Mental Health Blogs

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.


Follow Kellie Jo Holly on facebook or twitter, and check out her new book on amazon.com!


This entry was posted in Abuse in Marriage, Abuse in Relationships, Child Abuse, Leaving Abuse, Recognizing Abuse, Safety Planning, Teen Dating and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Co-Parenting With An Abuser

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. Allison Holt says:

    Protecting yourself means protecting your children. When they see this happening, children assume its normal and loose respect. Respect is a viscous circle.

  3. C says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. Generally, I do everything I can to never contact my ex husband unless it is in regards to the children but I have a hard time hanging up the phone when he puts me on the defensive and insults, insinuates and tries to intimidate me. Although I have a hard time with protecting myself, I have no problem with protecting my children but your blog is really helping me to see that I’m not alone in these matters, that I’m not crazy and that, even though my children are young, I need to be doing everything I can to protect their minds and continue to foster good relationships with them so that they have a safe place to go to if/when something bad happens. We are pretty close but educating myself more will allow me to be better for them in the future. Thank you!

  4. Emma says:

    So by ex whom are we speaking of? I read that as though you are saying that the fathe will abuse their own (your) children. How very narrow minded. Obviously this is your circumstance but a bit to general to be advising everybody about.
    Just because YOUR ex abused your children doesn’t mean everybody else’s would. I am quite offended by your article and I imagine a huge amount of other people will be to. I do not condone domestic violence and have been a victim of it myself in the past but I do not think you can generalise such a matter as mother are equally if not more vicious than men after a relationship fails.

  5. Kellie Holly says:

    Um, yes, my ex is male. But who is to say my ex couldn’t be a female? What if my girlfriend and I adopted children together, but I had to leave her because of her abuse? Read through the article again. Do you see any assumption that all abusers are male? How do you know who is equally vicious? You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors any more than I do. I didn’t make any assumption about “who” is vicious. I only spoke about an abusive ex. I can’t help it if my ex is a man. I cannot rewrite my history to be PC.

    Also, this blog is about verbal abuse in relationships. That is its title. I assume my readers know that I am not speaking of “normal” relationships with “normal” divorces. If there was no abuse in the relationship, there will unlikely be abuse after it. If the children were not abused during the relationship, it is unlikely they will be abused after it.

  6. Vivian Holliday says:

    My son is only 23 months old and my (soon to be) ex has yelled at him a few times when he woke up crying for a bottle. One of my biggest fears in leaving my husband is that he will verbally abuse my son during his visitation hours and I will not be there to rescue my baby (I used to take him on long drives until my husband fell asleep and we could sneak back in).
    My husband was beaten and mentally abused by his father, Steve, as a child. When my husband was 10, Steve even made my husband kill their pet dog because it was a bad hunter. I want any nugget of advice I can get to protect my son from the cycle of abuse in my husband’s family. I truly appreciate your post and would be so grateful if you returned to the topic of protecting your kids from your ex’s potential abuse in the future.
    Whoever posted that they were offended by this article should be ashamed because though it may not be applicable in her situation, this advice is definitely pertinent in several readers’ situations, including my own.
    Thanks for posting, Kellie. I’m so glad I found your blog!
    - V

  7. Judy says:

    How can i leave my abuser?
    I feel i can not survive (financially) on my own.
    I don’t make enough money to support myself and my son.

  8. Kerin says:

    Judy,

    I left my abuser 9 years ago. I was a stay at home mother with 3 young children at the time. Get support and help for you first. Alternative for Battered women is a support group i received help from. Search for some in your area. You do not deserve to be abused by anyone. I did not have a job or any money. There is support all over if you do your research. Above all, know that you are not alone. You can get out of your situation. Just get help for yourself first. My children and I are so much better off that I got them out of that situation.

  9. Joy Hamilton says:

    Thank you Kelly! This helped me very much. I researched co-parenting with an abuser. I am very shaken up now and when I was routed to your page I felt unalone. When is it too much? I am really concerned about my 6 year old daughter when she has a weekend with her Dad. He calls me and screams obscenities at me and this is with her present. There is a lot of violence in his home between his wife and him. When is it too much?

