Protecting Your Kids When Divorcing a Narcissist


DIVORCE ETC… podcast with exEXPERTS

T.H.: Welcome, everybody to today’s Divorce etc… podcast. We have one of our many favorites, but really, one of the top at this moment, Christina McGhee. Christina joined us for one of our past open house events. You will also be hearing her in an upcoming podcast about this amazing movie that she’s produced with another fantastic exEXPERT. Christina is an author and a coach specializing in difficult divorce situations. Her website is Divorce and Children, but she is so much more than that, as you’re going to hear here today. Welcome to our show.

Christina: Oh, I’m excited to be here. Thank you, ladies.  

T.H.: We are thrilled to have you back. This actually came up, because at our open house where we were talking about co-parenting and navigating family matters when you’re going through divorce, one of the attendees was asking about, and I’m going to air quote it, “protecting” your kids when you’re going through a divorce and buffering them from your ex or soon to be ex, and how do you even go about it. Christina reached out to us and said we need to dig into this deeper. We need to address this question. It’s happening everywhere. That is the purpose of today’s show.

Jessica: I just want to jump in for a quick second because I feel that could be understood a lot of different ways, just saying that, like protecting your kids and being the buffer for your kids. Part of the conversation really was protecting your kids just from the verbal sparring that goes on amongst the parents and the things that your kids hear between the two of you when you’re arguing and when you’re getting divorced, all the things that aren’t that nice. I think I just want to make it clear that’s really what we’re focusing on. Because obviously, if someone’s in a physically unsafe situation, there’s a lot more going on than just being there to protect your kids. You need to make sure that you’re–

T.H.: Right, and then you need to call the police.

Jessica: –in a safe place. We’re talking about protecting your kids in times when your spouse doesn’t always “do the right thing” and you want to protect the kids. You don’t want their feelings to be hurt for this or that. But this kind of thing happens particularly often when you’re dealing with high-conflict divorce and difficult people and narcissistic personalities. That’s just my little…

Christina: No, I think it’s an important distinction to make because we’re not talking about situations where kids are in danger.

Jessica: Right.

T.H.: No,

Christina: Because children’s safety has to be of paramount importance. That trumps everything in my book. And so that is clearly not something that we’re talking about. But there is also this other aspect of not just kids getting a front row seat to every fight that parents have, but also you may have a situation where you have a parent who’s just not emotionally responsive, or they’re not validating the child’s feelings, or how they engage when we say they’re not doing the right thing – they’re not aligning with our values in terms of parenting, and how do you how do you handle that. Because maybe before, you did always run interference between a parent and a child to smooth things over, to make sure kids were emotionally okay, or had the illusion that you were the fixer in the family.

T.H.: And there is no fixer. I used to be the fixer.

Jessica: I don’t even feel with my first divorce I needed to necessarily be a fixer. We have a different situation, it wasn’t a difficult person situation, but little things like going to the kids’ school plays or the kids’ performances at school, and their dad wouldn’t show up. I would know that he wasn’t planning on showing up. They would be disappointed, and I would be like, “He tried so hard to be here. He really wanted to be here. I took videos. He’s going to be so proud of you when he sees it.” I always do that kind of stuff. I think that it’s a lot of those kinds of things are when you are really dealing with a high-conflict situation, you can’t always protect your kids like that because it’s just not reality.  

Christina: Okay, well let’s unpack that, because parents tend to fall in extremes in these situations. They either want to throw the other parent completely under the bus and really dig in on how horrible that parent is and they’re never going to really be there for you, and that’s just who they are, and they are a crap parent. Blah, blah, blah, the list goes on and on. There are also some parents that fall into the other end of the spectrum–

