Parenting When Your Ex is Abusive
Parenting When Your Ex is Abusive

Parenting is hard enough, but when your ex is abusive? Navigating the world of parenting can feel downright overwhelming. Michelle Donnelly on the BTR podcast.

Being a mom is a Herculean task – but parenting when your ex is abusive? This is something no one should have to navigate alone.

Michelle Donnelly from Agape Moms is back on the BTR podcast. Tune in to learn how to you can effectively parent your children when your ex is abusive.

Parenting When Your Ex Is Abusive Requires Extensive Self-Care

At BTR, we know that self-care is an absolute must for every victim.

When victims are parallel parenting with an abusive ex, it’s an absolute necessity to practice radical self-care.

Not only can your self-care help you keep your head above water when life feels overwhelming, but the more that you are able to care for yourself, the great your capacity to care for your children:

“The investments that you put into yourself as far as your own healing, support groups, whatever it is that you choose to do, that inevitably will pass to your kids.”

Michelle Donnelly, Agape Moms

Parenting With Your Abusive Ex: It’s Not Your Job To Sugarcoat Reality

When your abusive ex passes up his court-ordered parenting time, forgets important holidays or events, or says something hurtful to your child, it is not your job to sugarcoat reality.

It is your job to show up for your child with empathy. It is your job to listen. It is your job to show unconditional love and support. It’s also your job to be honest.

“The biggest thing is always giving kids as much age-appropriate truth as they are able to digest.”

Michelle Donnelly, Agape Moms
YouTube video

Empower Your Kids To Set Boundaries

“You’re not able to control what happens over that other house, but you are able to send your kids into any environment with an understanding of what to do if they feel uncomfortable.”

Michelle Donnelly, Agape Moms

Understandably, many victims feel an immense sense of powerlessness when they send their children to court-ordered parenting time with the abusive parent.

Victims can take their power back as they teach children to express their safety needs, find their voice when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and take protective action to remove themselves when their safety or comfort is compromised.

BTR Is Here For You

At BTR, we know how difficult it is to parent when your ex is abusive.

No one should have to walk this difficult road alone.

Join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, called BTRG for short, is a daily online support group.We have over 21 sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can join from your closet or your parked car in your garage. We are here for you. We’d love to see you in a session today.

We have Michelle Donnelly of Agape Moms back on today’s episode. The first part of our interview was last week, so if you haven’t heard that, go there first and then join us here. I’m just going to jump right in. 

Anne: It’s like your parenting on your own and this other person is actively trying to cause problems, which is not what I would call parenting.

Parenting When Your Ex is Abusive

Michelle: And it’s difficult because we want so much to have influence sometimes over what is happening in that household and we’re just not able to, and that is the part that gets really hard. It gets heavy. It’s disconcerting. It’s scary, right. So those are the things where, when you’re in that kind of situation, it’s dialing in and doubling down on everything possible that you can do to put your kid’s needs first and to give them everything that is within your ability to do so. That while they’re with you that you are present with them and that you have the ability to take them to counseling if that’s what they need, or if you’re able to show up at school. If you’re able to bring mentors, like really wonderful healthy people into their lives to do outings with them, you know.

And I’m not saying you have to be supermom, I’m not saying you have to be Pinterest Mom, I’m not saying you have to throw these really elaborate birthday parties. Like this is all about being your kid’s safe place so that if there are unseen safe things that are happening when they’re away from you, and this is something we would want whether that unsafe stuff was happening at a parent’s house or if it was happening in their school, or wherever, but that they know mom is a safe person to talk to. That mom, when I bring her my problem, she’s going to have the ability to listen and to comfort me and to maybe offer some support or solutions or things like that. 

