A child’s security can be shaken when their parents separate, so they need firm boundaries to be maintained in order to feel safe. And if your ex has any narcissistic tendencies you will need to set very firm boundaries with them.
Boundary setting can be a challenge: when you’re tired, overwhelmed or pre-occupied it’s easier just to let a child continue to sit quietly in front of the TV rather than embark on a battle to enforce bed-time. And while the worst that’s likely to result from going to bed a little later one day is a grumpy child the next, that’s not the case with the failure to maintain the boundary. If a child is able to ‘win’ a later bedtime, that makes her more powerful than you. Great when it comes to bedtime, but if you’re not in control anymore that’s terrifying to her when it comes to dealing with the big bad world outside, because she’s not ready to do that on her own yet.
If you let your children have a big say in the rules and routines regarding bed time, homework, screen time, etc life becomes unpredictable and uncertain for them, and that makes them anxious. During separation and divorce children are naturally uncertain, anxious and afraid so they need these boundaries to be set and kept more than ever. But of course you feel less up to the task than ever. Not only that, but you’re worried that your children won’t like you if you make them stick to the rules, and that they might decide they prefer their other parent.
It’s hard when you’re going through the nitty gritty of divorce to keep sight of the big picture: your job is to help your child to become an independent, mature, resilient adult. By being ‘in charge’ and setting boundaries such as insisting they help with jobs around the house you’re not being mean (although your children may be angry and shout that you are at the time) you’re encouraging your children to acquire the skills they need for adult life. If you make everything easy and sort things out for them when they don’t turn out well, you’re preventing their growth.
At the same time, you need to have empathy for your child who is probably hurting just as much as you are. Listen well and often to what they say, and if the boundary needs to be kept tell them you understand it’s hard for them, or that they’re disappointed, before repeating what they need to do.
Young children are naturally narcissistic, ie they are only interested in themselves and what’s happening in their own little world. A narcissistic adult is not so endearing, and children who are allowed to think that the world revolves around them, and that they are entitled to have their needs and wishes met above those of their parents and other people, will be heading that way. By setting limits on your children’s behaviour you will interrupt this pattern and enable them to learn how to deal with frustrations and disappointments in life.
Adult narcissists specialise in crossing boundaries so if you’ve left one you need to make it clear that you’re no longer their victim and now operate in “don’t mess with me” mode. People treat us the way we allow them to treat us so gently teaching others what we will accept is how we normally establish good boundaries. But people with narcissistic tendencies think only of their own needs and wishes and expect others to give in to them, so boundaries need to be firmer and better thought out in advance.
Decide what you will do if your boundary is ignored or violated. For example if you’ve told your ex you’ll no longer tolerate their insults and will end a phone call if they’re rude to you again, you need to tell them when they’ve insulted you and end the call immediately. Every single time they do it. To begin with they may well escalate their threats and attacks so you’ll need to weather the storm until they get the message. And you may want to pick your battles, especially if your main aim is to protect your children.