Taking care of your children after separating from your partner is always going to be a challenge, but it can be so much harder if you’re dealing with a toxic ex. Raising children after a divorce or separation can usually go one of two ways – an amicable split in which both parents remain civil to each other or a bitter separation which sees one parent display toxic behavior towards their ex partner and sometimes even the children.

So what is the secret to successfully co-parenting with a toxic ex wife or husband? When it comes to dealing with a poisonous ex, the most important thing to keep in mind is the welfare of your children, and this should play into the main form of communication you have with your ex partner too. It may be tempting to engage in retaliation, but making your kids your main priority will help you survive the co-parenting war.

Children need the support of both parents to give them a stable, loving environment as they develop. If you are concerned that your ex is too volatile to be around your kids, don’t hesitate to get help to start resolving this issue. In many cases though, it is possible to maintain a civil relationship with a toxic ex, as long as the children come first.

Taking the High Road

In the aftermath of a divorce, a toxic ex partner will only respond with conflict and will often go to great lengths to set mental traps for you. These ‘traps’ involve things like trash-talking you in the hope you’ll trash talk back and look bad in front of your family. They may also manipulate your kids to take sides, since their ultimate goal is to become the ‘favorite’ parent and cast your name in the mud.

As painful as this behavior can be to endure, don’t fall into that trap and give them the power of you. Staying neutral in the face of your ex’s desperate attempts to enrage you will quickly highlight how pathetic they are behaving. Responding to their threats and trash talk may make you feel better in the short term, but by engaging in an endless fight with your ex you will only double the hurt and conflict that already surrounds your children.

Ongoing conflict is not at all healthy for a child’s development – especially very young children – as they will grow up believing that this level of conflict is normal in relationships. The toxic ex partner will be blind to the hurt they are causing to the kids, as long as they are hurting you. It must, therefore, be up to you as the bigger person to break this pattern of the ‘Mom vs. Dad’ mentality. Where to start? By focusing on your two main priorities – your kids and your own self-care.

Remembering Your Priorities

Whilst your ex is busy poisoning your children against you and using them as bargaining chips to get what he or she wants, taking care of your kids as you always have is the best thing you can do. Divorcee and mother of three over at the blog ‘Live by Surprise’ recommends that acting with dignity in the face of your bullying ex spouse is the best way to stay focused on your kids: “Act with integrity and trust that your children will see your actions and emulate those.”

If your children cannot depend on two good parental figures in the aftermath of your divorce, let them have one great parent to rely on – and that parent can be you. To make sure you can be the best caregiver for your kids, you must also never forget to take care of yourself too. If you create enough ‘me time’ to remain happy and healthy, you will become a stronger guardian for your kids and your happiness will be reflected in them.

In making your children’s happiness and care your priority, you should also surround them with other adult trust figures on a more regular basis, such as grandparents, aunties, uncles and close, trusted friends. These family members are not intended to replace the absent parent in their lives, but by surrounding your children with people who love and care for them, it will aid their development and help them to feel stable during this difficult period as they adjust to a post-divorce world.

Steps for Successful Co-Parenting

So how should you move forward in your new role as co-parent and take the above advice into practice? We’d recommend further reading for detailed steps on how to make a success of co-parenting with your toxic ex. In the meantime, though, we’ve outlined some helpful strategies to help you kick-start your new parenting plan and tips on how to deal with your toxic ex in the process...

Have regular therapy sessions

If and when your ex is ready to talk things through, they need to be made aware that their behavior is causing harm to your children and needs to stop. But they will not take this criticism well from you, since - from their perspective - you are coming from a position of bias, anger and hurt. Instead, your ex will need to hear these words in a constructive and calming environment – by a professional family therapist.

Seeing a family therapist on a regular basis can be very beneficial in the early stages of co-parenting after divorce. Even if you think you have a handle on things and are managing well together, regular therapy sessions with a professional will help keep your new arrangement strong and in check. Think of it like servicing your car – it needs regular check ups to make sure every gear is working properly. If you believe your ex is too unhinged or abusive to respond to therapy, ‘parallel parenting’ can be more helpful in extreme situations (see below for more on parallel parenting).

Create a Google calendar together

A great source of conflict between ex partners is when plans change unexpectedly, and when children are in the mix, this can and will happen frequently. Simple scenarios such as picking the kids up from school or taking them out for dinner when it’s mom or dad’s ‘turn’ with the kids can quickly turn into a heated and nasty debate which ends in criticizing the other parent. To prevent a sudden change of plan from becoming an issue between the two of you, you could consider setting up a Google calendar doc together.

Creating a Google calendar can be a great solution for divorced parents when plans change unexpectedly. The fact that both of you will be able to see and edit your schedule with the kids and have access to this document at any time may help in rebuilding some form of trust between you – which in turn can be a great step towards communicating civilly with each other.

Google calendars also let you set up email alerts so you can make sure that you are both easily notified of any changes made on the calendar. So next time your kid has a school field trip or when your ex has vacation plans and can’t take care of the kids that week – put it on the calendar well in advance.

