Co-Parenting With An Abuser: How to Help Your Kids, Yourself

March 31, 2013 Kellie Jo Holly

It seems that the courts would have more sense when it comes to co-parenting with any abuser, but especially a proven-in-a-court-of-law abuser found guilty of domestic violence, child abuse, or any sexual crimes. There is a disconnect between criminal court and family court that endangers our children with the mistaken belief that two parents, of any sort, is preferable to protecting our children from dangerous people.

And yet, many of us find ourselves co-parenting with our abusers. We must allow visitations, and doing so causes great stress. Carmen is "unable to breathe" when her daughters leave to visit their father who was convicted of a sex crime and shows evidence of enjoying child pornography. Can you blame her? She does everything she can legally do to prevent her daughters from going to their father's home, yet family court allows and enforces the visitation.

Finding Peace When Co-Parenting With Your Abuser

Carmen, like most of us survivors who left abusive relationships after having children with the abuser, feel re-victimized and helpless after our ex-partner receives the go-ahead to continue abusing by the court. Nevertheless, this violations to humanity and good sense become our reality. Our job, believe it or not, is to make this reality more bearable. Being "unable to breathe" when your spouse has the children does not benefit you or the children. In some ways, by NOT finding some peace within this situation, you are allowing your abuser to continue controlling you, whether they know they're controlling you or not.

coparenting with abuser

Always remember that your children (unless or until they experience abuse) have a much different perspective on their other parent (OP) than you do. In fact, even if OP does sexually or otherwise abuse them, they will always have a different feeling for their OP than you do because OP is their mother/father. I know a 14-year-old, sexually molested by her father for 3 years until she told and he went to jail when she was 12, who contemplates creating a relationship now that he's out of jail. She knows how bad he is, but he is her daddy. She's receiving counseling, but the example illustrates what we're up against so far as protecting our children from their OP. It ain't gonna happen - at least, not completely and not forever.

Talking badly about OP will only aggravate the situation. Your kids may turn on you - especially if OP turns on the charm and wisely chooses to only insult you in agreement with them (are they teens yet? When they are, believe me, they will play you two against one another like a banjo duel!)

SO - what can you do for yourself? For your kids?

Do everything you can legally to protect your children and keep detailed records concerning their time with OP. Remember that the law cannot charge until a crime is committed, and if/when that crime is committed, your detailed records of how much time they spend with their OP, what they do with them, and their comments regarding their visit will be crucial.

Do not insult their OP in their presence. (We'll get into how to talk about OP's behaviors in a minute.) Insulting OP will drive a wedge between you and your kids, no matter what their age. Plus, when the kids high-tail it over to OP's place, OP will get every bit of that damaging information from them (willingly or through coercion). You know OP - OP will use it to build a case against you.

Educate your children about bullying and sexual abuse. Use examples from the news or just have conversations on those topics regularly. The talks don't have to be a big deal - just an offhand comment like "I saw on the news today that a little girl was hurt by her mommy (use the female gender in your examples too!). The little girl stayed quiet about it but she felt so horrible that she killed herself today. Do you know who you can talk to if one of your friends are hurt by their parents?" (I don't know how old your children are, but make the conversation age appropriate).

It is okay for your kids to know that OP hurt you and how. This is your experience, and you have the right to share your experience and wisdom with your children. You can even tell them that you worry about them when they aren't with you, and that is why you prepared a safety plan for ALL of you, just in case something bad happens.

Create an age-appropriate safety plan with or for your children. Provide them with any tools they need to enact their safety plan (cell phone for emergencies only? contact numbers for you and family near where their OP lives?...) Write a phone list on a piece of paper and put it in their bag. Let them know where it's placed (hidden) without any fanfare. You know how kids are - if you make a big deal of the phone list, they'll be sure to mention it to OP.

You can also program the numbers into their emergency or personal cell phones, but make sure they have a hard copy, too. The phone list should include phone numbers for OP's family members too, just in case OP finds it. Remember, this safety plan should appear to be as neutral as possible and designed to cover any generally scary situation - not specific to their OP.

With your conversations about abuse of all kinds and through sharing your experience and what you know about their OP, your kids will understand, in the back of their minds, that they have to watch out for OP, too. This is unsettling enough for your children. Knowing that you can't really trust someone who says they love you is difficult, to say the least. As a prior victim of abuse, I am sure you understand the conflict that knowledge creates.

As time goes on, you will feel more comfortable when they leave to see OP. You will know they are educated about abuse, and that they have a good plan in place to help them if they get scared. On your side of things, you will know you're doing everything possible to cover yourself legally - whether OP accuses you of trying to turn them against him (parental alienation) or you discover that OP did abuse your children.

To gain the clearest picture of what happens at OP's home, you must detach from the possibility of what could happen and focus on the facts, the ones you can gather through what your kids tell you and what you see for yourself during drop-offs/pick-ups. Your imagination, worry and fear have no place in the protection of your children - you must learn to detach from OP and the possibilities if you want to gather the facts.

