A lot of women (and some men!) have written me asking exactly what to say to their children about a “bad” parent. First, let’s define “bad.” I wholeheartedly believe that, no matter the reason for the demise of the parent’s relationship, both parents focus should be on fostering a healthy relationship between each parent and the child. Except in the case where one of the biological parents is a sociopath, psychopath or narcissist. This seems to be a relatively new concept for people yet these types of disordered people have always existed. And many of them are great at procreating, but not so much at the part that comes after: being a parent.
If you're wondering if your partner is on the psychopathy spectrum, read more here.
If you're certain that your partner/ex-partner is a psychopath or narcissist, let's talk about the question of "What do you say to your child? Specifically?" I thought I'd throw out some of the phrases that I've come up with to give you an idea of what might be a gentle, age-appropriate way to talk to kids about this.
"Your father can't make good decisions."
"Your father has a lot of trouble putting other people before himself."
"Your father doesn't love the same way other people love. And that's why you have me and so and so (family, friends) who love you so much."
Be truthful but keep it as simple as possible. I have a very good friend who's father, I believe, is on the psychopathy spectrum. She was never told that her father was disordered and so she spent her entire childhood (and most of her adulthood so far) vying for his attention, begging for his love, never feeling good enough and never knowing what to expect. She is a smart, funny, beautiful, loving young woman. She has a huge hole in her self-esteem, identity and self-worth because she grew up believing that it was her that was not good enough for him.
I don't have all the answers and maybe there's no way around a child feeling wounded by having a biological parent who can't love her, but I'm going to damn well try to explain to my daughter that it is not her, that her father was born with a personality disorder, that she was created in love before her mom figured out who her father really was, and that she is not her father. Or her mother. She's her own person. And a beautiful person at that.