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Tips for Judges in Recognizing Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Custody Cases
The following comments, observations, and tips are based on a thirty four year career working in child welfare, human services, ministry, and clinical counseling. They are not scientifically proven or peer reviewed research. Let’s call it “wisdom from the trenches”.
Courts that deal with family issues such as custody contests find that they are consistently addressing a bottle-neck of frivolous or repeated litigation such as ‘special relief’ petitions, adjustments to custody agreements, complaints, modifications, contempt, and other filings. In many of these cases, there is an extreme frustration and questions by the judge concerning the true nature of the ongoing and escalating difficulty. While it is certainly not true in every case, at least in some cases the culprit can be due to a parent with Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder (CNPD). Individuals with this disorder can wreak almost limitless abuse and misery on their exes and children, and they can even ‘con’ professionals like social workers, counselors, and even judges. Depending on the intelligence, experience and skill of the CNPD, the twists and turns that such an individual can create can be quite convoluted and complex. When the courts unwittingly get “taken in” by a Covert Narcissist, the court becomes an accomplice to the continuing abuse of the child(ren) and the victim parent.
The following characteristics can serve as markers to alert the court system that in fact they may be dealing with a CNPD. It is important to note that CNPD has a tendency to be a ‘spectrum’ disorder, meaning that cases can range from fairly mild and inconsequential for the court, or more severe. Most judges are all too familiar with the latter half of the personality disorder spectrum, with CNPD’s who approach sociopathy and psychopathy. The CNPD’s that are in the middle of the spectrum are the ones that have the ability to wreak tremendous suffering on ex-spouses and especially, children. Not all CNPD’s are men, but there is a preponderance of them that are, especially in custody cases.
CNPD’s are notoriously charming and glib. Of course, not everyone who is charming and glib has a personality disorder, but many people who experience the charm of a CNPD will describe the experience as ‘off’, meaning that the charm somehow has an unsavory and false feel about it. The presentation lacks a genuine warmth and sincerity, and in in fact, one may come away from an encounter with a CNPD feeling somehow sullied.
There will be efforts by the CNPD to be jovial, familiar (often overfamiliar) with whoever they are presenting to, even judges. They may make unusual, extensive use of flattery, or state repeatedly that they ‘like’ you. Great exaggeration is a given, and exaggeration in all things, including personal talents, skills, successes, awards, and who they ‘know’. They tend to speak a great deal on their own authority, almost inviting the listener to just try and disagree with their superior knowledge and insight. Some even make the error of trying to represent themselves in court. Most people who are highly narcissistic will never let you be right about anything; they will always find a way to either disagree with you, correct you, or challenge what you have to say, not matter how trivial the topic.
CNPD’s seem to be prepared to meet almost any challenge; they have handy and ready excuses for anything that makes them look inadequate or as a means to divert attention away from their true nature. Pathological liars, they are able to look anyone straight in the eye with fabrications made of whole cloth. They will not usually admit to making mistakes or wrongdoing, unless to do so will bring them sympathy. Often, their admissions of guilt will have a caveat to justify their error or misdeed (“I only violated the PFA and went to her house to see if the kids were OK, Your Honor, they were not answering my phone call and I was worried, you know, little Johnny has asthma and all…”).
But Their Crazy Leaks Out
Under varying degrees of pressure, the CNPD will frequently begin to show ‘cracks’ in their carefully manicured persona. Their convoluted lies begin to contradict right on the stand. Though, this clinician has watched them wiggle out of such situations with lawyers and judges with yet another clever excuse. They are notorious in expressing contempt and getting away with no penalty, not even a warning.
CNPD people love using the court and custody system to torture their ex. Litigation costs money in most cases, so the CNPD gets to financially hurt their ex by making outrageous, repeated, and frivolous accusations that the ex needs to defend. They may become quite insistant that their child(ren) need therapy to cope with the horrendous ways that their (victim) parent is acting and treating them, but the CNPD will usually avoid going into a counseling room in many and varied ways. They seem to have an innate sense that some mental health professionals have the ability to see them for what they are, and they cannot tolerate that. Of course, they will insist that it is not they who need any counseling, but surely the judge will see that the ex and the kids need it.