Jessica: Like me–

Christina: –which is they overcompensate. In some ways, they’re kind of, and this going to sound edgy, they gaslight their kids. Because we’re telling our kids, “Oh, he really wanted to be here. Mom wanted to see you this weekend, but she’s just so busy working,” when the truth is that parent just couldn’t be bothered or didn’t show up. When kids figure out what’s really going on, you can compromise your credibility with them. Because it’s like, “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?” I had a parent in one of my parenting classes many, many years ago that said her kids were furious with her because dad was not the kind of dad that showed up to stuff. She always glossed it over, made excuses of why, instead of digging into the disappointment that the kids felt. When they figured out that dad really wasn’t interested in being engaged in their lives, they’re like, “Why did you lie to us? Why didn’t you just tell us the truth? All these years, we thought he was really interested. And the truth is he isn’t.” So the thing is, here’s my number one tip, your co-parent is always going to be your children’s parent. And so in some way, shape, or form, they are going to need to come to terms with what kind of parent they are. Just being able to have children doesn’t necessarily make you a great parent, or it doesn’t necessarily make you an emotionally available parent. It doesn’t necessarily make you an emotionally responsive parent. Those are skills that not everybody has. 

Jessica: And not everybody wants to learn.

Christina: No, they don’t. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But versus really sinking in and trying to make it okay for your kids because we think that we’re protecting them, what we really do is we’re setting them up. One, because we’re not being honest with them and we’re not dealing with the disappointment or the hurt or the confusion that they’re feeling, but also, think about how we’re defining relationships. When they see this kind of behavior and we’re telling them, “Oh, it’s okay. They really wanted to be there. They really love you,” what happens when they grow up and they go out into the world and they get involved in their own relationships? Do we want to frame that behavior as the behavior someone engages in when they love you, when they’re present for you?

T.H.: Then what do you do when your ex lied to you about why they didn’t show up? So you’re not just covering for him, you’re actually repeating his lie.

Jessica: You’re enabling his bad–

T.H.: You end up enabling bad behavior, kind of. But as long as your kids know that you didn’t know it was a lie, like my ex stopped showing up for their birthdays, holidays, vacations, first days of school, because he lied to me. Now, I believe those lies consciously. Subconsciously, I wasn’t believing it, but that’s a whole other series of podcasts we can dig into. But I was repeating his lies. Then how do you kind of get out of that? I was married to a narcissist. I was in a very high-conflict divorce. I was in a marriage that for half of it, at the very least, was full of lies that I just kept repeating to my kids, making him look so much better than he is. To your point initially, I don’t want to go and be like, “See? He’s really X, Y, and Z,” and badmouth him. How do you let him make his own bed without going down with the ship?

Christina: So I think what you do is you focus on the problem and not the person. Instead of getting into labeling Dad’s characteristics and what he is and he isn’t, when kids bring things to you, validate that for them.

T.H.: Okay, so give us an example.

Christina: Okay, so let’s say that Brittany comes to you and says, “Whenever Aaron and I get into fight Mom always takes Aaron’s side. If he takes my toys, and I take them back, I’m the one that gets in trouble. I think she likes Aaron better than me. Maybe she doesn’t even like me at all.” Okay, well, you could dig into how Mom shouldn’t be doing that, or yes, Mom’s always made Aaron her favorite. That’s not fair for Mom to do. You could really rail on Mom for what she’s doing in not making the right “parenting choice”. Or you could say to your child, “Gosh, that’s got to be really hard. It’s got to be really hard when you feel like somebody’s not listening to you, when you feel like you’re not being treated fairly. Can you tell me more about that?”

Jessica: I think that part of the struggle with some of that stuff, I think it’s interesting that that’s an example you use, I don’t have that exact same example, but I remember a conversation with my kids. It was probably about two years ago. I don’t even remember how it started, but my daughter was saying that my son is my favorite, because she was saying I always take his side. He turned around and he’s like, “What are you talking about? You’re clearly her favorite. She always defends you.” So they were arguing with each other saying that I always take the other person’s side. There was a part of me in my head that was like, I guess I’m doing an okay job if they both–

T.H.: If both think that the other person’s your favorite.

Jessica: That’s right. But in all seriousness, if your kid comes back to you to complain about something that you know actually isn’t factually true, “Oh, it’s always my fault. She’s always doing X, Y, or Z,” I feel if you say, “That must be really hard,” you’re almost agreeing with them. I understand that there’s a part of it that you have to validate their feelings. But at the same point, you’re almost saying, “Yeah, you’re right. That is what they’re always doing. And that must be really hard for you,” as opposed to, “You may be misunderstanding the situation.” I don’t know.

