What Judges Need to Know About Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Custody Cases
One would think that those highly experienced in law (attorneys and judges) would have what it takes to easily recognize deception, or at least know how to ensure that a person is examined thoroughly enough to make reasonably sure that they are telling the truth. But those in law are just as vulnerable to the highly skilled narcissist as the average person is. As a clinical counselor in the field for over thirty years, this author has had his fair share of run-ins with individuals who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and has been duped by them several times.
NPD individuals are especially pernicious in child custody cases. And there are a large number of children caught in the inevitable, torturous, and abusive trap that NPD parents place their kids in when the NPD parent continues to harass their ex via custody issues. The general public has little knowledge and insight in general about NPD, and those who sit on the bench likely have only a bit more than the public. Though virtually all judges have dealt with NPD’s, many judges may not know the difficult person before their bench in custody court is an NPD, and most judges do not understand the disorder well enough to make effective interventions to curtail the abuses that the NPD perpetrates on everyone in their life, including those involved in the court.
Because NPD’s are naturally talented imposters, charmers, and deceivers, many judges get duped on a routine basis by NPD parents, who are simply using the court and the judge to continue to humiliate,exert control, and abuse their ex, and force their ex to react to them in some way. Narcissists live to manipulate and control others emotions, self-esteem, and behaviors. Many will describe the 'high' they get from manipulating others successfully, and if they get the judge to believe them, they will begin to brag that the judge is their ' personal friend'.
All attorneys, and especially judges, need to first recognize, understand, and then learn effective means to deal with the mental health disorder classification of ‘personality disorders’, and in particular, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as it is often completely missed by many professionals. NPD is often overshadowed and missed by judges and lawyers due to the more obvious personality disorders such as Anti-Social Personality disorder, which is ubiquitous to the criminal populations.
Why They Get Away With It
NPD’s get away with what they get away with because they are so very talented at presenting themselves as innocent victims of their ex, their boss, their parents, etc. etc. They have an uncanny talent to manipulate situations and people and to twist the obvious facts fit their confabulated premise. They can eat your lunch when you turn around and when you turn back, convince you that you ate it! This author has witnessed many conscience-less narcissists in family court deftly ‘con’ lawyers, child protection workers, counselors, and judges, right in the courtroom.
Part of the problem is that in the context of family court or custody court, a judge may not be thinking in terms of a parent as being so cold, calculating, and valueless as to be using their children as a means to harm their ex, or if the judge get a hint of such tactics, continues to believe that these often extremely harmful and emotionally abusive parents still have a right to continue to have ‘a relationship’ with their child; freeing the NPD parent to continue to perpetrate their abuse on the child and the child’s healthier parent.
NPD’s are so grandiose that they will try to use their deceptive, manipulative tactics with virtually everyone and anyone, even the court. They have a special talent to ‘size up’ situations and people involved to very quickly devise a plan to get their way. Judges, that’s why you will see the shocked look on the other parent’s face, and their weeping when you hand the kids back to the narcissist; that parent knows you have been conned and they have yet again been abused by the narcissist, with your stamp of approval.
The NPD parent coming to court repeatedly and contentiously over child custody can be recognized by several other characteristics:
The NPD will bring a plethora of legal actions that barely make sense or are fully nonsense. They will often burn through attorneys. They will have a history of multiple PFA’s against them. If they are male (and most are), they may have multiple custody issues with multiple women. They will have police complaints for harassment of the ex, the ex’s new partner, the ex’s family members, and often complaints from the children’s school about the NPD parent harassing the school in some way. They may also seek to interfere with their ex’s employment, have vitriolic spewings on social media about their ex, may literally stalk their ex, harass them via phone and text, and have made at least one if not multiple reports to child protection about their ex that turn out unfounded. In their legal complaints, they make ‘mountains out of molehills’, and may press the court to ‘legislate relationship’ between themselves and their children.
The place for a judge to take keen interest is the space between how the NPD presents themselves; the things they claim, and their genuine behaviors. There is often a dramatic and clear mismatch. They will ignore and not even see a child for months or years, and then bring a harassing case to gain time with the child. They will promise the world to the child and consistently let them down, they will demand half custody and then leave the child during their turn with their grandparent and go to the bar. They will manipulate their ex to give them more time with the child, will be late to arrive (if at all) to pick up the child, and very often be late returning the child. They will have non-relatives pick up the child or deliver them back to the other parent. They also often discipline with extraordinary harshness, and say that they have to do this because the other parent is too lax.