Prioritize Your Own Self-Care

And learning how to do that when you yourself are underwater is hard. So, this is often where I say, you know, the investments that you put into yourself as far as your own healing, support groups, whatever it is that you choose to do, that inevitably will pass to your kids. So, if all of these things I’m seeing right now you’re like, oh my goodness, that sounds so overwhelming, that’s a lot of things. Even just focusing on getting stable and healthy and strong yourself, you’ll start to know what are those ways that you can pour into your kids. You’ll know what are those conversations that you should bring up. You’ll know that when your child says you know, I don’t like that the other parents doing X, Y, or Z that they can come to you and that you can offer them real compassion. 

And for every little thing that happens, we worry so much that this is just not going the way I wanted, and this is going to, you know, be their doom and that kind of thing. God is so much bigger than all of the things that we’re going through, and if we look at this from a really long-range perspective and say I just want to be that safe place for my kids and do the best that I can do to be there for them. That when they really start to feel the friction, you know, when they start to feel like something is wrong and the rubber meets the road, that they know that they have an option. And whether or not they choose it that’s also out of our control. There are just so many parts of life in general and this is one of them that are outside of our control, but what we can do is the best that we can do to create a safe and solid place beginning with our own health.

“You Cannot Coparent With An Abuser: Parallel Parenting Is The Way To Go”

Anne: So, the short answer is no, you cannot coparent with an abuser. Parallel parenting is the way to go. You just worry about what’s going on when you’re the parent and you do the best you can. And then the things that he’s doing, you could confront him about it, but we all know where that goes, right. So, we do the best we can. 

So, speaking of parallel parenting, how do moms unknowingly continue to give power to an abusive partner even when they’re trying to parallel parent, even if they’ve given up on coparenting, even if they know the word parallel parent? There are still some ways they can give up power. Can you talk about that for a minute?

When Victims Unknowingly Give Power to The Abuser

Michelle: Sure. So, I think the thing here that’s really essential is, and this goes back to trying to manage the feelings. For example, let’s say there’s a divorce decree and let’s say that it says Dad is supposed to take the kids on this night and this night, or he takes them you know, whatever the arrangement is. It’s a very fine balance here when they perhaps would say something like oh, well, I can’t take them that night, you know, I’ll take them this one. Or, oh, sorry, I had to do this and I can’t come get them tonight or, you know. A lot of times in those instances what we really want to do is say, well, this is what the paper says, no. Or this is what the agreement is. And sometimes we might get so caught in the holding up all of those very specific rules, or, hey, no, you should be wanting to take your kids, or you should be wanting to be with them or you should be, you know, coming to their things or whatever it is.

That’s what ends up happening is we’re re-engaging and it’s an open door for a discussion or an argument or that kind of thing when their choices are their own choices. And so, if we see, you know, for example, that the child’s not being picked up and it’s hurting their feelings, the fix-it is not necessarily to say, well, I need to figure out a way to get him to come pick him up. It may be that this is a way for the child to understand the choices that are being made here, and sometimes that’s hurtful to have to walk our kids through that. But we can’t go about covering up or trying to get them to do what they’re supposed to do or making excuses, you know, when it comes to, oh, well, he just had to blah blah blah. 

Anne: He really does love you, right? Of course, your dad loves you.

“Sugar Coating Is More Harmful Because Over Time They’re Not Able to Discern The Truth”

Michelle:  Yeah, right. In this instance, the sugar coating is more harmful because over time they’re not able to discern the truth. And I think that’s the biggest thing is always giving kids as much age-appropriate truth as they are able to digest and that’s where learning how to offer support is so important because it is truth but with love. It’s truth saying, I know this is hurtful though and I’m sorry that this is happening. We’re not going to be able to fix all of it, but if we want our kids to long-term have an understanding of where they are, they understand their woundings, and then they understand where that road to healing can come from if we’re truthful with them along the way. And so, it’s not even just necessarily how are we handing the power back to the abuser in this case, but it’s also how are we empowering our kids by giving them truth rather than trying to sweep it under the rug or fix it all or cover it up or, you know, whatever way we might be coping with it.

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which also has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

Okay, now back to the conversation.