Don’t share personal info with your ex

Your children should feel free to share as much of their personal lives with their parents as they wish to, but this doesn’t have to apply to you! To return to the point we made earlier – the healthiest way of communicating with your toxic ex is if you keep things related solely to your children!

At the end of the day, you are no longer married to your ex and any detail about your personal life is of no business of theirs. Toxic people feed off conflict and any nugget of personal info they can get from you may be taken and used against you in some way – specifically in trying to poison your kids against you or badmouth your character. To keep this to a minimum, keep your private life private wherever you can, e.g. changing privacy settings on your social media, emails etc.

Accept that you can’t change your ex

No matter how much we wish we could wave a magic wand and transform our ex’s personality, it is not going to happen – if it did, we would still be married to them! It is therefore much healthier to accept what you cannot change about your ex partner and move on to what you can change for the better. What you can change and improve upon is how much love and attention you show your kids and nurture their growth.

In a strange way, divorce is similar to the grieving process and whether you initiated the divorce or not, the loss of a relationship is always going to be hard to adjust to. The fifth and final stage of grief is usually acceptance, and once you are able to do this with who your partner has become, this can be the start of a healthier life for you and your kids. Instead of trying to change your ex (which only wastes your energy), focus on what triggers their worst and most toxic behaviors and change how you react to this.

Respect your child’s relationship with them

The hardest, but most important thing you can do in your co-parenting mission is to respect the relationship and bond your children share with your ex. No matter how toxic you may view them to be, they will always be the other parent to your kids, and when this makes them happy, you should encourage – and not be jealous – of this happiness.

In respecting the bond they share with your ex partner, you should also keep your ex in mind when it comes to any decisions you make for your child, and this goes for the decisions they may want to make about your children too. Giving each other space to air opinions and suggestions shows that you value the other person as their parent and are open to their input, rather than shutting them out.

Parallel Parenting vs Co-Parenting

The term ‘co’ in ‘co-parenting’ assumes both parents are willing to work cooperatively together to raise their children, but in the case of a particularly volatile and vicious ex partner, co-parenting may not be a realistic option. There is, however, a better approach for people with extreme toxic exes – a strategy known as ‘parallel parenting’.

The term parallel parenting was coined by social scientist and professor Frank F. Furstenberg and describes circumstances that reduce conflict by having virtually no contact with the ex partner. If this sounds too extreme for you and your toxic ex, ask yourself this – in your recent interactions with your ex (e.g. collecting kids from school, speaking on the phone etc.) have you been able to communicate with them in a respectful, dignified way? If this is a resounding no, you have no option but to try parallel parenting.

Here are the 3 main rules of parallel parenting:

1. Communication must be business-like – it may sound cold, but for the best chance of reducing conflict and competition, both parents must see their association with each other as purely business-like and not personal. This means that all communication ONLY relates to the kids and should be structured in a simple, non-invasive way e.g. “I’m picking up the kids at 3pm today, is that correct/can you confirm?”

2. Children are NEVER used as ‘messengers’ - Your children must not be used to communicate messages back and forth to your ex. Coping with your divorce or separation is going to be hard enough on your kids without also involving them in your exes mind games and petty insults. Your job is to make their childhood as enjoyable as possible, so let them be kids and never impose your divorce ‘tactics’ on to them.

3. Schedules are only shared in writing- Instead of communicating by phone or in person to make arrangements for your kids, everything must be done in writing to give each other a safe distance. This means text, email, handwritten letters or Google calendars as we mentioned earlier. This gives each other healthy boundaries and allows each person to fulfill their parenting duties from afar. So even if your ex can’t take your kid to the doctors, they can contribute by booking the appointment and adding it to your written schedule while you are busy.

Parallel parenting is something that even a toxic, conflicting ex partner should be able to get on board with, as it takes the personal element out and focuses solely on your kid’s well-being.

Parallel parenting is also not intended to be a permanent solution. The hope is that by committing to this way of parenting and reducing the tension between you and your ex, you can both try to return to traditional co-parenting once the dust settles and your toxic ex has learned to put the kid’s happiness first and become a better role model for your children.

Related Questions

How should I deal with an abusive ex? An important step in dealing with an abusive ex is to immediately set up a support system in the form of family and professional help. Secondly, communicating with your ex through a third party can help – let your ex know that if he/she wants to contact you, they can do so via a friend or family member, so that only important info – and not harassment – is shared with you.

Is my partner gaslighting me? The signs of gaslighting can be subtle at first, so here are a few quick ways to tell if your partner is guilty of this:

  • They repeatedly deny things you know to be true
  • Use manipulative language: “If you really loved me, you would...”    
  • They always need to ‘win’ arguments and hate being wrong     
  • They project their guilt onto you i.e. accuse you of cheating because they are being unfaithful themselves

What are my rights as a father concerning child custody? Mothers are often favored to take care of the children after divorce, but courts are simply trying to decide who the primary caregiver is. If, as the father, you are mainly responsible for meeting your children’s needs i.e. feeding, bathing, making medical appointments etc, this makes you the primary caregiver and the courts will decide how child custody is arranged based on your past history with these responsibilities.