Co-Parenting With An Abuser

All of us survivors know that our ex will at least verbally and emotionally abuse our children. We survivors also know how hard that type of abuse is to prove, and even proving it doesn’t mean your ex will have less time with our children. Proving non-sexual or non-physical abuse typically results in therapy if it results in anything at all. Therapy doesn’t work unless the abuser wants to change. They don’t want to change which is the reason you left them in the first place.

If you are in this position, then you have to fight back through education and love. That is easier said than done, but it is very important to “do it” more often than you don’t.

  • Educate your kids about bullies, sexual predators, and dating violence.
  • Empathize with them when their other parent hurts them, remind them how great they are, and have faith that your children are smart cookies who will continue to talk to you about their problems.
  • Introduce your children to therapy, keep your eyes open for signs and symptoms of abuse, and report any allegations or proof of sexual or physical violence as soon as you see it.
  • Create a new safety plan with your children. Make sure they know what they can do if they feel afraid while at your ex’s house. You may have to be very careful about this because focusing on “what to do if you’re at mom’s house and she starts hitting you” could have negative effects. Instead, create a safety plan for your home, the babysitter’s, grandma’s, their friend’s and your ex’s. Make it a general “what to do if I am scared” plan without singling anyone out, then practice it with them.

Yes, it feels horrible to know that your kids cannot escape the emotional manipulation and pain like you did through separation or divorce. It is very difficult to cope with your kids’ visits to your ex when you truly believe it is but a matter of time before your children are injured on the outside too. It is a helpless feeling to watch them go off to your ex’s home, knowing “something bad” is waiting for them there. However, you cannot allow yourself to remain attached to your abuser through the children. So long as you feel like a victim (out of powerlessness to help your kids like you want to) you will remain a victim.

Remind yourself that now you are free of your ex’s daily abuse, much stronger and smarter, and therefore in a better position to support your children in helpful ways. When you lived with abuse, you did not have the freedom to combat it that you do today. Remember to be grateful that you set an example for your children and try to stop beating yourself up every time they visit their other parent. Your kids visit your abuser because the court says they have to do so, not because you want it that way.

Forgive yourself for being unable to protect them 100% from their abusive parent. You can’t protect them all of the time anyway. Children must learn hard lessons about all kinds of things on their own. They will be grateful that you were there for them, their safe place, if the other parent abuses them. They’ll see the difference in the two of you in time. Let that awareness be as natural for them as possible (meaning don’t habitually point out the other parent’s flaws even if they talk badly about you).

Protect Yourself

You are no good to your children if you allow yourself to be abused by your ex.

  • If you stay on the phone while your ex admonishes you for your poor parenting skills so you can eventually talk to them about the kids, you’re allowing the abuse to continue. Hang up the phone at the first insult and send an email instead. Write only about the children.
  • Don’t allow your ex to enter your house without knocking and respect their home in the same way.
  • Keep your personal boundaries strong. Let your children see that your ex can’t get to you (at least not for long). They need to see you as separate from your ex; they need to know they have two homes, two parents, two different families to love. (They do love their other parent, always will – let them, and be there without “I told you so” if your ex lets them down.)

Your way of parenting will not affect your ex’s ideas about parenting. Don’t let their way of parenting affect yours. The idea is to work with your ex when it is reasonable to do so, but remember that you have separate homes and separate lives. You get to set the rules at your house.

  • Don’t let them talk you into spanking when you prefer time-outs, not even “for consistency between households”.
  • If your ex grounds your daughter from her cell phone (for good reasons) but you feel more comfortable if she has it on her at school, then take it from her as soon as she gets home.
  • Drop any expectation that your ex will enforce a punishment you set for your child while the child visits them.

Realize that your children will play you against your ex sometimes. Your kids are smart; they know both of their parent’s well. Our kids do not label us “bad” and “good” people. We’re “mom” and “dad”. If you think you’re being played and that your child is doing something dangerous, email your ex to tell them about it.

  • You may get no response or your ex could degrade you for your thoughts, but keep in mind that, most likely, your ex wants your children alive and well too (If they don’t, you probably have proof of that and already took it to the authorities).
  • If you receive a nasty reply, read it (I know you will), then archive it. I add my ex’s emails to a folder labeled ”Jerk” – it feels really good to hit the button sending it to that folder! I save them just in case I need proof of something in the future. I don’t reread them, and I don’t give them a second thought. I did what I needed to do when I informed him about our child.

Remember that you cannot see the future. Your gut instincts and intuition do not determine destiny. Your fears may never come true. Trust that if they do, you will have the presence of mind to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.

Do the best you can today. Take a deep breath, hug and kiss your kids, and talk to them. Parent the best way you know how, keep educating yourself so you can teach your kids how to live free of abuse, and keep your ex abuser’s voice out of your decisions.

Keep your focus on your relationship with your child. How your ex fixes or screws up their relationship with your child is beyond your control.