“You Can’t Go In There And Manage Everything”

Anne: Or manage an abuser’s relationship with his children, right. I’ve seen quite a few women do that too, where they’re like he hasn’t seen him, so I need to make sure that he gets them a birthday present or something like that. And you’re like no, just let him not give him a birthday present.

Michelle: Yep. Yeah, it’s very, very important that that management; I love that word, it’s such a perfect word. You can’t go in there and manage everything. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is simply allow that thing to play itself out. And as much as we would not want to see our kids hurt, as much as we would not want them to suffer anymore, it is a greater disservice if you are whitewashing the whole thing and making it look some way that it’s not because then eventually the truth does come out and then they will be frustrated with you for not being truthful with them. And it can cause them to feel alienated, it can cause them to feel that you’re not safe. And that’s the biggest thing that we can offer to our kids in these situations is that safe place.

Letting it “Play Out”

Anne: Yeah, that drives me crazy when someone does something that is just clearly not a loving good thing that a parent would do. And you know, a neighbor or some “helpful bystander” will say, well of course he loves you, he’s just busy. Or, of course he cares about you, he just, you know. And I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, no. Like, you’re not his top priority, which is the hardest thing. Not that I would necessarily say that, but let that play out. You don’t need to tell that to their face, but let it play out. And never tell your kid no, of course, he loves you when you’re really like he’s incapable of loving anyone.

Michelle: Yeah, and the thing that ends up happening if you do that is you’re essentially gaslighting your kid. You’re causing them to question their own reality when you’re calling it something else, and in which case then you’re complicit, and you definitely don’t want that.

Anne: Because they don’t feel loved, and for good reason because their dad is selfish, or their dad is incapable of loving them. 

So, in that way, what are your thoughts about raising a child in ways that prevent them from being manipulated or deceived? How can we help our kids to recognize the truth?

Helping Children Recognize Truth

Michelle: So, this is something that is built up over time. That you’re not going to have a one time conversation with your child about the things you’re going through, or hey, watch out for this, and then that’s it. If you’re having ongoing conversations with them about all kinds of things, this can even be manipulation at school with bullies. Recognizing how did you feel when that person treated you that way and just practicing with them what it is to identify feelings and sharing that in a safe open forum gives them the ability to learn to process, learn to watch, learn to give context as they’re going through these various relationships in their lives. But as they get older, they start to have very pointed questions. They start to look at inconsistencies and recognize them and try to make sense of them. And they will very often start bringing things to you. You may not necessarily have to go through and dig it all up. And sometimes that causes distrust if it’s like oh, so what happened over there? 

How Open Should I Be With My Kids About Their Abusive Father?

It’s fine to ask those things, but if it constantly feels like you’re prying and prodding, then they won’t feel comfortable and safe with you. But if when they do bring you a concern, that validation of what they see or what they feel, what they experience is so good. And you can do that in a way that is not making the thing personal, it’s not bashing, it’s not anything like that. It is simply saying you see a behavior and it makes you feel uncomfortable. That is normal. And as they start to have those conversations with you, then they’re able to trust that instinct, or that move of the Holy Spirit really, but that inner voice that is saying something feels unsafe or uncomfortable here. And what often happens, I think is in manipulative dynamics is there is some kind of off moment, some red flag, something that is seen, and it’s just not acted upon, or it’s explained away. And so, one of the best things we can do for kids in these situations is equipping them when they do see something that is strange or see something that feels bad or is inconsistent or manipulative. That we are able to put that right word to it and say yeah, no, that is confusing. That makes sense that you’d be confused in that situation. And then talk to them about what they might do. 

You Can’t Control What Happens At The Abuser’s House, But You Can Empower Your Kids To Seek Safety

So, this is where you know parallel parenting, you’re not able to control what happens over that other house, but you are able to send your kids into any environment with an understanding of what to do if they feel uncomfortable. And that may look different depending on your child’s temperament, that may look different whether or not, for example, they have devices, whether or not they’re able to drive, you know, that kind of stuff. But it’s teaching them what are those healthy ways that they can address these situations because very often they’re not going to feel that they can stand up and say something, and they may feel even in the moment like they can’t even go anywhere, but it’s even letting them know hey, if you feel something that is funny, go ahead and write it down.