Christina: That’s an excellent point. I’m really glad you asked that question because I don’t recommend that parents validate things that are invalid. I don’t recommend that if you have a different perspective–validation isn’t about “I agree with you totally.  You’re right.” Validation is simply identifying what’s happening in the moment and why your child might be thinking or feeling a certain way. “Hmm, that’s really interesting. You know, if I were in your shoes, I might feel the same way. I kind of see it differently. Can we talk about that? That may be the way it feels for you.” So an example, your kid comes home and they’ve made a big fat D on their Math test. What do kids do? They come home and they say, “I am so stupid. I’m so stupid I made a D on my Math test.” And as parents, what do we do?

Jessica: “You’re not stupid.”

Christina: “You’re not stupid!”

T.H.: “It’s okay.”

Christina: Right. “You’re so smart. You just had a bad day. You were a little off. You didn’t test well. You’ll do better next time.” But the bottom line is, in that moment, your kid feels really stupid. That’s their truth. That’s their reality. Instead of the, “Oh, you’re not stupid,” because we’re trying to fix it, we’re trying to make them feel better, we can say, “Gosh, you know, It’s so disappointing when you really work very hard and you don’t get the grade you wanted,” or “You feel like you knew something, or you didn’t,” or “I can remember making a D on a Math test. And you know what? I kind of felt pretty dumb myself. That’s not a great feeling.”

T.H.: Then the conversation can be all about you getting a D, not the kid. So let’s get back to the–

Christina: Well, or what you can do. So then you validate, and then you can move into problem solving. So let’s talk about what we want to do about this situation, whether it’s an issue of favoritism, whether it’s an issue of a parent not being emotionally available, whether it’s making a D on a test. Now that we understand it, now that I’ve heard it, now that we’ve communicated to kids that it makes sense and I can understand why you might feel that way, then you can move into problem solving.

T.H.: I think that takes a lot of training. I think that’s one of these things that you have to repeat in your head to learn it, because I had to do that a lot with my son who struggles a lot. But I want to talk about different rules in different houses. Okay, so you have shared parenting time now, and I have rules in my house, and he has rules in his house. Your kids come home and they’re like, “Dad made me do X, Y, and Z, and this isn’t fair. I don’t want to go there anymore.” In your heart, you’re like, “Well, I don’t really want you to go there either. I want you to be with me all the time. My house is so much greater. And I have the best food.” How do you handle that?


Christina: “Sounds like you really don’t like Dad’s rule. Tell me about that.”


T.H.: But what if I didn’t like Dad’s rule? What if I was like, “We’ve got a problem here.” It’s also really hard, right? So now I agree that his rule is totally not okay. Can you coach a parent on how to manage that conversation? Do you come to your child? Do you go and take a breath outside? Take a walk, clear your head, come back and revisit it with your child? Take us through that. My kid just walked in the door screaming and yelling – you can say hates Mom so our audience feels better about it, because they always hate us, and we recover. But take us through that. Really, what does a parent do?

Christina: Right, so the temptation is to jump right on that bandwagon and talk about how the other parent’s rules totally suck, or they’re not good rules and how they should be doing things differently. That’s not going to help your kids. You need to put your energy into focusing on what you can control, which is your house, your rules, how you process with the kids, and how you respond to your kids. Now, if it sets off a strong emotional reaction in you, I would suggest that you do exactly what you said, step away from the situation. “Wow that sounds really tough. I would really like to talk to you about it. I need to go outside and feed the dog. I need to go to the bathroom real quick.” I come up with some reason–

T.H.: Is it bad to say, “You know what? I’m having a hard time processing this right now. Also, I need 10 minutes, and then let’s both regroup,” to say that, “You know what? I’m kind of feeling the way you’re feeling. But I don’t want to say the wrong thing”? After a while, I really was just completely transparent with my kids. I’m like, “You know what? You don’t want to hear what’s going on in my head. And I don’t really want to say it. So I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” Is that bad to say?