  10. Kellie Holly says:

    It is too much when you can prove it to the authorities. Sometimes life just sucks, and this situation is one of those life-sucking ones. You can talk to the counselors at your daughter’s school so they know what happens on the weekends. Be very honest with them about your concerns for your daughter. If the school notices any bruises on her (God forbid) they will have an idea of where to start investigating when they call DSS.

    Talk to your daughter about the violence. Ask her how she feels when dad and step-mom yell at each other. Ask her what she does to stay safe. Let her know that her feelings are important and that you know her father makes her say things that aren’t true. Ask her if daddy makes her feel. Teach her about bullies and bullying without implicating her father. She has to know that this bad behavior can happen outside the home too, and it isn’t okay when it happens there, either. Plus, she’ll begin seeing dad as a bully and using some to the same strategies to detach herself from his abuse.

  11. andrea says:

    This is the best article I have ever come by to help me through by current situation. I am sorry that any individual would accuse this of being offensive. I feel this article was not aimed to offend but to help individuals like me who are struggling with how to cope knowing that your children are being forced by court order to go to another parent who is mistreating them. My children are suffering and I do feel a lot of guilt and extremely helpless knowing that neither the courts or Cps will do anything to stop it. This article helped put into words the best thing I can do with what I have. Thank you

  12. Luke says:

    I’m a man and found this article informative. After dealing with verbal abuse(15yrs) from my x-wife, I can start to comprehend why some men would become so enraged as to cause physical harm to the abuser. When we feel backed into a corner with what seems like no way out or no end to this abuse, the victim starts to quickly fantasize about illegal solutions.
    Interestingly enough, once I STERNLY said NO MORE or else I will call the police and have a harassment restraining order, the abuse quickly stopped. Though for the record, it’s only been 24 hours, I think she finally got the message. And I’m really happy I didn’t do anything that I would regret the rest if my life.

  13. Luke says:

    Thanks For the info Kelly :)
    I will apply what I’ve learned here.

  14. Kate says:

    Thank you for this article. I am trying to do the best I know how, similarly to the advice you have given. It is so difficult and painful as I am beginning to see my ex treat our youngest child in the same way he treated me with verbal/emotional abuse, and no consideration or understanding. What makes it slightly more difficult is that he does not treat the elder two sons in the same way. I think its because he naturally tries to control and manipulate the most vulnerable people.

    I think people who have disagreed or challenged this article are not in the same situation so cannot fully appreciate it. It’s not about the ex being male or female, and it doesn’t apply if your abusive ex is not the same with the children. Because if you are in this situation this information makes you feel understanded, supported and not alone.

  15. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for your words. I have felt completely lost at times. I have an ex-husband who was emotionally manipulative and abusive our entire marriage. But he is cunning–he never treated the children poorly until we separated. He has become determined to degrade me in front of the kids. It has taken every ounce of will power I have to take the high road, and just to say “I’m disappointed to hear that”, instead of telling them who their father REALLY is. I believe in my heart that when children see their other parent treat you this way, they are smart enough to know it is hurtful. And I feel sorry for him–that one day his sons will be so angry at him and resent him. But if so…he did it to himself. Thank you again.

  16. John says:

    I have an abusive ex-wife who, when angry, yells something hurtful into the phone then hangs up. Tonite for example, I let my son go with her for a couple of extra hours after the parent teacher student conference, and she was to drop him off later. When she called about the drop off and I stated It was earlier than we planned, by an hour and a half and that I was at my other sons football game, she yelled that I have now upset my youngest son so much that he didnt want to see me now so she wasn’t bringing him back tonight and she would keep him until tomorrow, then she hung up. This happens regularly.

    Of course I get nervous, leave the football game to cater her needs and go to the drop off site. I missed the rest of the football game and she was late anyway. When I asked my youngest son why he was so upset, he said he had no idea what I was talking about.