If pressed into counseling, they have a clear pattern of non-cooperation in many ways, including cancelled, rescheduled (or more often, simply no show with no notice). Some may develop many a fine reason for why they cannot make sessions with the counselor. If they do attend with their children, they also tend to dominate the session, blocking the child(ren) from accidentally revealing anything of truth. Or, they quite obviously (perhaps not to a lay person, but to a counselor) steer and manipulate what the child communicates with the counselor, either directly via word pressure, or by facial and body gestures.
In session, the narcissist will be subtly or directly disrespectful and contemptuous of the counselor, and if they find something the counselor says disagreeable, may simply leave the session or become verbally aggressive. They will later denigrate the counselor, and may demand that another, ‘more qualified’ counselor be sought.
Though they obviously cannot do these things in the court room, they may demonstrate other telling behaviors, like very rapid affect and attitude change, almost like turning on or off a switch. They may engage in overt contempt for the court by totally ignoring existing orders, and often are consistently tardy in their support payments and visitation schedule. They may have evidences of very poor or no follow up at all on previous court decisions, like not using the ‘more time with the child’ that they demanded and won the last round. There are often frequent attorney changes, or their attorney always seems to be struggling to ‘get them under control’ at hearings or in the hallway before or after a hearing.
For many, their history may begin to be shown due to ongoing or new offenses in other areas of their lives than custody. CNPD people generally have multiple failed relationships, with similar aggressive relationships with all of their ex’s. They work very hard at keeping their past indiscretions carefully hidden, even from the judge.
Careful observation will yield amazing performances by the CNPD, who may have great acting skills to present as a tragic victim of their ex as the individual who is ruining their life and trying to harm them. In fact, they will make an almost airtight case that all the problems in their life is due to other people, and never themselves.
Frequently, the ex of a CNPD will be characterized in the most awful terms possible, there will be accusations of immorality, wrong doing, and child endangerment, even though evidences of this are thin to none. There will be a history of vicious character attacks by the CNPD, not only on the ex, but on the ex’s family members as well, and especially on the ex’s new partner, if they have one. There is usually numerous child welfare reports of neglect or abuse that the CNPD has made, along with requests for local police to do ‘checks’ on their children’s safety when in the care of the ex (all resulting in no cause for concern). In essence, the CNPD makes use of every means possible to ‘reasonably’ harass their ex.
The CNPD will eventually come around to making hints or overt statements about their ex engaging in active ‘alienation’ behaviors. Judges need to understand that at this time, the Diagnostics Statistic Manual (the book that outlines mental health disorders) does not recognize or define such ‘alienation’ as a ‘syndrome’ or any other mental health disorder. This is not to say that psychological and emotional alienation do not occur, just that judges need to be aware that the mental health profession does not define it as a disorder.
In a great number of cases, the CNPD will attempt to enlist their attorney in pressing for the reality of ‘alienation syndrome’, or bring in an ‘expert’ to testify to the reality of the ‘syndrome’, making a huge issue of what is essentially a not yet defined disorder. Interestingly, the CNPD is usually highly resistant to undergoing their own psychological evaluation, and if this is done and they are found to have a personality disorder, they will go to great lengths to discredit the evaluation, if they agree to undergo the evaluation at all (and personality disorders are listed in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual as a genuine mental health disorder!)
The truth is, when a child is in fact resistant to spending time with their CNPD parent, the CNPD individual does a fine job all on their own in alienating the child(ren) from themselves, no help is needed from the victimized parent.