Send them to their OP's prepared, and welcome them home with love. While they're gone, learn some relaxation and visualization techniques to help you through the rough spots and begin to create a life for yourself, too.

To sum it up:

1.) Keep Detailed Records
2.) No OP insults in their presence.
3.) Educate about and discuss with them bullying, sexual abuse, and your experience with their OP (age-appropriately)
4.) Create a safety plan that is easy for them to remember.
5.) TRUST that your children are armed with the best, most loving information possible.
6.) Detach from the abuser by learning to observe them objectively instead of with your heart.
6.) Learn to live your own life in their absence.

If you try this plan, I truly believe you will find some peace. You've spent your whole life protecting your kids from their OP - you did it even before you realized OP was an abuser because there were signs that something was wrong. I know in my heart that you've dedicated your every waking moment to them.

However,...your reality is different now. They spend time away from you with the person you fear. This would naturally cause anyone to "be unable to breathe" when the children leave. But your reaction, although understandable and genuine, must change if you are to be the clear-headed and intuitive person who parents their children with great love. You must learn to let go, just a little, and make room for you in this life of yours. It will feel strange to ask yourself, "What do I want to do today?" with excitement instead of reacting to everything going on with your children and their OP with fear. But in time, the guilt will disappear, you will find better ways to spend your time away from them, and you will become better able to handle the stress of co-parenting with an abuser.


This article by attorney Ashley Buckman Schepens is helpful from paragraph four down.

This one by Deesha Philyaw is also a good one with lots of resource links.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2013, March 31). Co-Parenting With An Abuser: How to Help Your Kids, Yourself, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 21 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

April, 5 2013 at 8:13 am

Definitely not easy to co-parent. He distroyed everything when I left, including my house and I was had no choice but to leave my children with him while I was homeless. This was his way to control the situation with the children. Things were to bad to stay in the state and had better opportunity in a different state. Because my children were born in california my ex was granted physical custody of them and I can't take them to Arizona with me. Stuck in a circle of YOU MUST and YOU DONT with him. Though the joy is he can't deny me my children , he has to let them talk to me at least 4 times a week and when I go out there he has to left me take the children. It amazes me that the courts couldnt see that this man was in jail for domestic violence. the judge even dismissed his domestic violence classes. so what did he learn from beating me up? Nothing that he only could spend 13 days in jail and get whatever he wants. the courts need to change!! Though the joy of being in another state is he has no idea what Im doing, he cant drive up and down my street and if he is rude to me on the phone, I can just hang up on him. I had people who go over and check on my kids and its been 2 years and they havn't been touched once by him. I know he has stopped drinking but he is still the same person. The courts are stupied. what is it going to take for them to take custody away? One of my children being hurt by him? The courts are not justice for the victims.

cindy dill
May, 23 2013 at 4:03 pm

Thank you so much for this article. I am in the midst of the custody and divorce proceedings from a pathological liar and psychological abuser. He has convinced the court that although I was a great full-time mother to our child for over 8 years since the time of her birth, he is the best person to raise her. He had her taken from me because I taught her how to release her anger and tension by hitting and kicking a pillow. Our daughter's lawyer only heard it as that I kick and hit. I am already seeing her respond to his insidious abuse the same way I did, and she lives in fear of him. The court says if I'm a "good girl" and move back into the same small county, and give up my job, then I can have more involvement in my child's life. She pleads with me to fight for her. I'm torn between being able to move forward with my own life that I've been able to establish in a different part of the state and protecting her. I'm trying to give her the tools to overcoming the fear and manipulation just as fast as I am learning them. Since there is no physical violence - there is no crime. The court appointed lawyer has stated that I am not allowed to ask anything about her time with the OP - so how do I document what happens there? I keep my ears open when I get to spend time with her to listen to what she wants to tell me - but its very hard to just listen when your little one is begging for help. Your article will be posted on my mirror to remind me to stay strong and keep documenting in the hopes that someday - before she too emotionally scarred, someone will hear her pleas who can actually effect change in her life.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 25 2019 at 7:10 pm