Or if you need to text me or you need to FaceTime or you need to leave the room and go to your bedroom or you know, whatever it is that you devise with your child. Just to let them know that they have methods of being safe, some way to get to safety if we are coaching them through that process in the first place. And if they’re in a very dangerous situation, we absolutely want to make sure that they understand how to get ahold of safe adults or support, authorities, whatever the case would be so that they know that they always have recourse in whatever the situation might be.

Helping Kids Feel Comfortable Expressing Their Feelings

Anne: Yeah. For really little kids I really like the book Say No and Tell. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that. There’s a girl version on a boy version. It’s generally about sexual abuse, but it gives a lot of examples like, this is safe, this is unsafe, this is safe, this isn’t safe, and even just using books like that to start conversations about it. My kids now tell me all the time when they feel safe or unsafe or when they feel uncomfortable. My little six-year-old is so good at saying, Mom, I’m very uncomfortable, this makes me feel uncomfortable, and I’m grateful.

Michelle: That’s so good, especially even if they just, saying uncomfortable is great. Sometimes they can’t even put the feeling, they can’t figure out what the feeling is or even like the word overwhelmed. Like there’s a lot of feelings. I don’t know what they all are, and it’s saying it’s okay if you don’t know what all those are right now. That’s okay. All you know is that your body is giving you an alert that you can honor that alert system and that you can get to safety. 

Anne: Michelle and I are going to pause again here and finish our conversation next week, so stay tuned. 

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.


  1. Stephanie Davies

    This is a great podcast for me. I have been told repeatedly by my attorney that I am supposed to co-parent! What you ladies are describing is actually what I’m doing. Parallel parenting. Speaking truth to my kiddo. Validating her. Teaching her what self love and boundaries are.

    She is a very mature 12 year old (through not fault of her own). She wants nothing to do with her father because of his narcissistic and manipulative ways. Of course, I am constantly accused of alienating her. So he desire to not be with him is “completely my fault”.

    If he was physically abusing her I would have no difficulty getting him out of her life. Emotional abuse is so hard to prove. Colorado makes it very difficult, especially if you don’t have a lot of money.

    I can’t even get a divorce from this man. It’s been two years! He doesn’t have an attorney. Every court date he lies or doesn’t provide what has been ordered. I’m so surprised by the judge’s patience with him. Tomorrow will be our 3rd appointment with the judge in the last 30 days all at my expense.

    I’m desperate to be free from him and so badly want to relocate back home where my family is. I pray every day that this will happen. My poor baby girl needs to be free of him. This Mama Bear is worn out.

    • Polly

      I’m so sorry! We’re with you! Being entrapped by not only the abuser, but the court system is awful. We recommend Tina Swithin for thought about court battles with narcissists:). Her info has helped a lot of us:).

    • Mama 🐻

      If he were physically abusing your kid, the court system would only make it so that he continues to have access and ability to abuse your kid more. Do not be deceived and think that children are ever protected from physical and sexual abuse. In the U.S. fathers are seen by the legal system as having the right to control and abuse their wives and children.

  2. MamaBear

    Honestly, this article is extremely short-sighted and naive. In the US an abusive parent is nearly always awarded shared custody and continues to abuse the child, not only as a way to hurt and control the child, but as a way to hurt and control the safe parent. Suggesting that a child would be “allowed” to text or FaceTime the safe parent or choose to leave the room leads me to believe that the author has no experience with the level of abuse that so many of us experience.

    • Anne

      I assure you, we have experience with how the legal system gives custody to the abusive parent and who continues to abuse the children and his ex through custody arrangements that continue to give him power and control in the situation. If this article doesn’t show that, we apologize. Thank you so much for bringing this up – as we completely agree with you. I’m the author and I experience it in my everyday life – as do my children.


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