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Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex: A Psychologist's Guide to Navigating the Challenge

Key Skills and Knowledge for Successfully Co-Parenting with an Abusive Ex-Partner

When a divorce involves a toxic or abusive ex-partner, co-parenting can be one of the most challenging aspects of moving on. I’ve heard many men and women talk about the challenge as one that is emotional and can feel like the children are being used to cause issues and/or the emotions of the relationship are hard to escape due the need to keep in contact with the person you are trying to get away from!

I’ve seen that learning how to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship with your toxic ex is essential for the well-being of children and yourself! If you need spotting which behaviours might be abusive, through co-parenting, start with our article 'Red Flags: How to Recognise a Toxic Co-Parenting Relationship'.

In this article, we’ll explore key skills and knowledge for successfully co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-partner while also addressing the needs of the victim parent (you):

  1. Recognise the Signs of a Toxic Ex-Partner: Before embarking on co-parenting (or as soon you become aware of the need), it’s important to recognise the signs of a toxic ex-partner. These may include controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, denial, blame-shifting, intimidation, isolation, and parental alienation. Understanding the dynamics of your past relationship and the patterns of communication can help you prepare for co-parenting. Toxic and abusive exes do not stop their behaviours once you leave, it can change in that it can be around children – but often, children become the gateway to old ways of manipulating and causing distress. For many, this means avoiding contact as much as possible and establishing boundaries (more on this below). We often cannot expect to be masters of managing a toxic ex simply because we left a relationship – mastering the situation is the new skill to learn…

  2. Practice Parallel Parenting: When co-parenting with a toxic ex-partner, parallel parenting may be the best approach. This means establishing new boundaries and communicating only through email or a parenting portal. This is more of a prescription than a suggestion, space needs to be created between you and your ex – where you are protected from abusive behaviours and create channels that only allow communication about children to be possible. By creating a set of rules for yourself and not engaging in your ex-partner's attempts at manipulation, you can minimise conflict and try to ensure that your children's needs are met. Develop boundaries that include no contact with your ex as often as possible and be careful to avoid feeling guilty for decisions that are in the child's best interest. This last point being critical – guilt is a big risk for victims of abuse in relationships and toxic/abusive exes are often very able to stimulate guilt in us if we are not careful to avoid their approaches. If guilt is felt, talk to a supporter to help you realise that you are acting for your children and so no guilt is needed.

  3. Obtain a Court Order: If you don't already have a court order in place, it's essential to obtain one. This ensures that both parties understand the terms of co-parenting and that there is a legal framework for resolving disputes. Working with a solicitor or legal support service to draft a parenting plan that is in the best interests of your children can be helpful. Avoid any guilt for distress projected from your ex about taking this approach and use support systems to keep boundaries in place when times are hard. Court orders take the argument out of the situation – it becomes a plan that is legally binding.

  4. Prepare for Noncompliance: Unfortunately, a toxic ex-partner may not follow the court order or may use it as a tool for further manipulation. It's important to document instances of noncompliance and work with a legal support services to address any violations. Additionally, seeking counselling or therapy can be helpful for you and your children when this happens on repeat, as it can be difficult to manage emotions and to build a pattern of living in the chaos this can bring. One option, for you, is the get out get love programme which fits alongside family life, is private, flexible and very affordable.

  5. Don't Engage in Competing: A toxic or abusive ex-partner may try to compete with you for your children's affection or attention. It's important not to engage in this behaviour and to allow your children to have positive relationships with both parents. Encouraging and supporting your children's relationships with your ex-partner can benefit their emotional well-being. Should your ex prove to be a bad experience for them, children will eventually show this in their behaviour or state it aloud. You can always return to social services, schools and other support agencies if your child is expressing a wish to not visit or be parented by your ex. What is critical is that this came from them and not from your influence – as services will meet the child and explore the reasons for their wishes.

  6. Focus on Your Own Recovery and Growth: This is listed as number 6, but in truth should be joint number 1. Self-care is the thing your children need most from you! Co-parenting with a toxic ex-partner can be emotionally draining, but it's important to focus on your own well-being. Seek counselling or therapy if needed and practice self-care. Surround yourself with positive people and pursue your own interests and goals. Remember that you deserve happiness and that living life on your own terms is the best form of closure. This is most important when continued abuse is happening (alienation, sending messages via your child, criticising you to your child, breaching your boundaries etc). Learning to break out and to recover despite disruption, is critical for you and your child(ten). Again, the get out get love programme is a great consideration for this need – as it walks you towards recovery and empowerment at your pace and creates an understanding of why your past relationship can have such an effect on you even after you escape..

  7. Use Co-Parenting Apps: Co-parenting apps can be a useful tool for managing logistics and communication. These apps provide a centralised location for scheduling, messaging, and sharing information. Many of them also have features that make the communication admissible in court and prevent tampering with messages. It is best to ask a local domestic abuse service, family solicitor or social services team which apps they recommend – as all are not created equally.

  8. Get legal support when needed: If you are facing false accusations, refusal of child support money, breaches of orders, alienation or anything that feels a matter for services contact a family law practice for advice. There are services that offer affordable support for those who can't afford, google 'affordable legal family support' for suggestions - these are available for men and women, if your finances make you eligible.

In conclusion

Co-parenting with a toxic ex is a challenging task, but it is worth striving for a healthy relationship with your ex for the sake of your child. As an abuse victim, it is crucial to prioritise your own well-being and establish boundaries that include limited contact with your ex.

It's essential to remember that you are not responsible for your ex's emotions or behaviours, and any distress projected from them at you should not make you feel guilty. Utilise support systems, such as counselling, recovery programmes or co-parenting apps, to keep your boundaries in place when times are tough.

Always keep your child's best interests at the forefront of your decisions and remember that avoiding clashes between ex-partners can greatly benefit your child's well-being. With dedication and effort, it is possible to establish a peaceful co-parenting relationship with a toxic ex. Peace not being the same as ‘intimate’ or ‘friends’. Sometimes, it is aiming at what works that is best – not a fantasy of what is most ideal.

Good luck.


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