When Your Ex Wont Co-Parent Responsibly

Q: How should I handle my abusive ex’s ongoing lack of maturity and honesty with our kids? He refuses to take responsibility for his abusive behaviors, his addictions, or his affairs. The kids have seen him act in these ways, and they’re not blind.

A lot of times he blows off his parenting time, or is unpredictable and volatile, and they see it happening. At times he comes in like an angel of light with grand gestures and sweeping compliments. Other times he cusses them out and breaks promises because he has a new flame or its inconvenient.

How do I stop obsessing over his behaviors? How do help my kids sort through the confusion? I refuse to lie to them or cover for him, but I don’t how how to guide my kids through the ongoing trauma. Help?!

This is just one of many messages from conscientious Christian mamas who are picking up the pieces after experiencing abuse, addiction, adultery and/or abandonment.

It’s not uncommon for an abusive parent to never take responsibility or own up to their actions, leaving your children confused and bewildered as to which parent is telling the truth. It’s hard to figure out how to be truthful but not vindictive, honest but not angry, supportive but not enabling.

First, you — personally — have got to get yourself to the point where you can let his irresponsible, immature, self-centered behavior go.

Your frustration and emotional tension run high because you’re still expecting him to act like an adult, pull his weight, pay child support on time, honestly report his income, show up for his kids, put their needs first, protect them from unhealthy influences, cooperate with medical and educational recommendations, focus on their safety, and everything else just like you do when your kids are with you.

Let that expectation go.

If your marriage fell apart due to his abuse, addiction, etc — then it’s not going to get better just because you’re on your own. If anything, that means he has even less motivation than ever before to hold himself accountable to doing what’s best for your kids. You’re not in this position because of his penchant for maturity and responsibility. Splitting up isn’t going to make that change.

Stop letting yourself get angry because he is still being true to himself.

Start by accepting these realities:

  • FACT: he does not care for his kids nearly as much as he cares about himself. Period. Don’t expect him to start now. (Oh, he might play a stunning rendition of Disney dad for a while. And yes, it will be confusing for your kids. But I’m talking about real authentic sacrificial parenting here.)
  • FACT: he will probably always do what is most convenient to his own whims. Look at any given potential situation, and calculate the path of least resistance to his own desires. Expect him to take that path.
  • FACT: if sexual sin or addiction or abuse is at the core of why your marriage dissolved, it is highly unlikely that he will take honest responsibility, admit his sins, or express authentic repentance to the kids. (He might make a big deal about “being different now”, but his actions and words won’t match long-term.) Don’t wait for it, it may never come.

Taking those facts into consideration, consider implementing these Do’s and Don’t’s as part of your ongoing parenting strategies:

