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Narcissists, Divorce, & Parental Alienation: The Perfect Storm

Narcissists have very shallow relationships in which people are interchangeable. The Recovery Expert

Interchangeable people, like pawns on a chess board, are there to serve the King or Queen. In the case of divorce where children are involved, it is virtually impossible for a narcissist to put the needs of the children first. Parental alienation may occur.

PsychCentral posts that: “Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is the unhealthy coalition between a narcissistic parent and his or her children against the targeted, non-narcissistic, non-abusive parent. The innocent or targeted parent receives hostility and rejection from his or her children in this system. The psychological health of the children is used as arsenal in the narcissist’s twisted world.”

In order for a *narcissistic parent to abuse their children, there has to be either another parent present who is willing to enable the abuser and/or assist in the abuse (whether actively or passively), or the other parent has to be unavailable or rendered nearly powerless, as in the case of divorce.

We know that many of the parents who alienate their children from the other parent usually have many signs of a cluster B personality disorder, especially narcissistic personality disorder. They may also exhibit symptoms of anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, but in general, it is safe to say that narcissism is key.

In worse case scenario, the narcissistic parent may retaliate against the other parent during a divorce by kidnapping or injuring the child, something that sounds like a tabloid headline, but sadly does happen in real life.

It’s Easier To Project The Hate and Rage

“When a narcissistic parent experiences a great loss, such as a divorce, they do not feel normal grief like a typical person; rather, they experience a narcissistic wound to their fragile ego, which is manifested as anger and rejection of the other parent. The narcissist “splits” and makes the other parent all bad. When parental alienation occurs, it is because the narcissistic parent has implied to the child that the other parent is the “bad” parent and is the one causing the child’s pain. The child internalizes the narcissistic parent’s anger and resentment toward the other parent and also rejects the other parent.” The Recovery Expert

The sad fact that must be realized is that without expert therapy, the child or adult victim of an alienating parent may never be able to see how they were manipulated. It’s a bit like children raised by bigots–it doesn’t seem possible that another worldview is correct and that the hated group could possibly have any redeeming qualities.

Weaponizing The Kids

But of course hating a parent is far worse. A child has been denied a vital relationship and has been taught to join with the alienating parent in projecting everything negative in life onto the alienated parent. It’s a “safe” outlet in some ways because in many cases the relationship is so impaired that the child may not see much if anything of the alienated parent, for any number of reasons. When this happens, no other information ever arises to contradict this black and white thinking.

Today, fortunately things are changing. But in the past, courts all too often believed the accuser, rightly wanting to protect children from abuse, but not realizing that they were being used as pawns.

If the alienating parent is questioned, they might choose other tactics than overtly accusing the alienated parent in a courtroom setting. For example, there’s a case where an alienating parent called the police several times while the children were visiting the other parent, reporting that she believed children were being kidnapped or abused. After walking in on normal visitations, trips to zoos, and the like, and being told that a divorce was in progress, the police commiserated with the alienated parent and left. In this case, eventually, the alienating parent abducted the children to another region of the country, and after many years of searching, was found. Unfortunately, this, like so many other cases is ongoing, outcome to be determined.

In another case, two parents with NPD went through a divorce, each fighting for their right to be relieved of parental custody!

While it’s heartbreaking to hear of children like this, the “normative” cases of parental alienation are those in which a parent with NPD “brainwashes” the children to fear and/or despise the other parent. Finally, due to the groundbreaking work by researchers, advocates, mental health professionals and others, there is more opportunity than ever before for everyone involved, including adults who were as children the victim of a narcissistic parent who alienated them from their other parent.

For more information on Parental Alienation Syndrome see our interview with Parental Alienation expert Dr. William Bernet on the history of PAS and What Makes Alienating Parents Tick.



*see Describing a Narcissistic Parent

Narcissists, Divorce, & Parental Alienation: The Perfect Storm

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2018). Narcissists, Divorce, & Parental Alienation: The Perfect Storm. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jan 2018
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