Christina: I think that you can say to kids, “You know what? I’m having a hard time with this one. I’m feeling it. I really want to think about the situation before I say anything.” And then make a point of circling back and having that conversation.

T.H.: Because those triggers happen all the time, especially when you’re married to a narcissist. Because you hear that he or she said whatever, and that’s going to trigger you back at the other spouse’s home in a second, regardless of what it is. It could be something totally trivial. Then you’re triggered because you’ve been in a pattern too. Trying to teach your kids… I don’t know, this is this is going to be a bigger conversation than I thought. But anyway–

Jessica: Well, let me just jump in. Because I feel part of the conversation when you initiated this topic for us, when T.H. and I had further conversations about it also was like, this could present itself in so many different ways. But I feel some of the explicit examples that we had talked about were what we were bringing up in the beginning: What about when your child, it’s their birthday, and the other parent doesn’t call them in the morning, doesn’t bring them a gift? Or when it’s your child’s time to be with the other parent for dinner or for a sleepover, and at the last second, the other parent cancels by text to you with no explanation and no outreach to the kid to explain it? Sometimes in these high-conflict situations, I’m going to say “we” just because of the context of this conversation; we get caught in the middle of these situations–

T.H.: Carrying it all.

Jessica: Right. We’re carrying it, and we have to make these decisions of like, do we protect our kids’ feelings? Or to your point earlier, do we throw their other parent under the bus? It’s not my responsibility to give my kid a holiday gift from their other parent when their other parent didn’t get them a gift. So I’m going to go out and I’m going to buy it for them, and I’m going to put their other parent’s name on it because I don’t want my kid to feel their dad didn’t get them a birthday present.

T.H.: I think people do that all the time.

Jessica: Those are situations that I think happen often, and I think are common struggles for people in divorce. And so I feel how do we deal with those things? What’s your advice on where you draw the line of protecting your kids’ feelings and being the buffer, and then all of a sudden–and you did all those things while you were married. Of course you did, because you were married. Now your kid goes off and they’re with the other parent on their allotted times, and you’re not there to protect them from anything that’s going on.

Christina: Well, guess what? Your ex is probably not going to be the only difficult person your child is going to encounter in their lives. So our job as parents isn’t to remove the problems or to remove the adversity or to remove the struggle, but help empower our kids to learn how to cope and deal with it. When we get in there and we fix it and we make it better, and we put the present under the tree, or we wrap it for the birthday, what happens when they’re 18?

Jessica: That’s exactly right. So what do we do now?

Christina: So I think there’s a middle ground in there between throwing them under the bus and making it completely okay. That center place is really validating how this situation feels, that it is hard, that they are disappointed, that they do–“It sounds like you really wish Dad would have gotten you a birthday present. That’s got to be really hard.” I think we also, in those situations where we have a parent that falls in that high-conflict category or displays some of those narcissistic traits that are all over the place that everybody’s talking about, we need to give our kids a context for understanding that their parent’s behavior and their parent’s choices are not about them. They didn’t cause the situation. Because when a parent doesn’t show up for a kid, it’s normal for kids to internalize that as something bad about themselves like, “I must not be lovable enough, pretty enough, smart enough,” the list goes on and on and on. I think it’s important to help kids adjust their expectations. It’s not in one conversation; it’s a series of conversations. It’s circling back to this over time. I tell parents “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk. Because no matter how many trips you make, you’re never going to find what you’re looking for.” This is the same dynamic with our kids. So they keep going to the hardware store with that parent, they keep looking for milk, it’s not showing up.

Jessica: It feels so sad when you think about your kids being young and disappointed and let down. I just know from T.H.’s situation, her kids are now young adults, and there have been situations where T.H. has tried to teach them to really just advocate for themselves. They’ll come back and talk to her about this is the situation, this is the situation. T.H. has done a great job about being like, “I can’t be in the middle of that anymore. You’re going to need to tell your Dad how you’re feeling about things.” I think that that’s really hard for parents to do. It’s really admirable–

Christina: You better believe it is. You better believe it is. I don’t care if your kids are two or 22, one of the hardest jobs we have as parents is sitting back and watching our kids hurt, watching them struggle.

