10+1 Tips for Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Mar 20, 2024


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Co-parenting after a divorce or separation is challenging no matter what the circumstances, but co-parenting with a toxic ex is extremely difficult. According to the U.S. Census, over 25% of children live with just one parent at a time, meaning many adults face co-parenting.

In most situations, a child ideally has two parents actively involved in their lives.

If your ex is toxic, it might feel impossible to work together so that your child can have access to both of you, but it is something you can do if you are dedicated to doing what’s best for your child.

Read on to learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • Signs you are co-parenting with a toxic ex include a parent’s failure to consider your child’s best interest, gaslighting, refusal to follow a schedule, putting your child in the middle, speaking negatively about you to the child, attempts to control your parenting time, lack of communication, hostility, and manipulation.
  • To cope with toxic co-parenting, put your child first. With every decision, ask yourself, is this what is best for my child?
  • Take care of your own needs when dealing with a toxic co-parent.
  • Model the co-parenting behavior you seek.
  • Have a support team in place.
  • Make sure your court order is detailed.
  • Maintain healthy boundaries.
  • Always think before you respond to your ex.
  • Focus your communication on parenting.
  • Consider using a co-parenting app.
  • Resort to parallel parenting if nothing else works.

Signs of Toxic Co-Parenting

If your co-parent is toxic, you are probably already aware that things are difficult based on your interactions with them. However, some warning signs to watch out for include:

  • They don’t put your child’s best interest first. Instead, your co-parent seems driven by what’s in it for them or how they can use a situation to hurt you.
  • They gaslight you. A toxic co-parent tries to psychologically manipulate you into believing you are unreasonable or have done something wrong when, in fact, they are the ones creating most of the problems. Sometimes, this results in you questioning your sanity.
  • They refuse to follow a schedule. A toxic co-parent often attempts to change the schedule to get more time with your child or ensure you get less time. Alternatively, they may not show up when they are supposed to or may arrive late, resulting in significant inconvenience for you.
    They have a disregard for what the parenting order or agreement says for visitation. Some may even try to schedule family vacations during your time and tell the children about them.
  • They put your kids in the middle Instead of communicating with you directly, a toxic co-parent asks your child to be the intermediary and communicator. They may also talk to your child about your parenting relationship.
    This can take lots of forms, including criticizing your parenting OR trying to get the child to take an adult role.
  • They talk negatively to your child about you. The goal of a toxic co-parent is to turn your child against you, creating emotional distance between you and your child. Sometimes, this manifests as full-blown parental alienation, particularly if your co-parent is a skilled manipulator.
  • They try to control what happens during your parenting time. A toxic co-parent often insists you implement rules or schedules that you do not believe to be in your child’s best interest. They follow up with critiques of how you parent or what you do with your child.
  • They don’t communicate about your child. A toxic co-parent withholds information about school, medical issues, scheduling, and other essential things to keep you out of the loop. They will pretend that they “accidentally” omitted you OR sometimes will claim that “you just don’t care.”
  • They make decisions without you. If you have joint legal custody and are supposed to make decisions together about your child, they may go ahead and try to decide and implement things without your input or consent.
    While tie-breakers are incredibly important in decisions with a toxic co-parent, it is important to make sure your decree emphasizes both parents' role in decision-making.
  • They are hostile or abusive. A toxic co-parent frequently starts arguments, calls you names, treats you rudely, and does everything they can to show you how negatively they feel about you. Often, they will do this in front of the child or in public, making it awkward for you to defend yourself.
  • They are manipulative. A toxic co-parent may try to manipulate you to get what they want. They may also manipulate your child to get them to turn against you. Manipulation can be psychological, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual, so it is important to stay alert.

These are all signs that your ex is toxic and very likely impacts your ability to co-parent.

Tips for Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex

If you have a toxic ex, you must first realize two important things.

First, you cannot change them, but you can control yourself and your own behavior. Secondly, you will be co-parents with them for the rest of your lives, so you must find a way to manage the situation.

Here are a few tips for exactly how to do that.

Put Your Child First

Put Your Child First

Respect the parenting schedule. It is meant to be for your child’s benefit.

A parenting schedule's point is to ensure that your child has healthy relationships with both parents. Ensuring your child continues to spend time with your ex is vital for their growth and development, even if it may be personally challenging for you.

In fact, rejecting your toxic co-parent can make your child feel as though you are also rejecting them because they are 50% of their other parent.

To minimize conflict, have everything spelled out in the court order and stick to it.

Reducing conflict in your co-parenting relationship benefits your child greatly. Conversely, ramping up conflict will negatively impact your child.

A study in Social Science Research concluded that parenting conflict leads to children having low academic achievement, an increase in substance abuse, and a higher likelihood of having dysfunctional relationships when they are adults.

Always remember that co-parenting is all about what your child needs. Keeping that front and center in your mind will make it easier to stay motivated and do the hard work involved in successful co-parenting.

Take Care of Yourself

You must prioritize self-care and well-being. Manage your negative emotions with exercise, counseling, positive thinking, and stress reduction. Make sure you have a healthy lifestyle with lots of support.

