How Much Do I Tell Them?

still life with glass jug“How much do I tell them? How do I help my kids with their narcissistic mom, without running their mom down and making them feel worse? What’s the right thing to do?”

The bartender dries a wineglass and hangs it from the rack above his head.  “That’s a tough one.  It depends on the ages of your kids.  It depends on how close they are to their mom.  It depends on whether they have a support network besides you.  It depends on a lot of things.”  The bartender heads to the end of the bar to take an order.  When he returns he says, “See that kid at the end of the bar?”

“The one who looks like he’s crying in his beer?  Is he all of 22?”

“That’s the one.  I knew his folks.  They brought out the worst in each other, and it spilled over onto their kids.  The mom could manipulate anybody and the dad let it happen.  Not much he could do about it, really.  She was good.  But instead of sticking up for his kids or defending them from her tactics, he let them fend for themselves.  Now look at the kid.”

“He looks like he’s mad at the world.”

“He is.  He doesn’t trust anyone.  He isn’t motivated.  He’s pissed.”


The bartender returns from filling an order.  “Now, you see that gal at the other end of the bar?  She’s about the same age.”

“Which one?  There’s a group of ’em down there.”

“Yeah, she’s surrounded by friends.  The brunette with the warm smile and the contagious attitude – she’s never met a stranger.  I knew her parents, too.  That family could have been a train wreck.”

“So why is she all sweetness and light when he’s mad at the world?”

“Well, their parents approached parenting from completely different angles.  Angry kid’s folks kept him in the dark.  They swept everything under the rug.  He grew up believing that manipulating loved ones and passive aggressiveness were part of normal, functioning …”

“Hey barkeep!  What’s a guy gotta do to get served around this place?”  At the end of the bar, angry kid had his hand raised.

The bartender grabs the bar rag and heads in the direction of angry kid.  He looks over his shoulder as he walks away and says, “See what I mean?  He’s mad at everyone and he doesn’t understand why.”


The bartender returns, and the customer looks in the direction of angry kid.  “I know tons of folks like that – mad at the world and they can’t figure out why.”  The customer turns to look in the direction of the brunette, “So why isn’t the brunette mad at the world if she was brought up in a pending train wreck, as you say?”

“The difference is her parents were honest with her.  They talked to her about their issues.  They didn’t bombard her with stuff when she was little, but they paved the way for the real conversations.  ‘Daddy isn’t feeling well today, let’s give him some space,’ turned into ‘Dad’s family has a history of depression, this is how we can help him.’  Or the dad would say, ‘Mom and I are dealing with some tough things now.  We love you and we’re working on it.'”

“Seriously?  They’d talk to their kid about their relationship problems?  Doesn’t that rob a kid of her childhood?  Doesn’t that force a kid to have to grow up too soon?  How about my situation where my wife is a complete and total narcissist?  How do I tell my kids about that without totally destroying them?”

“I dunno.  I guess they figured it was better to be honest, prepare their kids for real life, talk about their issues and deal with things head on.  How about, ‘Honey, your mom has a hard time thinking about others.  Your mom is compensating for never having felt loved.  She doesn’t treat you that way on purpose.  She doesn’t know how to show you she loves you.'”

“How did they know it wasn’t gonna backfire on them?”

“I asked ’em once, ‘How much do you tell them?’  They said, ‘We answer every question they ask.’  Then I asked, ‘Aren’t you worried you’ll tell them too much?’  They said, ‘Information helps them, especially when they have to navigate all these messes in life.  How else are they gonna learn this stuff?'”


The bartender looked from one end of the bar to the other – from angry kid to capable, confident brunette – and said, “I think you can see which approach works best.”

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  1. I still struggle with this, not that it stops me, but the struggle is only because I am still in court. When will I be able to parent without looking over my shoulder? sigh.

  2. Insightful, wise bartender…

  3. Z,

    Oh Gawd! Do we ever get to parent without looking over our shoulders?

  4. Good point! I am hoping that it is a little less defensive in the future. I am tired.

  5. Jesse, thank you for this blog and your writing. I am currently separated from my husband who I am fairly certain is a narcissist. We have a precious little boy who is 2 and I am glad that he is too little to understand what his dad is like still, but I know it won’t be long.

    I am going to need this guidance as he grows up and we navigate through like you have with your kids. I am so sad for him that his father is like that but I’m determined to do everything in my power to make things as good as they can be for him.

    I still have the tiniest bit of hope that at some point he will start to realise that his child is more important than his business/his drinking/himself but I look at how adorable our boy is now and I think, if you haven’t figured that out already you never will. It’s truly heartbreaking :-(

    Anyway, thanks again, I have been reading for a while but mostly older posts and wanted to finally leave a comment today so you know how important this resource is for some of us! :)

  6. Z,

    It is definitely less defensive on this side, but I still find myself looking over my shoulder. Could be just me, tho. ;)

  7. JJ,

    I’ve read your comment three times, and each time I think how lucky your little boy is to have such a loving and courageous mom.

    I hope what I have posted about Jen and Will instills confidence in you and that you see all the possibilities for a fine future for you and your son. Kids are amazingly resilient when they have the consistency of a soft landing.

    Give him a ginormous hug from us. He is a blessed little guy.

    Thanks so much for writing. It means a lot.

    Take good care!


  8. Jesse, I would be over the moon if my boy turns out half as great as you describe Will and Jenny!

  9. JJ,

    Thank you for that. Love up your boy, be there for him – always, and let him be who he is in all his messy/noisy* fabulousness.

    * Assuming he may be a bit like my messy/noisy fabulous boy. :)

  10. We navigate this every day. There are no easy answers, but I have always been convinced that not talking about it is what creates disfunction. It’s when we can’t admit that our families are not perfect that poor coping skills and unhealthy boundaries begin to take root. I just try to do the best I can, one conversation at a time.

  11. Sandy,

    Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree with you more that all these issues NEED to be discussed – when it’s age appropriate, and with compassion.

  12. It would have meant so much for my Dad to have told me as a child that my mom had problems loving me & that it wasn’t all of my fault, but he probably didn’t see it himself. I had relatives around. I don’t remember anyone sitting down with me and telling me what was up. They probably didn’t realize, thinking otherwise is so sad, because that means they would have cared more about keeping the peace then me. I wish someone had told me. It would have meant the world.

  13. Rebecca,

    I want to believe that your dad didn’t see it either.

    I see children close to me going through rough spots, and I don’t take them aside and try to show them a new version of normal. It’s not my place to step in and interfere. I can love them from here. I can lead by example. That’s all any of us can do, isn’t it? But if that child asks me a question, I’m going to answer her.

    I wish someone had told you, too. Tell yourself now, Rebecca.

    Hugs and love from here.

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