  17. John says:

    What’s most interesting, I find, is that from a man’s perspective. (Mine, anyway) although I had my ex arrested for verbal threats about killing my son, and then again when she tried breaking into my home, men have zero chance in hell of ever really winning any ground in the war of abuse by a mother. None. She leveled the playing field and filed false reports of abuse by me with the police, the school, and ruined my reputation at social events. There’s no way to combat this other than trying to live a happy life. But this woman is so manipulative and cunning (masters Degree in Psychology) she will never get caught threatening me or my kids. I have no idea what to do. I have numerous recordings of her manipulation in public and the courts and police say that just because she’s a bitch doesn’t mean we need to get involved. That’s a quote btw. Unless there’s violence, nothing can be done. Nothing. Great legal system!

  18. sheri says:

    I just got back from picking my 3 boys up from their dad’s house and once again, there was another blow up. This article is exactly what is happening to us! Why it continues to surprise and hurt me, I don’t know. He controlled and mentally abused me the whole 15 years we were married but I really didn’t think he would do it to the kids. It was fine when they were younger, they were his little soldiers and everyone was terrified to go against him, but now they are older, 15, 12 and 11 and they have beautiful minds and spirits that just want to be free to learn and experiment. I really believe that he loves them but hates them. He looks at them and sees and hears ME, and for that they must suffer. I feel helpless and scared when I have to send them to visit but I am bound by law. How do you explain to them that they have to be bullied and called worthless because this man shares their blood? How do you explain that they have to show respect for someone who has such little respect for them? And all in the name of a court order. I am so frustrated and fed up with this, I don’t even know where to turn anymore. Social Services is already looking into our case because he hit the 2 little ones with a belt. I have talked to school and I continue to hold my kids and rebuild what he tears down with every visit. As I read what you wrote, I felt like I wasn’t alone, but it also shows me that no one can do anything to help us. I will take from you the good advice and just pray that things change, for us and all of you. Thank you.

  19. MSL says:

    I am so thankful for this article, but like many of the people here am so disheartened for my children. You can’t get protection from verbal abuse. I was shoved to the ground in front of my kids, but because there wasn’t enough physical violence and we mainly suffer just verbal abuse, we can’t get a PFA or any protection. I have to follow our custody agreement and can’t protect my children.
    The safety plan is a great idea and I will implement this right away. In the days where there aren’t house phones and the ex can take a mobile phone from them, they don’t don’t even have a way to contact me for help if they need me.
    Remember to love and hug your kids everyday, we may have to over compensate for the pain they have to endure from the other parent.

  20. mary says:

    I am v annoyed that this site seems to think its OK to send kids where they no there ex is abusive verbally to there kids ..no child of mine wud b goin to my ex if he was abrupt or upset them and also even if it is in a court agreement tell the court u not sending them as they upset and are not going to the ex end off..really put out that patents are allowing kids to go to the ex partners home !

  21. I hear you, Mary. Unfortunately, the courts don’t work like we wish they would.

  22. Ellie says:

    Thank you so very much for this website. It is invaluable. I am sure like many parents on this site I never thought that I would be in a position where I would experience having a child with an abusive partner and then having to cope with them going to visit that person (after separation) knowing that they were at risk of being emotionally/psychologically/verbally abused as I was. I did speak out about it but was not believed by those that had a say in contact arrangements. Thankfully my child eventually stopped the contact themselves. Initially I was scared as to what the consequences would be as well as feeling guilty that my child had to take matters into their own hands. The reasons my child gave were that he was a ‘bully’ and ‘unkind’ and ‘shouts at me a lot.’ Kellie Jo, you said that children will continue to love their other parent despite their behaviour. While I have huge admiration, respect and thanks for the work you do, I actually disagree. My child feels quite differently and has reached this stage without any encouragement whatsoever from me. I believe that many children do eventually see the other parent for who they really are, especially if the role model they have at home (whether that is mum or dad – this isn’t a gender issue) is warm, loving, supportive, caring, empathic and consistent. My thoughts go out to all of you who have not only endured abuse (I was diagnosed with PTSD) but are also dealing with seeing their children in the care of someone who is not fit to be in the lives of vulnerable children. It makes me very angry that this seems to be so widespread and yet agencies and those in positions of power won’t acknowledge or do anything about it.

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