Omg I was crying reading your reply. I’m in the same situation although my daughter has been lied to from the time she was 4 years old when I first broke up with him and my new partner (no longer) and I decided to move states for better job options. My daughters father threatened me at the time that if I took her interstate he would charge me with kidnapping my own child (which can actually be done here) so it broke my heart but at this point I believed he loved her and only had her best intests in mind so I left crying my eyes out. My daughter now 11, I found out reciently was told right back then that mum moved and didn’t want to take her. Anyways I ended up getting back with him (for my daughter) got her back into my custody (nothing legal just agreement between the two of us, as I still wanted to see the best in him. BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE). After a few years with him my daughter aged 8 said to me that I should leave him coz she saw how he treated me. I start another relationship with one of my best friends of around 5 years and after The three of us living happily (a few hiccups) for around 18 months one day I get a phone call from my ex asking if he can pick my daughter up from school and take her shopping for clothes. I had no idea completely blindsided but finding out a few days after he wasn’t going to bring her home. I was working full time and by the time I could pick her up from school she was gone. I got constant excused in those first few days, she’s asleep so I can bring her home, she forgot something at my house etc etc,).
I am now living interstate again (so that he can’t control what I do or us my daughter as a pawn in his own twisted reality again me. To keep seeing my heart ripped out every time he didn’t show up for my times with her. I am now in a custody battle of my own although he’s making things easier for me everyday. Doing stupid things and I have records of all communication with him and her for that matter.
It’s unsettlibg although at the same time comforting to know I’m not the only mother being treated like this and for some reason the family law seems to protect the one who is messing my daughter up emotionally mentally and screwing with her education as well. Thank fully not physically but in every other way. I hate to think what it’s doing to her I just hope one day (when she’s a bit older probably) she will see him for who he really is and what he’s done. And hopefully realises in time that I’m not to blame and I only ever fought for her and want the best for her. Even if the courts can’t see how leaving her in his care is damaging her and in completely unexceptionable for anyone to deal with let alone a child!

suzanne Lagasse
November, 1 2013 at 7:36 am

thank you for this article. I am in an abusive co-parent relationship, with a cop, a master of bullying, master of abuse. I have just come to this realization and knowledge is power.

September, 20 2014 at 9:01 am

I have seen both sides of this fence from the child's side as well as a parents and this truly does work because the abusive parent can't help but continually put down the parent that is the survivor.

September, 29 2014 at 7:35 pm

It is a long slow road to retrieving your life when the foundations have been built on that which does not exist.
The struggle to not speak after staying silent for so long is tough, but I agree, abusers are creatures of habit. The only strength we have as survivors is to offer support for our children, listen to them & guide them through with compassion.
Lead by example is advice that has worked for me. Let your children know how to trust their gut.

Paula Smith
November, 20 2014 at 6:45 am

Are their any groups/organizations that are working to change family law? How can we bring more public attention to this problem and really help children? Children need protection, otherwise we will continue to create more abusers.

Julie Boyd Cole
December, 13 2015 at 6:19 am

Thank you publishing this. I have been co-parenting with my violent abuser for 10 years. I began writing about this from a victim point of view in 2010 and wrote a small book about my experience "How to Co-Parent with an Abusive Ex and Keep Your Sanity" on Amazon. I started an online support group and researched with surveys. All and all, no one who abused their spouse should be co-parenting.
[Note: I had to take out the link, but left the info so people could find the book. Perhaps you could write a guest post for - you could include the link in your biography at the end of the article. Visit… ]

Julie Boyd Cole
March, 6 2016 at 12:25 am

I have been co-parenting with my abuser for 10 years (were together for 15 years). Five years into divorce, he unsuccessfully sued me for custody. It was horrible. He didn't win any additional time, but he did win power and parenting rights. Thus began co-parenting on a daily basis with my abuser. During the first years of divorce, he saw kids, just as much, but after suit and law change in my state, he got rights in daily parenting. That opened up all sorts of opportunity for abuse. Now my children are older and the coparenting is winding down. So glad to be done with court-ordered anything when it comes to parenting and family relationships. Family court needs reform. But, I didn't loose my mind. My children are healing from the experience. And I wrote a "How-to" book about co-parenting with an abusive ex. On amazon:…

August, 16 2017 at 7:17 pm

Wow. I thought I was alone. I have been living the same general nightmare as all of you. Only the details are different. We must do something to change Family Law in this country before more children are trapped in the abusive, crazy, unloving homes of sociopathic co-parents. There is no justice for these children, and the courts do not see the reality of what is actually going on. I, too, will some day write a book, but that won't be sufficient to change Famy Law. What can we do?

November, 26 2018 at 3:20 pm

The most realistic, beneficial and so needed to be known by parents who co-parent with with a parent such as this. I'm so thankful for this article because co-parenting with this kind of person can be an absolute horror whom going through any legal matters will be like any worst nightmare you could ever have but only it's reality. You will be made out by them to be everything they are and doing everything they do and they possess a believable strategy with nothing but their words. Your child will constantly be sent back to the abuser and you will honestly believe that the courts is helping your child be abused. What I know is you should never run away with your child for safety, (That would only give them soul custody, you in jail and surely no way to help them) never give up on them, keep your faith, be strong because this one is your battle to fight even after you've done all you could do, you just keep hanging in there and show up to every court appointment even if they don't allow you to show all the evidence you have or even listen to your voice. God will take over after you've done your part and no matter how long it takes, Gods time his always the right time. He is with you always. Their will be an aftermath and your child left with scars but surely your love will allow you to continue on caring for them and getting the care for them may most likely will need. I'm so thankful for your article about this because it's nice to find someone such as you who knows the reality of such a situation and faces it for what it is and use your professionalism to help others. Thank you!

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