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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.

You can find Kellie Jo Holly on her website, Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

108 thoughts on “Co-Parenting With An Abuser”

  1. I have been abused by my ex wife I called the police last week she got arrested for domestic violence one of our kids was involved in her anger outrage.. I showed the cops the text messages showing prove of the emotional and mental abuse they already have physical prove. They let her go the next morning and she took the kids out of school and moved in with her parents.. I didn’t do anything wrong but I’m the one who is being treated like I committed the crimes.. absolutely ridiculous how this is going on!!

  2. Hi,
    I am at my wit’s end right now. I left my ex years ago but we share custody of our 13 year old daughter. He is a power and control type of person so he lies and manipulates a lot. My daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder last year after him and his wife got ugly over a child support increase( I believe that him and his wife are psychologically abusive to each other as well as the kids in their home). After my daughter was diagnosed her father and stepmother sat her down to tell her that she has not anxiety disorder and she is just manipulating people and lying. He has yelled this at me in front of my home after bringing her home at one point. He keeps going to her therapist and insinuating she is a liar and manipulate. Her last visit with him he asked her how she was and when she said fine he said she was lying about school and took her phone. Her phone is actually her lifeline to me. She doesnt really communicate on the phone with anyone but me and her older sister because of her anxiety. This triggered an anxiety attack. I called their house at one point that night because I got a weird text from her phone. They put her on speakerphone and when I asked her if I needed to send someone to check on her I could hear her dad saying no you don’t. I could hear my daughter breathing heavy and sniffling so I kept asking her if she was okay but she wouldn’t answer. Apparently her stepmother was standing right next to her telling her to lie to me and say she was okay. I called the cops and for some reason they felt they should send cops to me first. The next morning I found out from her father that she wrote a suicide not. This was not him informing out of concern. He was using this note as weapon. I ended up calling the cops about the note because he claimed he was taking her to a hospital he wouldn’t tell me where. To this day I am not sure if he would have taken her if I hadn’t called the police. Oh yeah and he did call the police on her when he found the note but he didn’t take her to a hospital for 10-12hours). I also don’t think when he took her it was out of concern. He told the psychiatrist he brought her there for his own evaluation. Coincidentally I didn’t realize that I have the sole right to consent psychiatric treatment until I got home that night. When I figured out where he took my daughter he had the hospital deny my rights to be there for my daughter’s evaluation by having his court order stating I have that right and saying he didn’t want me back there. When I tried to assert my rights he started yelling security. Eventually they did read the court order but it wasn’t until after I haf sent my eldest daughter back to my place to find my copy of the court order that says exactly what he says. Its a sad world where I have to think oh my court order when I am worried about my daughter hurting herself. She ended up in a great hospital for a week that stood up for her and didn’t force her to see her dad. The first time they told him she didn’t want to see him he threw a huge fit and they ended up calling the cops. Unfortunately by the time they got there he had left and the hospital was just across the border from the state we live in. Since then, which was back in May, she has been refusing his visits. Everytime I tells him no he calls the cops. Some have been very nice but the one I dealt with yesterday started scare tactics and I pointed out to him that is how my daughter ended up in the situation she is in by her father using scare tactics. I keep seeing that somehow I am supposed to co parent with him but it’s not possible. I either give things his way or he throws a bloody tantrum or better yet his wife does. I am tired and frustrated and really annoyed that I am expected to encourage my kid to accept the abusive behaviors because if a court order. She is a teenager what does that teach her about future relationships? My daughter was more confident and did really well in school until she was told she wasn’t wanted at her dad’s house by her half brother and stepmother. Before she was told her child support would cause them to give up the family pets. Before she was told the cost of her child support would leave her dad in such dire straights he probably wouldn’t be able to afford gas to pick her up and he reinforced that by not seeing her for nearly a year. She has made progress but we have days still that she just cannot cope. Those days are exhausting but I keep reminding myself of the progress she has made. Her dad wants to claim I have turned her against him. I had moved her away for four years and he didn’t complain. I moved back because stupid me forgot that abusers generally do not grow out of it and he has blown every chance to make a loving relationship with her and traumatized her so that she does not trust people.
    I really don’t know what I am trying to say. I want my daughter to feel like a princess again and not think she is the cause of someone else’s problems. I don’t understand how someone can treat their child this way.

  3. My ex is also trying to pull the supposed defamation thing. Not in court or anything, yet, but he also accuses me of deliberately being contrary when HE needs a scheduling change because HE doesn’t prioritize the kids so HE isn’t available for his ordered visitation. He’ll demand a day that he KNOWS is not going to work for me because we just had the SAME issue last week. When I tell him that day is still a no-go, its “any day I say is out for you, I see how it is”. How it is, you paranoid psychopath, is THAT DAY DOESNT WORK FOR ME!! He VASTLY overestimates his importance in my life, if he thinks I have time to deliberately mess with him. So since that’s not the case, I have to be doing SOMETHING wrong, so on to defamation. Whatever, dude, the kids say all kinds of things you do that aren’t right. Abusive exes should be deported somnewhere unpleasant.