You can do this. It isn’t easy, but you can do it.

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64 Responses to Co-Parenting With An Abuser

  1. Kim says:

    Unfortunately, emotional and psychological abuse are very wide spread. According to Childhelp, about 11% of child abuse is physical… what makes up the rest? My child is 5 and is being psychologically abused by my ex-spouse, he even pointed a gun at her claiming that he will kill us. My child is in therapy. I believe England is working to rewrite family law to address the issue. The same needs done in the U.S. courts. Do a search for “Cinderella Law”. As parents we continually need to remind both legal professionals and counselors of the disconnect here in the states and how the issue needs immediate attention.

  2. Amelia Green says:

    Actually you can stop your child being abused. You stop allowing visits and you go to a lawyer, then a paediatrician, then a child abuse foundation, then a councillor and then court. You put in effort and time and make your child the absolute priority of every second of your spare time. You do not allow your child to be abused and you do not allow your partner to dictate anything. If the court doesn’t support you then you appeal, you get more evidence and you promise your child that no matter what happens you will watch like an eagle every move that is made. I am sick of this modern day turtle behaviour, fight for your children. Question the law. Do not under any circumstance let anyone hurt your child in any capacity.

  3. Kristin says:

    Thank you, Amelia, that is what I’m trying to do. Thank you for your encouragement. I agree, no child should be abused. Abusers control. If a child says they don’t feel safe, then they don’t have to go to visitation.

  4. Heather says:

    I feel the same as Blanca. I left the man who mentally and verbally abused me and my kids. He also physically abused my 9yo son (not his). Cps got involved when my son told his teacher. He didn’t tell me because i was in a high risk pregnancy. At one point after i left my ex, he was allowed contact with our baby by order of Cps. That lasted a few weeks. A while later when I told them the signs of abuse I was seeing her display, they said I should hope for the best. What? Then they dropped the case for lack of evidence but berated me for having failed to protect my son against someone that claim did nothing. He spent the last few months of our marriage convincing his family and mine that I’m a sociopath, pathological liar, and drug addict. But I passed a drug test every month for over a year. In the end, I became custodial parent. I have been diagnosed with ptsd. He continually curses me and calls me names on the app any time he wants. Does not go to designated drop off location. Instead makes me go to his house. He has not complied with the court order to give me copies of the baby’s pics, instead sent a pic of him flipping me the bird. And threatens to take my baby. Is there really nothing I can do to stop his behavior? My mental health is greatly affected!

  5. Undisclosed says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Amelia Green. I am about to find myself in this difficult situation as I am due in March. That being said, from day one, I will protect her. She is alive, though she is not born and so I have already begun protecting her by leaving him. The wear and tear on my body and mind from his psychological abuse was affecting her, too. Fight for your children. As hard as it can be, it is our job to protect our little one. Thank you, Amelia.

  6. Undisclosed2 says:

    Sadly, its not as easy as Amelia thinks. Most doctors are not going to be willing to stand in court and attest to emotional or psychological abuse because it is so difficult to prove. The author of this article, however, is correct and gives you the best way to deal with this.

  7. D. Aggie says:

    Anyone can advise what to do if the ex continues to hurl verbal abuse and poison the children’s minds by making himself the victimised parent. That’s what my ex is doing. The divorce is over and he plays the blame game. He saw a Facebook post stating that I am in a relationship with a female colleague and literally took that to mean we are lesbians without reading the following comments made by others about the actual friendship.
    He also refuses to comply by a court order to pay half of the fees incurred by my second child who is in my care or hand me the child’s passport..
    I live in Singapore.
    I can’t afford hefty legal fees. .

  8. Virginia says:

    There is no protection from Child Protective Services from abusers who are not leaving physical marks on the child. In my grandson’s case, someone from the school reported him after he choked my grandson (something he used to do to my daughter). They put a note in the ex son-in-law’s file, then did nothing more. My grandson tells me that he is afraid to ask to use the phone to call his mom, as his dad will “hit me.” When asked what he means, my grandson says his dad tells him to “shut up” and smacks him. He has shown my grandson a gun, and then told him he carries ammunition in his van. My grandson fears that his father will use the gun and ammunition to kill my daughter. My grandson tried to tell the cops, and the cop just looked at my daughter and told him that she had better teach my grandson gun safety, as “we don’t take people’s guns away from them in Texas.”

  9. Yes, unfortunately “physical marks” are required for any real help. Even then, help is not guaranteed. The “consolation” to receiving physical marks as proof is that the abuse always escalates and, one day, your grandson will unfortunately receive his “proof”.

    Check the runaway laws in Texas. In NC, a child 16 or more can run away and the police cannot force them back home. The most the police can do is inform the parent where their child stays. I have no idea how old your grandson is or what the laws in Texas are…but getting creative is a good idea.

