Telling Your Kids the Truth About a Psychopath

This post was written for in response to the following letter from a reader:

My daughter was very recently granted custody of the two daughters that resulted from her relationship with a sociopath.

An ongoing problem that I would LOVE to see you address on your website—how does one deal with the sociopath’s lies and manipulation of the children? Specifically—how do you tell the kids the truth without hurting them?

My daughter has to deal with a constant barrage of lies from the other parent. An example of this—telling their older child that her mother did not want to see her when the reality was that he (the sociopath father) was keeping the children from her. It’s a no-win situation because either way it is hurtful to the child. But the reality is that the child has to be told the truth. What is the best and least hurtful approach.

Here’s H.G. Beverly’s response:

This is an incredibly difficult situation, no doubt. I have school-age children with a sociopath, and I deal with these issues constantly. It’s easy to wear out and even easier to handle it less than ideally when you’re exhausted or despairing or broke. So I’d like to start with the context and recommend that you and your daughter both do anything you can do to keep her life and the lives of her children stable, balanced, and well-tended. The sociopath operates, in part, by creating chaos. Anything you can do to help those children live in stability will help them keep their feet on the ground. My extended family has helped me bolster my children’s lives while also providing a reliable, unconditional safety net. That context provides a beautiful space for growing up.

So do anything you can do to create your own beautiful, stable foundation for these children.

Then in comes the chaos. The lies. The manipulation. Talking about these behaviors is tricky, and how you respond or what you say really depends on the child and their level of development. I’ll try to share some general, high-level guidelines I’ve followed successfully over time.

First, focus the “truth” on what you’re doing right rather than on badmouthing the other parent. When my children cried at pick-up because their dad told them that I’d left town with a mysterious man and stopped calling them, I knew the truth was that I’d been in town, alone, calling them all weekend. He was trying to accomplish at least these two things:

  1. Create suspicion in them toward any future man I might bring into my life (i.e. your mom will abandon you if she dates).
  2. Make them choose who they would believe.

Think about that. How would it feel to have two people—your parents and main caregivers in the world—telling you completely opposite stories about an issue that had you crying all weekend? It would rattle my knowledge of “right” in the universe. It would crack my sense of stability to the core. When I explained to my children that I had been calling, they weren’t exactly relieved. How could they be? They looked at my phone and saw the missed calls and realized (according to their own developmental capacity) that someone who is half of their own born identity was lying in a way that can’t be fathomed.

Should You Tell Them Their Parent is a Sociopath?

So then we talk about telling them the truth. Should I have told my children in that moment that their father is a sociopath? Would that have aided the conversation?

It’s tricky when you go beyond telling the truth about behaviors and enter the realm of labeling because it can backfire even if it’s true. Let’s say I want to counter the things my ex says regularly, such as:

“I’m with you, guys. I wish we could all be a family, but your mom doesn’t want us to.”

“You know your mom never listens to anybody. She should be listening to you for once.” (When they’ve had some consequences for being disrespectful).

“I know you guys don’t want to do that. But you know how your mom is.”

“Well, we all wanted to go to the lake this weekend, but your mom ruined it for us again” (on my weekend).

“We gotta stick up for each other. Your mom wants to tear us apart, but we’re a team. We’re a team, so I won’t ever let that happen. Because I love you more than anyone else on this earth. I love you more than all the blades of grass and all the moons and stars and more then the universe all together. So I’ll never let her take us down.”

So let’s say I want to tell them the truth without a label. I might say, “Well, your dad’s welcome to plan a trip to the lake on his weekends. But we’re leaving for vacation this weekend, and we’ve had that planned for months. I’m not trying to ruin anything. Maybe your dad can figure out a time to go to the lake that’s not during our vacation.”

But let’s say I take it further and add a label, “Remember, your dad’s a sociopath. So he’s doing what a sociopath does and creating chaos and bad feelings as we approach our vacation. He’s manipulating you and brainwashing you to feel bad about our plans together.” In my experience, taking it this far is too far for a child. A child is going to hear the words “sociopath” or “psychopath” and have a big response internally. Those labels are hard to understand, and the main thing they’ll understand is that you’re the one using it. The label. You’re the one calling names. And that doesn’t feel good.

You don’t want to be the one calling names. There’s plenty of time in your children’s future to figure out the labels on their own terms.

How Can I Respond to Their Hurt?

The best thing you can do in the present is to consistently care about their feelings (truly care—with curiousity and openness, but without judgment or defensiveness) and then perhaps present any necessary information or facts, if timely or appropriate—for example, telling them that you did, indeed, call them.

The most important part of what I just said is the caring part. Care about how the situation makes them feel. Understand that their experience and feelings are their own, and remember how good it feels for you when someone just hugs you and listens and says, “there, there” instead of immediately countering with facts and explanations.

That doesn’t mean that you never counter with the “truth.” All I’m saying is that first you care, and second you present the truth—if it’s positive and reassuring and easy for them to understand. And third, remember that if you use negative labels—even if they’re true—the sociopathic parent is likely to use them against you. To say that it’s just one more way you’re attacking them. To give your kids one more reason to feel pity for them and one more reason to feel suspicious of you.

Here’s another example of how that can go wrong. I told my oldest once, long ago, that something he said about me—a mind-blowing lie he’d heard from his father—was so bewildering to me that it seemed like “brainwashing.” He told his dad, later, that he was brainwashing him. And he (and I) have never heard the end of that since. It’s a word that comes up sarcastically and that is used to shame me in almost every conflict we have. “You told our kids that I’m brainwashing them?! Sounds like you’re the one doing the brainwashing! I can’t believe you even call yourself a therapist. You know nothing about them.”

And just think about how much my poor son has been forced to hear about it, year after year after year. About how I’m actually the brainwasher.

That was a mistake, and I don’t recommend that you make it.

Instead, focus on building a caring, stable life. And keep your truth focused on all the positive things you’re doing and feeling and being as a parent.


If you liked this post, you may also want to read The Other Side of Charm.

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