T.H.: I want to address the evolution of that. Because my kids were eight, six, and four, and they were afraid. They were afraid to tell him the way they felt. They were afraid that he was going to disappear. He just came back. He was gone for four years essentially. “He just came back. I’m not going to piss him off. I’m going to live by his rules, even though it makes me so sad.” And so for my life and our family, that was many, many, many, many years. Then you add puberty too, and middle school with girls stuff, and all of that. My heart would break. My heart would break, and I would just be there for them. But they didn’t stand up for themselves. I don’t blame them. They weren’t even mature enough. I’m not even sure they knew exactly what to say. But I want to talk about that space, and then I want to talk about today. Because that space where your kids are already going through so many of their own changes, and now you’re going to challenge a parent? Forget about even being divorced, I probably still never would have challenged my Dad, and my parents are married. How do help a child with that?

Christina: Well, that’s super scary. First of all, that’s super scary, right? For any kid to think about challenging a parent, it can be really, really overwhelming. I think that when some of these issues come up for your kid, you can normalize and generalize. Normalizing is saying things like, “When a kid hasn’t seen a parent in a really long time, it can feel really scary to talk about how you really feel. Lots of kids worry that that parent might disappear forever.”

T.H.: Right.

Christina: So you let them know they’re not alone. That’s the first thing

T.H.: I just got chills, and it’s not even cold in here.

Christina: But you want to let them know, “You’re not alone. Lots of kids struggle with this. Lots of people struggle with this.” But do you want them to develop into a grown up who struggles with it? My guess is not, right? So you want to start trying to empower them, and you want to start problem solving. And so it’s a gradual progression. When we continue to show up consistently for our kids, when we process these things with them, when we actually listen to what they’re saying and we validate their feelings, “Gosh, I get why you might feel that way. I can remember feeling that way, and my parents were married, right? It’s hard. How does it feel when you want to say something to your Dad, but you’re scared? Let’s talk about that feeling, okay?” I also, when I would do groups with kids, I would tell kids that there’s basically two kinds of problems in the world: problems you can fix and problems you can’t fix. Just because you can’t fix or change a problem doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to handle it. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to cope with it. There are some beautiful resources out there.

T.H.: I love that. It’s fantastic.

Jessica: Yeah. That’s great.

Christina: There’s a great book I love to recommend to parents, and it’s called “Hey Warrior” by Karen Young.

Jessica: “Hey Warrior”?

Christina: “Hey Warrior”. She is a psychologist out of Australia. But she wrote this beautiful children’s book that talks about the amygdala and how it’s our warning system and it lets us know when we are feeling threatened or in danger, and helping kids deal with anxiety. The way she frames it is that when you have that feeling, when your amygdala is going off and you have that scared feeling, it’s your body’s way of telling you you’re getting ready to do something brave.

Jessica: I like that.

Christina: And really, when we’re facing, even as adults, fearful situations, how do we get to the other side of it?  

