How to Co-Parent With a Toxic Ex: Expert Advice

How to Co-Parent With a Toxic Ex: Expert Advice

Relationships are difficult. Parenthood is difficult. This is everything so hard – even when everything is going well and you are going through everyday life together. Now imagine that you and your partner are no longer together, that they are a jerk (or maybe even abusive) and that you still have to co-parent together. Although there may still be some animosity, you have created these beautiful beings together, so you must find a way to work together not only for the benefit of the children, but also for your own. Learning to co-parent with a toxic ex won’t be easy, but if you can get through it, it will be worth it.

Be present for your children

Being in a bad place with your ex can feel all-consuming, especially when you’re dealing with your own emotions about the bad blood between the two of you. However, you will need to put all of these emotions aside to be successful in co-parenting and to ensure that your children (especially younger ones) know they can come to you and not, for example, to an older sibling. ). “The protection of children is sometimes unfortunately left to the older brother who protects the younger ones by listening to their fears, comforting them and being available for bad dreams”, Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst, says Romper. “However, it robs this child of a childhood that he could later pay for with potential depression and anxiety.” Be sure to check in with your kids to see how they’re handling it, and make sure an older child isn’t inadvertently left to deal with these adult issues.

Take your part in the problem

It’s very easy to point fingers at your toxic ex and pretend it’s all their fault. And of course it could be. But think about how you interacted with your ex to see if you played a role in your current relationship situation. “Of course, couples will claim that one or the other is the toxic parent. This very attitude of blaming and not thinking is harmful, triggering high anxiety in children and, as mentioned, conflicting loyalties. Hollman says, “If a parent clearly sees their own human flaws and vulnerabilities, they are more likely to be able to put their children’s needs ahead of their own.” This can be done in therapy, but also simply by listening to your children. , who are front row seats to the show. They may have their own opinions and ideas about what happened, and you should listen to them without interrupting them or feeling the need to be defensive.

Try consulting together

Of course, you might not even want to be in the same breathing space as your ex, but again, it’s all about putting the kids first. Even if you’re already in therapy, see if you can get counseling together, Dr. Scott Terry, Ed.D., Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Director of Ardent Counseling Center explains to Romper. “Our best advice to people who have to co-parent with someone who is a toxic ex is to try to encourage them to seek co-parenting advice from you,” he says. “Co-parenting counseling is designed to help you find better ways to communicate and establish rules for the development of your joint children.” Ideally, all family members should be involved, but if that’s not possible, a group meeting should be held to get everyone on the same page.

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Stay calm

When your ex sends you a text strictly meant to taunt you, all you might want to do is text back in rage, amirite? But you know this is going down a texting rabbit hole that will never end well. Instead, take a deep breath (or five) and try to calm yourself down. “If your ex isn’t making it easy for you, the key is to stay calm,” advises Terry. “Use stress management tools like meditation and other techniques that a counselor can teach you, so it doesn’t affect you as much.” After all, if your ex-partner thinks he managed to piss you off, he’ll feel like he “won,” and really, that’s the last thing you want. Getting disheveled will only serve to make your ex feel like he’s “won.”

Offer an ear

No matter what your ex thinks of a certain situation, you will always have to acknowledge it in one way or another. After all, everyone wants to be heard and have their feelings validated, even a toxic ex. “You recognize whatever ‘reality’ is in their head,” Terry said. “Give them enough validation to let them know you hear them, but that doesn’t mean you agree with them.” It shows that you’re listening to what they’re feeling and not dismissing their right to an opinion.

Turn up a performance – for now

There may be some acrimonious feelings between you and your ex now, but that doesn’t mean your kids should be part of the tussle. “It’s not easy to do the right thing when someone has hurt you so badly; it’s so hard to step outside of yourself and act in the best interests of the children,” co-parenting coach and family law attorney, Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, JD, MBA, founder and managing partner of the law firm Cronin tells Romper. “Co-parenting requires nothing less than an Oscar-worthy performance – it’s a fake situation until you make it.” Although these feelings may seem fake and forced, your child probably loves their parent, and your child could become anxious or depressed if both parents aren’t paying attention and trying to work together.

Help create a connection

Just because you can’t stand communicating with your ex doesn’t mean your child feels the same way. And trying to get your child to “take sides” can end up backfiring on you, which is why you need to keep the lines of communication open between your child and your ex-partner. “Do not deny them communication, because it is important that children grow up having the love and attention of both parents”, Joseph Moore, a psychologist and a certified relationship coach. “Hindering their communication with your ex could make them unhappy.” Sure, you can set some ground rules (like making sure no one makes fun of the other), but overall your child should be allowed to connect with their other parent if they want and when he wants.

Give lots of love to your children

A separation or divorce is never easy for children, and they will need lots of love and reassurance to help them through the transition. “Let your kids know you love them and are ready to support them no matter what,” Moore adds. “With such confidence, children would feel confident and open to sharing their challenges with you.”

Take care of yourself

“Co-parenting with an abusive ex can be mentally and emotionally draining,” Kasey King, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Even after the breakup, you may find yourself triggered by seeing or even hearing your child talk about their parent, etc.” To help you navigate these tricky waters, King suggests putting yourself first. “Place yourself (and possibly your child) in therapy, to work on your own mental healing and the emotions that may arise from co-parenting,” she suggests. “Abuse in any form takes time to recover, so give yourself grace.”

Set limits

Just because you have to co-parent an ex doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be rules in place. In fact, for your co-parenting to be successful, you will need to have guidelines set so that everyone knows what is expected of them. “Create boundaries that will protect you from even greater and future harm,” suggests King. “It could look like a friend or family member facilitating the exchange, discussing drop-off and pick-up locations that aren’t close to your home, boundaries around phone calls, etc.”

father with his arm around his son, how to co-parent with a toxic ex
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Advice from parents who have been there

“My ex is extremely toxic. He will purposely send me texts that are only supposed to be upsetting. I’ve learned not to react right away. I’ll actually set a timer on my phone for at least 15 minutes to have time to breathe, calm down, and then send a response that isn’t angry.

“I keep communication to a bare minimum between us. I’m not stopping him from talking to our daughter, but unless it’s urgent or something about the schedule, I don’t talk to him at all.

“It sounds terrible to say, but I always have someone with me in case my partner breaks up. Having a ‘witness’ means they will act appropriately in front of our children, even if it’s so sad that I have to do this.”

“We have set times to communicate. Like, every day at 7 p.m., he calls me when I have the kids and then when he has them, I call then. Otherwise, we don’t talk to each other… and I like it that way.

“We trade abroad. He wouldn’t dare do anything in public.

“I put myself and my kids in therapy because my ex likes to put me down to the kids. It was starting to affect them and they needed to learn that his behavior was toxic.

“I learned to lose all expectation that they were a decent human being. Because when I had any hope that they would be adults after the divorce, they let me down again and again.

Learning to co-parent with a toxic ex can be exhausting and depressing, but it’s something you will unfortunately have to learn to deal with. Hopefully, over time, your ex will be able to change his ways and become more willing to make everyone’s life (especially yours and the children’s) life easier. Until then, take care of yourself and others and know that even if it sucks now, it will get better eventually.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit

Sources interviewed:

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst

Dr. Scott Terry, Ed.D., Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Director of Ardent Counseling Center

Sabrina Shaheen CroninJD, MBA, Founder and Managing Partner of The Cronin Law

Joseph Moorecertified psychologist and relationship coach

Kasey KingLMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist