed toward their children, toward the other parent and toward society, while almost inconceivably hiding it from the court and people in the NPD parent’s daily life. The custodial parent may also need the NPD parent because of court orders, thus leaving the NPD parent feeling impinged upon leading to more hostility.

In many cases the custodial parent is reliant on the NPD parent to follow court orders regarding parenting time, educational orders, pick up and drop off, and finances just to name a few.

The healthy custodial parent can become a detriment to the children’s psychological health too. This manifests when the NPD parent does not adhere to the court’s orders, causing the custodial parent to become emotionally dysregulated. Overwhelming anxiety, depression, frenetic acting out and exhaustion may be a result. For example, court ordered financial obligations may put the custodial parent in a position to demand funds for bills that are mandated to be paid or owed, as well as child support and weekly alimony. This may create a set of events where cash flow is interrupted and bills are left unpaid, electricity is turned off, and oil not delivered regardless of the custodial parent’s work status. Court orders are created with the whole picture in mind, with judges under the assumption that both parties will do what they are told. Grandiosity, a criterion of narcissism, gives the NPD parent feelings of entitlement, causing them to behave as if they are above the law, disregarding any court ordered financial obligations. Furthermore, the lack of control the custodial parent has over finances influences their capability to raise the children because the NPD parent’s contempt is felt by all. Psychologically, children start to feel helpless, inferior, and unimportant as they observe the NPD parent continuing to withhold from the custodial parent who seeks the court order as a means to organize his/her life. This manifests in daily life by the children seeing the cable shut off, or living in a home that is now cold or in need of repair. Children see the custodial parent weakened and distracted, because the focus is on daily survival instead of their development. Therefore, not only is the NPD parent unable to foster the development of the children, they impede the custodial parent by inducing constant emotional upheaval.

Parents with NPD have little ability to reflect upon their continual financial, emotional, and/or physical abuse, as well as the multiple custody motions they mark ready. The anxiety felt by the custodial parent trying to financially and physically support the children, have a career, in addition to being troubled preparing for numerous court appearances, can gravely affect children and their mentalization. This cycle of events diminishes the custodial parent’s ability to attend to a child’s development by having difficulty empathizing and reacting appropriately to a child’s growing social awareness. Their internal psychological structures are depleted from multiple stressor from the NPD parent. The more parents fight in court, the more the custodial parent’s ability to regulate her/himself suffers, thus an imbalance occurs in the child’s sense of emerging self.  Consequently, they may have difficulty knowing the difference between fantasy play and reality when presented with challenging emotional material. Children believe their fantasies are real, leading to inadequate differentiation between mind of self and mind of other. Therefore, not having the ability to discriminate can lead to pathology, such as the child developing a cluster B personality disorder.

The Court Protecting Children:

Significant impairments in personality functioning manifesting through impairments in identity, empathy, grandiosity, deceitfulness, and hostility, akin to NPD affect children in a critical area of their psychological functioning; their ability to mentalize.

Child development depends upon the direct caregiver having healthy psychological structures such as an ability to empathize, observe societal values, and have personal integrity. This requires parents to understand their own needs, their children’s needs, as well as a general insight and interest in others and the greater good. It requires a degree of self reflectiveness which is integral in promoting a child’s introspective ability. Mentalization is a fundamental significant psychological function that facilitates the formation of a stable sense of self.  It has been found to be a stable trait, yet maintains some variability, therefore, it is possible for psychotherapy to increase a child’s ability when treatment addresses depression, sadness, self-blame, shame and guilt. However, the court could take a positive role in protecting children by monitoring the compliance of court orders to ensure fewer court motions of contempt or custody battles are submitted.  Judges can also order a psychological evaluation of both parents by a skilled psychologist who has an expert understanding of Cluster B personality disorders. Judges need to understand that not all clinicians know the depths of NPD and its consequences. Family relation officers could receive more training in narcissistic personality disorders, and perhaps arrange for the services of a psychologist to determine if the conflict is due to a psychological disorder. Finally, it is important that we keep the discussion about Cluster B disorders open to reduce misconceptions and mishandling of high conflict custody cases and divorces.

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Kristine Danback is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York. She conducts face to face psychotherapy sessions, via tele-therapy, helping people with various disorders with a speciality in narcissistic abuse. She also provides divorce coaching and has been an OMB advocate since its inception.  She can be reached at her website: www.kristinedanbackphd.com

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One Mom’s Battle: Our mission at One Mom’s Battle is to increase awareness of Cluster B personality disorders (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder) and their impact upon shared parenting and the Family Court System which includes Judges, CPS workers, Guardian ad Litems (GAL), Parenting Coordinators (PC), Custody Evaluators, therapists and attorneys. Education on Cluster B disorders will allow these professionals to truly act in the best interest of the children.

History of One Mom’s Battle: In 2009, One Mom’s Battle began with one mother, (Tina Swithin), navigating the choppy waters of a high-conflict divorce in the Family Court System. Since then, it has turned into a grassroots movement reaching the far corners of the Earth. Tina’s battle spanned from 2009 – 2014 during which time she acted as her own attorney. Ultimately, Tina was successful in protecting her daughters and her family has enjoyed complete peace since October 2014 when a Family Court commissioner called her ex-husband a “sociopath” and revoked his parenting time in a final custody order.

Tina Swithin: Tina Swithin’s books are available online at Amazon (print, Kindle or audio format). Each year, Tina offers life-changing weekends of camaraderie and healing at the Lemonade Power Retreat.  Tina also offers one-on-one coaching services and a private, secure forum called, The Lemonade Club, for those enduring high-conflict custody battles.