  4. Hello,

    I haven’t read many of the comments, but so far I’ve only read women writing on here. I am a man, I unfortunately was completely dealt a really bad hand in divorce because I was weak, had desperately pleaded for a peaceful divorce with my ex, and at the end of the day, I wanted out of the abubsive marriage so bad that I gave the farm away without fighting in court. All I cared about was having a great relationship with my 4 year old son and to be out of the marriage. I didn’t care about the house, the cars, the 3100 a month in support I currently pay, I let her have it all. I thought after all of that, she would be nice to me and we would be able to co-parent. The abuse has continued and now she uses the only thing left to use against me, my son. She plays constant mind games with me and him like accusing me of not wanting to see him whenever I have plans and she’s asking me to come pick him up because she knows it kills me when I cant see him. She tells him nasty things about me. I’m almost positive she acts like she calls me without actually dialing my number and then acts like I tell her that I don’t want to talk to him. She sends random photos of my son playing with her boyfriend or at a park, etc. While I’ve made strides to limit personal communication (blocking her while I don’t have our son, using a new email address, will only pick our son up when he’s at school or not with her), its just very stressful and I don’t think it will ever get better. My MAIN concern is if my son will come out of this ok and if he will still me my loving and sweet little boy who adores his Daddy. Lately I can’t call to talk to him because it never ends well. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to him, but having to deal with her is just too much right now. We’ve only been divorced for 6 months, so maybe I’m just freaking out for nothing. If anyone here has any helpful advice or insight, it sure is welcome. Thanks


  5. Could he be tracking her moverments on that phone he has given her ?
    Switch the location of take to the phone shop or get ride of it.

  6. I am going through the same thing.I have three children with my ex.He has not seen them for almost thirteen years..yes thirteen years.He was married to someone else,had a new daughter and simply was not interested.I would email him with how kids are doing,their pictures..The last time I contacted him was when I sen a picture of our daughter and his response was quote” They are your kids, I have my own” with attachement of his new daughter picture.
    About a year ago he wanted to get to know the children and stupid me said..ok.His wife you see divorced him and stated a new family..so he needed a purpose in life(his words).

    Well, it did not go well.We have two sons( one will be 18 in few weeks, one will be 17 and our daughter will be 16 in three months).From the start he was interested only in our daughter..not the boys. His explanation..I don’t know how to deal with sons.
    His interest with our daughter became obsession..he would stalk her( she would go many times somewhere with her friends and he would simply show up)..still have no idea how he would know where she went.He bought her a phone,however if she did not hug him or tell him she loves him..he would have the phone turned of.He would offer her money to go to places with him..when she refused he would call her b..word,c.. word..call her ugly and that her half sister is way prettier..and so on.Our daughter once a very happy girl..A student became withdrawn..her grades went down.I have to mention also..he would constantly mention if he “goes down” if she will not talk to him..he will quit his job..so no child support..and he would say this to the children.
    Our son..who will turn 18 soon has sent him a letter about how he feels about him,for him to get out of our lives..that he had enough of his abuse towards me..and his brother and sister.(Did I mention he would call me in front of the children and ugly..old hag..and how he hopes I just die. He has also hit the ’18” year old..all reported at school.

    This man now wants custody of his daughter. Claiming I have not allowed him to be her parent..she wants nothing to do with him because of me..he makes good money so can take better care of her..and so on.
    As I am typing this I have received another text from him( number 38 from yesterday)..asking if our girl and this time her 17 year old brother can go to movies with him.Same thing as yesterday..when I asked them..response was no..somehow he does not want to hear it.He also stated he will pay me if I convince them..and he will pay them if they go.This is madness..We moved..my daughter’s friends still live where we live.Well, one of her friends called her to tell her he was seen at the place. So now ,she refuses to leave the house..this is her summer time.

  7. I am so glad I found this site. I’m headed back to court for the THIRD time in 8 years. My ex abused lies and lies and lies to the courts. 5 years ago he filed for custody because I had breast cancer. He lost after I spent thousands, and we won a contempt on child support for $18000. Now we’re going back. He’s accusing ME of parent alienation,SERIOUSLY. OH,and I am fighting Bone Mets, my cancer bus back. He manipulates my daughters. Verbally abused them,threatens to call cops,refuses to brake them doctors, we won’t hear or see him for months,then makes them miss games or events. My oldest daughter was being recruited for volleyball, she’s had to quit her select team because now I’m paying thousands to my lawyer again. He knows I’m sick, he knows I have chemo weekly, but doesn’t care. He put in his papers he filed, “upon the death of”, then sent these papers to my 16 year old. She called me frantic, “Daddy wants you to die”. I’m so tired of the abuse. I’m hoping I can get supervised visitation. He’s put me in contempt with bogus dates that I haven’t made my 16 year old and 13 year old “accessible”. Complete bs why is it parents can just lie to the courts and we,the good parents, have to defend ourselves like we’re felons? I’ve always encouraged our daughters to love him and see him even though he’s never shown up for events,not sent Christmas gifts,birthday gifts or cards, never called them in 4 years or emailed or texted them. My oldest daughter wants to emancipate herself from him and change her name. He’s costing her athletic scholarships. My youngest daughter has wanted to see him when her big sister couldn’t, and he DENIES HER access to him. I’m at my wits end. I truly think he wants me dead. His wife deffamates my character on social media, calling me a child abuser. The other night a woman called my work saying my kids would be in danger of I didn’t get home immediately because he’s trying to serve me with papers. I can’t file charges because I can’t prove it was his wife. I don’t now what else to do. My daughters old counselor told me once if HE lived here she’d report them to cps because they abused my daughters. My daughters haven’t seen her in a couple years because I couldn’t afford the copay….no child support. Maybe I should contact her? God I need help.

