Fighting the Custody Battle Against a Selfish Parent

Co-parenting can be a difficult task, but selfish (and narcissistic) parents can be a nightmare to cooperate with. There are some strategies that may help. Here are Ten rules to follow that will help you in the custody battle against a selfish parent.  Many of these strategies also apply to dealing with the narcissist parent.

A truly selfish parent only wants parenting time because you do.  The selfish parent doesn’t necessarily want to win. The selfish parent wants the other parent to lose!

A selfish parent tests boundaries, just like a child does.  If you give an inch, will your spouse take a mile? Selfish parents get their kicks by pushing buttons and extending boundaries with everyone they interact with. All day, every day.

Is your spouse’s selfishness manifesting itself as bullying, just to bully? Is it a good ole’ fashioned sense of entitlement? Is the other parent’s selfishness a result of low self-esteem? You have to set rules in a custody battle against a selfish parent. Start with these 10.

Rule 1: Establish boundaries.

You have to establish boundaries with the selfish parent. We learned from the poet, Robert Frost, how “Good fences make good neighbors.” You have to learn to say “No.” Learn to cut deals: “Yes, you can have Timmy tonight. But only if you give me your next Tuesday night.” Do you have difficulty bargaining? Is it hard for you to say “No”? Consider counseling with a family therapist to help if you need to talk through what holds you back.

Rule 2: Learn how to “work” the selfish parent.

And the sooner the better. It is paramount you get the status quo parenting time and custody framework the way you want it. And as quickly as possible. Reach out to your experienced family lawyer for help. This cannot wait! Find out now what can be done to fix problems. Delay can make addressing custody problems more difficult.

Rule 3:  Check yourself. 

Take a moment to reflect on your personal strengths and weaknesses. Are you at fault for being too nice? Are you enabling the selfish parent? We understand that conflict avoidance can be an admirable trait. But when those positive traits become negative habits, children may suffer. That’s because, by definition, the selfish parent is never going to be the better parent. Nor does a child benefit from seeing one parent repeatedly bullied into submission by the other parent. A child benefits from observing how adults can and should negotiate difficult situations. For your child’s benefit, turn-the-tables and flip-the-script on the selfish parent.

Rule 4:  Some selfish parents can only be managed.

Some parents will never change their ways, even though those ways may be detrimental to the child. Some selfish parents simply cannot be cajoled, taught a lesson, or reasoned with. At the same time, one parent being a selfish parent’s doormat will never be in the best interest of a child. Fortunately, there are co-parenting skills you can develop to make up for the selfish parent’s shortcomings.

For one, avoid becoming emotionally invested in trying to fix the other parent. Secondly, it’s ok if you cannot win on this or that parenting dispute. Assuming you really cannot win it. Don’t just roll over and give in. Remember Rule 3. If you genuinely cannot solve the issue, then so be it. Many problems in life are like this. Just do your best to manage the selfish parent.

Rule 5:  Never lose your temper in a text or e-mail.

Fighting the Custody Battle Against a Selfish Parent

Knee jerk reactions will not serve you well. Always assume you are being recorded. Everyone has a breaking point. And if anyone knows how to provoke you, it’s the selfish parent. You always take the high road but, in one slip-up, you text – “You’re a selfish SOB!” You just gave the selfish parent more leverage. You’re devastated. Despite the awful things the other parent has done, time and again, to you and your child. Recognize this. Accept this. If you do something wrong, own it. Just don’t own it in a responsive text or e-mail.

Rule 6:  “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.” 

That was John Wayne’s famous line as Captain Nathan Brittles in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” A 1949 western directed by John Ford. Darn good advice. Apologizing to a selfish parent gives that parent a victory. It’s a trophy. Don’t be surprised if your apologetic text – “I’m so sorry I called you a selfish SOB” – is printed, framed, and hanging in your spouse’s home. Selfish people relish apologies like this. Don’t give the selfish parent the satisfaction.

Rule 7:  Don’t stew.

Whatever has happened or is happening, don’t just sit there and stew over it. Call your experienced family law attorney and talk it through. When parents are in the eye of the storm, their judgment often gets skewed. Many of the things parents stew over aren’t worth the suffering. Other things really are. Family lawyers can help. They can add perspective, even if unable to solve your problem.  With proper perspective, those sleepless nights should get better.

Rule 8:  Balance flexibility with steadfastness.

In managing the selfish parent, it’s best to “Give only if you get” as opposed to “Giving and hoping to get.” Contemplate how some flexibility on your part may be in the child’s best interest. However, if the selfish parent never gives in, then maybe you shouldn’t either. Boundaries may need to be enforced. Remember Rule 1. You may need to create a strict parenting plan with a very detailed parenting time schedule. And stick to it.

Rule 9:  Your example as a parent may be more important than what you say.

Many believe that how you live your life, leading by example, is far more important as a parent than the boundaries you set for your children. Even if you’re struggling with your relationship with your child, stick to your guns. Every divorcing parent who is the disciplinarian understands that saying “No” to a child is much important than saying “Yes.”  The selfish parent often says “Yes” as a tactic to gain favor with the child. It doesn’t matter to the selfish parent that this destroys the child’s ability to learn right from wrong. Or that the selfish parent is raising a “snowflake” and doing more harm than good. When your child grows up and turns a corner, the example you set on how to live life will be recognized and appreciated. If not, then that’s on your adult child.

Rule 10:  “Because I said so.”

Children test boundaries. So do selfish parents. It can be exhausting, fighting the selfish parent while simultaneously raising your child. When a child wants to know – “Why not?” or “Why can’t I?” – that child is looking for an angle to exploit. Know that your words – “Because I said so” – must be good enough for a child. Treat the selfish parent exactly the same way. Don’t engage a selfish parent who asks “Why not?” any more than you would your child.

Managing the selfish parent is difficult, but not impossible. As you start down this road, write down rules and restrictions that you favor being added to your parenting plan terms. Share them with your experienced family lawyer. And explore ways to try and solve anticipated problems in advance.

To learn more, see Divorcing the Narcissist and Child Custody Laws in Tennessee.

See also Tennessee Parenting Plans and Child Support Worksheets: Building a Constructive Future for Your Family featuring examples of parenting plans and child support worksheets from real cases available on


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