Build a life that gives you confidence and helps you function as a healthy parent, leading your children by example. If you need help walking through actionable steps to stay on track, engage a divorce coach, a custodial issues specialist, or a conflict management specialist to help you.

Give What You Hope to Get

It won’t always work, but it is important to model the co-parenting behavior you hope to see in your ex. Treat your ex respectfully and civilly, especially in front of your child. Speak respectfully to others about your ex, especially in front of your child.

Follow your court order. Keep your child out of it as much as possible.

Don’t speak negatively about your ex to your child or publicly (including on social media). Stop others who try to speak negatively about your ex in front of your children.

You can’t control how your ex behaves, but you can control 50% of the co-parenting relationship and 100% of your own behavior.

Sometimes, your ex gets to you because you are human. And, most likely, a toxic ex is not afraid to use tools they know hurt you. When you react, forgive yourself, do the best you can in the situation, and if you need to do so, apologize to your child.

Remember - relationships are built in repair and children will model behaviors of the ones they see their parents exhibit. Mistakes are never the problem - lack of repair is.

Have Backup

Often, working with a toxic co-parent means you must repeatedly return to court to litigate changes to the schedule or problems your ex creates. Finding a lawyer with whom you feel comfortable can help you deal with the constant legal battles.

If returning to court poses a tremendous financial or emotional burden, work with a certified divorce coach or parenting coordinator to try to identify other options to stay out of court.

You also need therapists - one for you and one for your child.

You both need professional help to navigate the emotional challenges created by this complicated situation. This is particularly important for you moving forward in other relationships and for your child to learn about healthy relationships.

Get a Detailed Court Order

Get a Detailed Court Order

A vague court order giving one parent “alternate weekends and holidays as agreed” will not work in your situation. You need a court order that spells out every detail about everything that could be argued about or seem unclear.

Ensure that your parenting order is detailed and precise regarding times, days, holidays, who is responsible for transportation, and where transfers will occur.

Ask that it include how long you are required to wait if your ex is a no-show, how far in advance changes to the schedule must be requested, and how far in advance vacation time must be requested.

Ensure that it requires vacations, birthday parties, etc., to be cleared with you PRIOR to the child learning about them.

You can also request that you have phone or video call access to your child when they are with the other parent at specified times. Some parents even need the order to state what items will travel with the child and who will wash the child's clothing.

Think about every possible way your ex tries to make your life difficult and ask that everything be spelled out in the order. Then, if your ex violates any of the rules, talk to your lawyer.

Establish Boundaries and Enforce Them

It is crucial to establish personal boundaries. For many, this is the hardest part of dealing with a toxic ex.

For example, you may decide your ex is not welcome inside your home and must wait outside the door, or you could decide that if your ex raises their voice, that is the end of the conversation. Decide your boundaries, make it clear what they are, and then stand by them no matter what.

Think Before You Communicate

It can be very easy to send off an irate text or email in the heat of the moment. It is equally easy to snap at your ex when they are goading you. Working with a toxic ex means that you must give yourself time to let your spike of anger or frustration subside before you communicate.

Always give yourself time and space.

Write that text, but don’t put their name in the “to” box until you have calmed down. For some, that is 2 hours; for others, that is 24 hours. Additionally, do not give your ex an answer to a question they pose at drop-off; instead, say you will respond once you have had time to think.

Setting a 24-hour boundary for answering emails and questions is very reasonable. You are NOT obligated to respond to your toxic ex on demand except in case of an emergency involving your child.

You can’t control how your ex communicates, but you can control how you respond, and you can make sure you have time to think clearly before engaging about anything.

Communicate Only About Parenting

If your divorce or separation is complete, keep all contact with your ex solely focused on co–parenting. Do not discuss anything else. This helps keep things focused and reduces the amount of contact you have to have.

Use Apps

There are a variety of apps that help manage co-parenting communication and scheduling. If you choose to use them or the court orders you to do so, all communication between you and your ex occurs in the app's chat feature.

You can request schedule changes, share information, and discuss things there.

All communications are preserved and can become part of the court record if you return to court. They are almost always recognized in court, whereas texts and other documents are often not recognized.

Some apps have the added benefit of notifying you if your communication is not civil and suggest you take a different tone, which can be helpful.

Other apps still provide online access to mediators who can help resolve conflict directly in the app.

Consider Parallel Parenting

Consider Parallel Parenting

If it is impossible to communicate with your ex and engaging with them always results in conflict, consider implementing parallel parenting.

In parallel parenting, you follow your court order and do not communicate more. If information has to be shared, it is done through lawyers.

This is an extreme option, but it is the only solution in some situations.

Bonus Tip

Here are some books that can help you manage parenting with a toxic ex:

Final Thoughts

Co-parenting with a toxic ex is undeniably challenging. Prioritizing your child's well-being, establishing clear communication boundaries, and seeking support can make the journey more manageable.

Remember, with resilience and focus, you can navigate this rugged terrain for the sake of your child's future.

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