When the ex of the CNPD appears in court, they frequently present tearfully, fearfully, exhausted, overwhelmed, hopeless and helpless. They have endured years of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the CNPD individual. Judges need to remember, however, that individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder can often present themselves this same way in court, as a means of manipulation. People with personality disorder are very skilled at mimicking emotions that can garner sympathy and support, all the while not feeling an ounce of the expressed emotion. The point of observation for a judge is the consistency of this emotional presentation: the victim of the CNPD will be consistent over time with the presentation, and the CNPD individual, if under genuine pressure, will demonstrate dramatic labile emotional expression, including nasty, dismissive contempt for most people other than themselves.
The presentation in clinical counseling from the victim of the CNPD has many of the same characteristics listed above, but the back-story often illustrates long-term histories of emotional, psychological, (and sometimes physical, sexual and spiritual) abuse that is insidious. Victims often come into counseling due to the tremendous torture that they have endured. They state that they feel totally alone, isolated, victimized, and that they are ‘at the end of their rope’. They feel that no one will believe their story, because they have seen the CNPD manipulate most of the people in their lives to side with the CNPD against them. Sadly, they often cite judges as members of the ‘minions’ of the CNPD.
CNPD parents seem to characterize their child in one of two extremes: either the child is presented as ‘the golden child’; a perfect work of art created by the CNPD parent, or a spoiled, rotten, alienated kid made so by the CNPD’s ex. There is not much characterization in between.
Many narcissists choose one of their children to essentially become a carbon copy of themselves. They often brag about their child’s accomplishments like other parents might, but the narcissist give strong hints that the child is as they are not due to the child’s own efforts and talents, but simply due to the fantastic job that the narcissist is doing with the child. One gets a sense that the CNPD sees their child more as a show-pony than an individual that is treasured and loved. They also often march out photos or long lists of great events and experiences that they have given to their kids as proofs of how much they love their kids. Essentially, they work relentlessly to win the ‘heart, mind, and soul’ of the GC, and not for healthy, good reasons, but self-serving ones.
When the child is not placed in the ‘golden child’ position, and has begun to question the CNPD parent’s behaviors and parenting, the CNPD usually rejects the child with great prejudice, and will blame this on their ex as ‘alienating the child’. Once again, they play the victim in order to engender public and court sympathy and doubt as to who the real ill person is. This child will be characterized by the CNPD as undisciplined, spoiled, disrespectful, rebellious, and generally worthless. While healthy parents can cite their child’s character flaws, they usually do so with an ‘add’ of their strengths, and even when talking of flaws, one can feel the warmth of love from the parent. If the parent is CNPD, there will not likely be the positive ‘add’, and a sense of warmth will be missing.
Actions Towards the Child
The ‘Golden Child’ (GC) is intensely sheltered, indulged in every way, and even when they make mistakes, their CNPD parent will defend them (often by attacking the accuser viciously). The GC will be demonstrating strong behavioral presentations that closely match the narcissistic parent. The GC will have inherited the same self-centered, responsibility-avoidant, cold and calculating behaviors sets as their ill parent. In some sense, the GC’s have it pretty good, at least as long as they remain the GC and do not grow into (physical) adulthood. As adults, they very well may become full-fledged CNPD’s themselves.
The Targeted Child(ren), (TG) are a completely different story. In public, the CNPD parent will sing the TG’s praises, all of course, directed as a positive reflection on the CNPD parent. The narcissist, you see, cannot afford to have a child reflect poorly upon themselves. If the child has flaws, it is entirely due to their ex; never themselves. In private, it is an entirely different story. The CNPD parent rules TG’s with an iron fist, no disagreement is ever allowed, even if done respectfully. The parent-child relationship is not one of warmth and nurturing, but one of King and subject, in the worse possible sense. The child learns to keep quiet and ‘take it’, for any resistance is futile and consequential.
TG’s are often threatened to be sent to ‘boot camp’, or are convinced that they are mentally ill. The CNPD will work relentlessly to convince the TG that their recall of past abusive events are inaccurate, and the child should accept the CNPD’s version (usually making the victim parent become the evil one). TG’s routinely have gifts that were given to them (by other people, not just the CNPD) arbitrarily removed due to minor offenses and even perceived offenses. TG’s will often be ‘grounded’ from positive, educational school and extra-curricular activities as punishments for trivial offenses.