T.H.: I literally had an anxiety attack two weeks ago, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. If someone said, “You’re about to do something brave,” instead of me thinking, “What is wrong with me? My body’s literally out of control. I can’t rationalize any of this,” that would have saved me a lot of heartache. I also want to bring up the fact that you can have two kids, one kid, five kids, whatever, every kid is totally different. I got my three kids who all went through seemingly the same situation, but they all do have very different relationships with their dad. When I say all this, I’m not saying it’s always men, everybody. So I’m just putting it out there, this is my situation. Because I know that are special women out there too. But today, they are 18, 21, and 23. My 21 year old – I have two girls and a boy, so she’s the younger daughter and the older sister – she has learned now to speak up. I have helped her do that. It’s easier for me to do that because she’s most like me. I don’t know how to explain it, but we just are. It’s not just mannerisms, it just is. My older daughter, who’s in the working world, is the last one to speak up to her father. She looks to her siblings. My youngest, who has been through his own shit storm, is also brave. So they’re braver together, but they let my middle one take the lead. My youngest one then chimes in, and my oldest one will just be like, “I’m just here. I’m not going to say anything. But I’m with the group.” So it’s really important to remember everybody that each of your kids is so different, and the way they respond is so different. I’ve now got a kid who doesn’t want to talk about it, and the other one talks all about it. Like balancing all of that, how do you help parents kind of–I don’t know how I haven’t lost it. I think that therapy certainly has been significant in my life, and trusting my gut. So for me, like, “Kids, I’m doing the best I can. I’ll answer anything you have a question for, as long as I have an answer for you. Otherwise, I don’t know what to tell you.” But what other suggestions do you have? Because now I’m like, alright, I wasn’t a bad mom. I wasn’t crazy. And then undoing my own patterns, again, in a high-conflict marriage, you have your own patterns to undo. You have to release the power this other person had over you and be there for your kids with a clear mind. Help us help everybody, please.

Christina: Yeah. So I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “I went to therapy.” You’ve got to have support. When you’re dealing with these kinds of situations, it’s very difficult to get a clear perspective, or to really identify where you stop and your kids start in terms of the feelings about these kinds of things. I think the first step is making sure you’re putting the oxygen mask on yourself first and that you have a support system to process how you’re feeling and what’s going on. Working with a coach, where you can get some perspective about, like, “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it. How do you approach some of these really difficult conversations?” I think also having a measure of grace for yourself is really important, because no parents, and I don’t care if you’re married, divorced, single parenting, we all get it wrong sometimes. That’s just the way it is. There is no way to be a completely flawless perfect parent. You’re going to mess up sometimes.

T.H.: There’s no such thing.

Jessica: Excuse me, speak for yourself.

T.H.: There’s not such thing.

Jessica: No, of course not. This conversation, really, I mean, it’s a never ending conversation. But I feel it’s so relatable because the truth is, even as someone who didn’t go through a high-conflict divorce, we all as parents have to be in situations at one point or another where we want to protect our kids from something that’s going on, even if it’s kind of harmless. This really is about trying to navigate, when you are getting divorced, how to navigate teaching your kids to advocate for themselves and to feel empowered, just like you said, so that they can handle the situations when the disappointment does come, because inevitably, disappointment is going to come, even from those of us with the best of intentions.

T.H.: Oh, middle school’s the worst. You’re not invited to this party, and you’re not wearing the right shirt…

Jessica: Right. So we can’t always be there and protect our kids. But it’s just such an important conversation because it’s something that’s really in the spotlight when it comes to children dealing with divorce, especially with a narcissistic parent, or in a high-conflict situation.

T.H.: I really hope that all of you are going to listen to this podcast a few times. Because I have my own notes here: validate, empower, oxygen masks, and if you’re freaking out, you’re about to do something brave. Those are my four big takeaways, and I know there’s so much more.

Jessica: Wait, but also, just I love what you said about there are two kinds of problems in the world: problems that you can solve and problems that you can’t.

Look, part of growing up and part of us helping our kids as parents in general is teaching them the difference. It’s like that thing, God gives you the strength to know what you can change… I don’t remember exactly how it goes.

Christina: The serenity prayer. Yeah.

Jessica: The serenity prayer, exactly. And so it is that, teaching our kids to understand what they can change and what they can’t change, and how to deal with it when it’s disappointing.

T.H.: Thank you so much, Christina. Thank you so much. You’re really helping a lot of people.

Jessica: Well, we’re going to have to pick this up because I feel we scratched the surface barely.

Christina: It’s a big conversation. It’s such a big conversation. But I really appreciate the opportunity to share the information. I just want parents to know you don’t have to go it alone. I love what your community is doing for parents by really giving them a place to connect so that they don’t feel alone, that they can know there are other people just like me that are really in it and struggling. You may be doing the very best you can in the moment, and we can all do better.

T.H.: Right.

Jessica: I love that. Thank you again, Christina. We will definitely be talking to you more about this very soon.

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