They are often very cognizant of the legal rules of custody, and will re-enter a child’s life at the very last moment legally possible so that they can maintain their harassment. NPD parents will have a constant and well-rehearsed litany of complaints about their ex, but will usually never admit to any fault of their own, even having plausible explanations of why they had no contact with the child for so long. If fact checked, these excuses are seen for what they are: very thin to totally false. In general, there will be a clear and persistent pattern of the NPD parent having a ready excuse or someone to blame for everything. They will, in public, appear to be the perfect parent, but in private, be making the child's life a living hell. (Think Mommy Dearest).
The NPD ‘ace in the hole’ is making the accusation of ‘parental alienation’ towards their ex. All lawyers and judges need to know that there is no such diagnosis in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual, the reference for diagnosis of mental health and behavioral health that professionals in the mental health field use. This is not to say that alienation dynamic is not real; on the contrary, it is fairly well accepted in the field that those who are in close relationship with an NPD can and do develop mental health disorders, including adjustment disorder, depression, anxiety, and especially, post-traumatic stress disorder. The latter can often be seen to be sourced in the behaviors and physical, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes sexual abuses that the NPD has perpetrated against the ex and the child.
Damages to the Child
In human development, the child-parent bond can be extremely strong. If a healthy relationship and bond has developed, there is not much that will keep a child from their parent. Not even one parent trying to ‘brainwash’ a child against the other parent is very credible at all as a possibility involving a child declining to have contact with a parent. Some in the field consistently underestimate children's ego strength and feel that they are always simply clay in the hands of the NPD parent. A child's public behaviors may not reflect their private thoughts, understandings, and genuine loyalties. The truth is that NPD parents will often complain about ‘parental alienation’ coming from the other parent, and is the one who has done the most to alienate the child from themselves, not the other parent. So, when a child is refusing to have contact with the NPD parent, and the other parent is taken to court to blame for this, it is a true ‘red herring’. A close look at the child’s complaints will reveal the truth.
Placing a child on the witness stand (in front of the NPD parent, of course), plays right into the hands of the delighted NPD. Most people not versed in this disorder have no clue of how clever, powerful, and abusive an NPD parent is, and how absolutely terrified the child is and how totally under the NPD's control they are. All the NPD has to do is look at the child, and the child will 'fold' under any questions, agreeing with the NPD's version of things.
Essentially, in comparison to the power of the NPD parent, the child has no confidence at all that the court has their (the child’s) interest or safety at heart, or that the court even remotely has the ability to protect them from the NPD. In truth, to the child (and the ex), the NPD has the power of God. Really.
The level of psychological abuse, manipulation, true brainwashing, terrorizing, demoralizing, self-esteem destroying that an NPD parent does to their child is hard to wrap your head around. NPD’s seem to be born with the skills of the best torturer imaginable. There is no polite way to put it: when a court insists that a resisting child have contact with the NPD, the court is participating in child abuse. Kids are not property to be divided, and they have brains. If a child is refusing to have contact with a parent, look very closely at that parent.
What Judges Could Be Doing
Once ‘caught on to’, NPD’s, given enough rope, tend to hang themselves with their own errors. They make these errors under the pressure of being seen for what they are: pathological liars and egotists who really do not care at all about the child, only caring about ‘winning’, including fooling the judge. Their arrogance, emotional liability, grandiosity, contempt for others, absurdity, and perjury will be readily apparent.
The court can order both parents into counseling towards the goal of effective co-parenting. Once a custody order is made, the court can monitor the compliance of both parents. This is where the rubber hits the road, and where the NPD parent will begin to mess up, big time. They just cannot comply with any authority other than their own self-inflated opinions and will.
In most cases, if they comply at all with the counseling (many do not even make it to one session), it only takes a short time before they will discredit the counselor, petition the court for some other counselor, and just stop showing up. What they really want is a counselor that cannot ‘see through them’ and find one that they can manipulate for their own purposes, meaning supporting their position that their ex is persecuting them. Judges also could order both parents to go through a psychological evaluation. If the judge does this, they should insist that a special psychological test, called an ‘MMPI’ be done on both parents. This highly valid and reliable test will pick up the truth about NPD in an individual if it is present. Once a judge understands the mental health disorder present and functional in the custody issues, they can make far wiser decisions regarding custody for the child's best interest.
It is my understanding that under some circumstances, a judge can speak with children in chambers and out of the line of sight from the parent(s). The judge should consider doing this, and if the judge is a parent themselves, and approach the kids that way, the judge will get a fine understanding of just why the child does not want contact with the NPD parent. Or, a judge could request a 'course of treatment' statement from the child's counselor to clarify why the child does not want contact with the NPD parent. It is never advisable to call the counselor into court to testify, as this compromises the therapeutic alliance between the child and their counselor in ongoing treatment.
Those in the legal system will do well to learn more about NPD parents in custody situations, as not only are the child and non-NPD parent harmed, but dockets get clogged with cases by NPD’s that are frivolous, time consuming, and costly.