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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. 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!

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

    1. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

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