  10. Alex says:

    I would appreciate some advice. I am a man whose been divorced with three kids for seven years. For the first 5 years my ex and I were model divorced parents. I paid extra child support, we did things together as a family, had keys to each other’s houses, etc.

    Then about a year and half ago I found out she was dating a registered sex offender who had molested two 12 year olds. Obviously, I objected and told her I was not comfortable with him being around my girls. Two days later I get a visit from CPS and she had accused me of having child porn, molesting my daughter and smoking pot with the kids. To any one who knows me this is laughable and of course CPS determined it was all bullshit.

    After a year and half of legal battles, I now have a court order that he can’t be around the kids (yes, she is still dating him)

    My problem is that now my kids expect everything to go back to normal. That we will start doing things together again. For my own self respect and integrity I don’t want to have anything to do with her, but this puts me in the role if being the jerk. I can’t imagine someone telling a woman whose abusive ex-husband that they should still socialize together?

    I don’t want to say anything bad about their mother, but I refuse to be around this abusive woman who brought a RSO around her kids. What do I say?

  11. Despite your children’s wish that your past relationship with their mother could continue, it is perfectly reasonable for you to wish it to end no matter what the reason. Perhaps you could tell your children that it is time you create a life for them and you outside of the relationship with their mother. You don’t have to badmouth her and you don’t have to make excuses to your children. You must create a separate life for yourself. Period.

    I assume you can be cordial during pick-up and drop-off (if you must say anything at all), so continue NOT ARGUING with her in front of the children. Any nastiness to mom in front of the kids will put you in a bad light with them.

    As to what you tell your ex about the change in your relationship, tell her the truth or the same thing you tell the kids. Personally, I’d tell her the same thing you tell the kids – that way, if the children come to you with “Mom says…” stories, you have the peace of mind of knowing that mom is making stuff up and do not feel obligated to defend yourself against fairy tales to the children. Or to mom.

    This is a complicated issue, I know. If you can find a good therapist for you individually and maybe one for your family (you and your kids), then I think the transition will be easier for all of you.

  12. X says:


    I have made the choice for my ex not to enter my home. My ex has criticised me for continuing with this choice, arguing that it disrespects my ex in front of the children. My ex allows me into their home. I found this article with a search for “allow abuser in my house”. This article has probably been the most concise summary of exactly the things that anguish you most as a parent whose children must still go and be with a person you know, as the article says, “will at least verbally and emotionally abuse our children”. It includes also probably the most concise summary of constructive suggestions and encouragements focused on the most important issues. This is an excellent article. (I had to laugh at the “Jerk” folder name :) )

  13. Sarah says:

    My husband of 22 years is a narcissist, this I have accepted as I have understood more and more about verbal and emotional abuse, reading everything that is out there and now arriving here, on this blog. I have three children. My son is 17 and in treatment for PTSD, talking always about his father. My youngest daughter is 13 and is in therapy, always talking about her father, wanting him out of her life. He is not violent, but extremely covertly angry and aggressive, controlling his anger and making sure we know it, he is disruptive on every level of daily life, absent, withholding and silent, countering, blocking etc etc etc. But utterly charming and loved in the outside world, which he openly acknowledges sees only his fake persona. I get very little support from my extended family, who think I should be thankful that he supports me well financially and should also be sorry for him because he suffers from severe depression.

    So, everyone talks about not bad mouthing the abusive parent, but I think, wait a minute, my children need acknowledgement that their father’s behavior is disordered and unacceptable, that they have the right to expect better, and so do I. They need to know that their negative feelings about him are not wrong, that they must listen to and trust their instincts in their own lives going forward. They need to know that this is not the “normality” that they should accept for their own adult lives. I come from an emotionally abusive background, if anyone had talked to me openly about what was happening to me and my siblings as we were growing up, I would have known not to marry him and continue the cycle of abuse.

    Now I “just” need to leave him.

  14. Dear Sarah, your children have the awareness they need for you to support them as they tell you about their dad. Yes, you can directly address their concerns and issues. It is not badmouthing their father if you respond to what they ask or tell you about him.

    I found that discussing my ex with my sons went smoother for me when I acknowledged that he did the same types of things to me and that his behavior made me angry too. I told them how I learned to deal with the abuse and if it helped me, and what I wish I had done or would do now if the same thing happened.

    As their protector, you have every right to talk about the truth. Please take advantage of their awareness and do so responsibly.

    Remember that a part of those children will always love their father and seek his approval. If they didn’t love him on some level, then the abuse he dishes out would not affect them so negatively. With that in mind, try to stick to the issues they bring up to you (or that you witness). The “badmouthing” you could do that might raise the kids’ defensiveness is to talk about their dad without having a direct issue to address, to overhear you talking to someone else about him, to fly off into a rage at him on the phone within earshot, … Do you get the picture?

    Address their concerns honestly and empathetically. Love them. But remember you walk a tight line.

    My boys were about 13 and 15 when I left their father.

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