    1. I’m a little confused, but I think the woman you’re considering contacting is a therapist. If that’s correct, it’s a good idea to contact her. If you cannot afford the copay, just contact her and ask where you can get help for you and your children. I doubt that she will see you out of the goodness of her heart (she has to eat, too), but she will hopefully point you in the right direction.

      And when you wrote, “God, I need help,” I see that you must ask for help. Ask God to help. Ask people to help. You need a support network outside of therapy. Try domestic violence group meetings. You’ll find understanding people there, and your experience can foretell the future to other victims of abuse. You can save some while the others save you.

  8. Worried Mom,
    This is a wonderful article, but still so difficult to separate yourself without feeling that guilt. I know my ex is verbally, emotionally abusing the kids. They have openly told me this much. I am concerned there may have even been some physical abuse, but he has told them not to tell me. So by the time I do find out, there are no marks to document. I don’t know what I should do. I have an idea, but not quite sure what’s the best route to take. I don’t want to aggravate him then make it worse for my kids.. I am going to get them into therapy, as I will soon be able to have them more time then he does. Thank God for that!! I feel awful and confused, he lies a bunch, obviously, he is also very good at hiding and making others think he is a “Good Guy” . Luckily my kids do still tell me stuff and I have been trying to talk to them about how to be safe too.. Thanks for the read. If there is any advice, or site you can offer for further help, it will be Greatly appreciated. Thank You so much

  9. Hi all, my partner had to take his ex to court over access and now has her every weekend, and a week of Easter half term. However his ex resents him seeing his daughter even though she knows what it’s like to grow up without a father. The daughters behaviour can be fine for months when arriving home to his but on some occasions she doesn’t want to be with him and says mummy told me not to tell you ” Easter songs, Christmas play etc” in nursery. This has gone on for months on and off and mainly occurs when he has her for a longer length of time other than Friday to Sunday ie: a week. We having growing concerns about the daughters state of mind now as we think the mother is poisoning her against him and his parents (grand parents). She refuses to speak, get out of the car, refusing to eat and drink and throwing herself on the floor and refusing to get up or move. What’s your opinions on this situation? Videos have been taken of how she behaves and what she’s says or doesn’t say.

    1. Discipline the girl if she misbehaves and don’t try to prove you’re “a good parent” by spoiling her. When she says something about your partner that’s inappropriate or a lie, correct her. The best thing you and your partner can do is parent her as if her mother weren’t a jerk.

      In my opinion (and I’m not an attorney, parenting expert, etc.), videotaping her tantrums encourages her. You think it’s negative attention, but it’s not working to discipline her. Keep the videos you have, but don’t bother taking more unless advised to do so by your attorney.

      Go to family therapy – you, your partner and his daughter. Or maybe just him and his daughter, and the therapist can bring you in as necessary. Ask the therapist what would be best.

      Your partner should maintain his own relationship with the school so he knows when special events occur. Talk to the principal and the teachers. Ask if school announcements could be mailed to you (provide self-addressed stamped envelopes if you must). Go to lunch to eat with her once a month. Get involved – separately – from the girl’s mother whenever possible.

      Behind the scenes, look into parental alienation and speak to your attorney. I don’t know what the advice will be.

  10. I often search the topic how to deal with an abusive ex husband. Since our divorce over 14 years ago he has systematically broken us down. Looking back I dont agree that you can just let your children be exposed to any abuse. Its not ok. Why should they have to learn to deal with it on any level. My son now has mental disorders from the abuse and cannot function on his own. No one has managed to help as he presents to the outside world as charming and a caring dad. If I could have that time back I would have fought so so hard to make sure that every single assessment recognised the verbal, emotional and physical abuse. He blamed his behaviour on our acrimony because of the divorce but now that the youngest is 18 her opinions are finally being heard. What is the worst that can happen if you refuse contact? He can have you arrested but you get to show how real the abuse is that you would go to that extent to protect your children. Nothing is more important than minimising the fallout from that abuse when they are adults. It hurts us all to see my son suffering now because of that exact advice that you talk about. Its not ok

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