The CNPD parent will have a clearly observable pattern of neglecting important events in the TG’s life. They ‘forget’, or ‘are out of gas money’, or blame the victim parent for not informing them of the dance recital, or big game. Birthdays are often completely ignored, without even a card sent to signify recognition. There will be a ready excuse prepared for the judge as to why they neglected these important things in a child’s life. The CNPD parent sometimes ignores or ‘forgets’ as a punishment/power play, and sometimes just because their total self-focus really does blind them into forgetting their own child’s birthday and other events. Essentially, the CNPD parent is more than willing to use, sacrifice, and even cut the TC in half, just to torture their ex.
It is the rare parent who is divorced that does not at least unconsciously behave in ways that alienate their child from their ex. But the CNPD always seems to do so, and consciously, at that. GC’s become little carbon copies of their CNPD parent in attitude and behaviors. They usually present as extremely (even fanatically) aligned with the CNPD parent. Now, the TC may be just as extremely aligned with the victim parent, but the markers will be different. First, the GC’s reasons for blind support and praises of the CNPD parent and condemnation of the victim parent will have a very hollow, parroting sound to them. They may also be using words and phrases quite unusual for a child of their age to be using. One gets the impression of an individual who has been “mesmerized” by another; the child’s individuality and critical thinking are quite obviously repressed severely. The TC’s support of the victim parent will sound more sincere, and they can cite far more intimate examples of love and support by the victim parent. The TC gives clear indication that their victim parent not only allows, but encourages them to be an individual with their own opinions, even if they differ from the parent; they are encouraged to think for themselves.
If a GC is separated from the CNPD for a conversation, they often will ‘draw a blank’ when asked a question that they have not been prepared to answer, act like they did not hear the question, or will simply repeat an earlier statement that seemed to work for a different question. When the CNPD is present, they will often shift their eyes quickly to the CNPD prior, during or after answering. They may also engage in ‘self-editing’, resort to silence and staring at you, or give only one word answers. There may be a feeling in the questioner that the child is using a good bit of energy to ‘give the right answers’, or refrain from speaking freely.
TC’s may present as hopeless, helpless and resigned to their lot. They will exhibit emotions indicating sadness, anxiety, and usually verbalize their discomfort being around the CNPD. They may become tearful when speaking about the reasons why they do not like spending time with the CNPD. Or, they may seem to have rote, hollow, rehearsed sounding positive remarks when asked about their CNPD parent (Stockholm Syndrome). Or, they may present and full of anger, resentment and rebellion. It is important to note that it is very unnatural for any child or any age to abjectly refuse to see or spend time with a parent. The TG may even refuse to call their CNPD parent ‘Dad’ or ‘Mom’, and call them by their first name only.
If the TC is being forced by the court to have contact with the CNPD parent, the child’s grades may be suffering, and they may have increasing acting out behaviors, including intense conflicts with the CNPD parent that may even involve run away behavior and self-harm behaviors. The TC may also give the victim parent a very hard time about cooperating going with the CNPD parent. When a child tells a judge that they do not want to spend time with a parent, it should be a red flag, and be investigated.
No individual characteristic mentioned in this article can identify a CNPD individual, but when a pattern of characteristics can be discerned over time, the aggregate may very well indicate a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Child and adult victims of CNPD people are vastly under-diagnosed and unrecognized. Most family or custody court systems would do well to hire independent professionals with expertise in understanding family dynamic and recognition of personality disorders to help them discern what is going on in mysteriously difficult cases that keep returning over and over to the courtroom. Those in the court system owe it to the public, to the victims, and especially to the child-victims of CNPD parents to learn about and make efforts to control their crimes of emotional and psychological abuse.