  • DON’T grill your kids for specifics about their time with dad. It makes you look paranoid, and makes your kids feel like they’re expected to tattle between parents. That’s a horrible way to live. Don’t do it to them. If you already are, stop it now.
  • DON’T let your kids overhear adult conversations demeaning their dad. That’s not healing or healthy for them.
  • DON’T confide to them all the ways he’s hurt and betrayed you. That’s grown-up stuff.
  • DO tell them over and over and over and over again that if they are EVER scared, worried, or wondering whether something is right or okay, they can ALWAYS talk to you about it. Tell them (and live it out!) that you won’t ever be mad at them for telling the truth. Reassure them that they’re NEVER in trouble for talking to you about things that happen when they’re away from you: at school, with friends, on play dates, at daddy’s house, at grandma’s house, anywhere
  • DO pray for (and actively choose) a level of emotional disengagement that treats your ex as entirely peripheral to your daily life. He is a stranger, who happens to be your kids’ dad. You are required to communicate with him on essential facts and nothing more. Don’t get drawn in. Don’t argue or try to persuade. State your position. Keep it to the facts.
  • DO use this time to teach your kids critical analysis skills. When they present a situation where daddy (or anyone else) is clearly being sketchy, don’t give them answers, ask them questions. “Does that seem right? Does that feel safe? Was that honest? Is that what Jesus would want us to do? Was that showing good character?” Use these scenarios to teach them analytical thinking. Help them notice the tells and body language when someone (not just daddy) is lying, manipulating, or deceiving. Do it in ways that do not directly address their dad.
  • DO emphasize to your kids their own power of choice. In any given situation, when someone else is acting in ways that bother them — they have a choice! They are not captive to someone else’s actions. They can choose to do right. They can choose to speak truth. They can choose to be kind. Someone else’s choices don’t have power over them to make them act badly. (And if they feel trapped in a situation that is too big for them to handle, they can be quiet and calm and wait until they get to a safe place – you – to talk about it and figure out how to handle it better.)
  • DO encourage your children’s sense of value and individual identity. This is especially important because as they get older and figure out that daddy has made some horrific choices (and they are half-daddy), they will wonder if they are destined to repeat his cycle of sins. (This is especially common among little boys as they’re measuring their masculine identity by either how much they’re like daddy or how different they are from him.) They deeply need to know that they’re not automatically guaranteed to repeat hurtful choices made by people in the older generation. If they’re very young, this is NOT the time to have that direct conversation. But you can still equip them for healthy choice-making from toddlerhood, by instilling a strong sense of their power to choose the right in any given situation.
  • DO engage your kids in conversations and roleplay about how to handle uncomfortable or manipulative encounters with friends and peers. Channel your desire to protect your little ones into neutral parenting conversations that empower them to cultivate tools to recognize and call out poor behavior based on their own observations—in anyone, anywhere. If that just happens to apply to the other parent, then… that is the consequence of the other parent choosing to act in unsafe ways. Don’t focus on their dad and his choices — instead, teach them to observe people’s behaviors all around them. Walk them through the thought process of what is right, good, truthful, and honorable. This lets you teach them to recognize unsafe behaviors in others — which will be a helpful life skill forever.
  • DO give your kids accurate terms to identify toxic behaviors as soon as they are old enough. Help them recognize it in themselves too. “Hey, kiddo, when you do something and your sister saw you do it and then you tell her it never happened… that’s called gaslighting. It makes her feel like she’s crazy and that makes her angry at you. It also makes you a liar in that moment. Don’t gaslight your sister!” Use real terms for sibling issues. Later, when someone else does that… your kids will be better equipped to spot it and name it. Raise your children to not be helpless and gullible in the face of toxic manipulation — just don’t name their dad while teaching them.

Brass tacks… if you’re feeling drawn into obsession about their time with him, his irresponsibility, his lack of honesty…. breathe. You have to CHOOSE to let it go.

He is doing his life his way, just like he always has.
You just keep doing yours.

Until you release any obsession over his refusal to responsibly co-parent as a mature partner, you’re allowing him to stay in control over you from a distance.

Don’t give him that power.

PS: This is written for situations where the kids aren’t in any danger, but you’re wrestling with how to let go of how their uncooperative, unrepentant co-parent is acting. However, if your children’s safety and welfare are in jeopardy, you do whatever it takes #warriormama.

Is your church really as safe as you think it is?

  • If someone was abusing a child close to you, could you tell?
  • Don’t victims often make up accusations to get attention?
  • God tells us to forgive and forget, but does that include letting a sex offender attend church with children present?
  • How can faith communities effectively protect our most vulnerable members?

Far too often, faith communities are soft targets for abuse of many kinds. Myths on forgiveness, repentance, and reporting allow predators and abusers to manipulate and deceive.

Myths We Believe, Predators We Trust will equip you to debunk 37 common myths about abuse in church, making your faith community a safer place.

Currently available on Kindle.
Paperback coming soon!

3 easy ways to get more support like this:
  1. EXPLORE Coach Sarah’s online courses, coaching, and resources at Wilderness to WILD.
  2. JOIN WILD’s #TraumaMamas private Facebook support group for mamas parenting through trauma.
  3. FIND Sarah McDugal on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for resources, videos, updates, and supportive community.
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