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The co-parent is verbally abusive towards me – what can I do?

For the well being of our children, we as parents must establish a way to communicate and form a functioning parenting team around our children after the separation. But sometimes one or both parents cross the line of what is acceptable behavior towards the other. For some parents it happens once. For others destructive behavior happens repeatedly and seriously harms the child and the co-parent.

How do you know when it is a matter of ongoing verbal abuse and not “a one time thing”? When does it become too destructive for the child and oneself? What can you do yourself to break the circle of negative behavior? The article ”The co-parent is verbally abusive towards me – what can I do?” provide answers!


The reasons for negative events between parents during and after a separation are, in principle, always about the parents’ adult relationship and almost never about the children. Old destructive patterns can be hard to break and continue into the new parental relationship after a separation. Sometimes it is one parent who verbally abuses the other, in other cases there is verbally abusive behavior from both sides. Regardless of why abuse occur it affects not only the abused parent but also the children.

Children are always affected

For children, verbal abuse between parents is very stressful. It is painful for children to see and/or hear one parent attack the other. Research also shows that verbal abuse towards a parent can have the same effect on the child as if the abusive parent had targeted the child directly. (A comparison can be made with children who witness physical violence by one parent against the other. It has a very negative effect on the child´s well being short and long term).

Children are affected by negative behavior even if they are not present when the verbal abuse takes place. The parent who is subjected loses their energy and it is often hard to feel joy and focus on the child and his/her needs. Verbal abuse also has a very negative effect on establishing a stable co-parenting team around the child, which of course affects the child sooner or later. Therefore, it is crucial for children that abuse between parents ceases!

”The co-parent verbally abuses me but I´m the one who feels guilty”

It can be difficult to stop verbal abuse that has been going on for a while. Some parents feel guilty about the situation and think that they have to “accept” the co-parents bad behavior. It may be that the subjected parent has chosen to leave the relationship or may have found a new partner soon after the separation.

Strong feelings of anger, resentment or despair are common in the midst of a separation, especially if the decision to separate has been made by the soon to be ex-partner. However, it does not give anyone the right to take revenge by verbally abusing the co-parent. The responsibility to stop rests entirely with the person who exposes others to verbal abuse or other types of unacceptable behavior.

How do I know if I’m being verbally abused?

Verbal abuse may include:

  • Swearing, insults, accusations, derogatory descriptions and other types of abusive language in conversation or written form such as text messages, emails, chats etc
  • that the co-parent describes you in neutral words but in a derogatory manner like ”weak” or “stressed” or “not very good at this/that”. I can also be ”dad/mum doesn’t understand…” or “why is it that dad/mum always forgets to…” in front the child or other people
  • that the co-parent is constantly looking for flaws in you and what you do. They can question your parenting ability even though there are no reasons for it and the child is safe and well with you

It does not matter if the abuse is verbal or written form. It is draining and harmful to be subjected to such treatment and it must stop!

However, the best way to move forward may differ depending on who it concerns and what ones own life situation looks like.

What can I do to protect myself?

First of all, it is important to understand what is happening. Consider the following:

Step 1: Become aware and make changes! (In some cases this is enough to make it stop)

Do inventory: ”What is my situation like at the moment?”

  • how often and when does it happen, what does it consist of? How long has it been going on?
  • is it mostly verbal or written abuse or a mixture?
  • is it happening in front of the child, other people or me?
  • is the co-parent aware of her/his own actions?
  • how will it be for you in the long run to constantly hear that you are stupid, lazy or worthless as a parent, or whatever it may be?
  • has the child reacted in any particular way?

Feel free to write down your thoughts and collect your thoughts.

2. Change the way you communicate with each other!

In some cases, negative behavior subsides when some time has passed after the separation and the parents have gained distance from the breakup. While in a crisis, during and shortly after a separation, changing ways of communicating may be enough to create distance between parents and thus ”cool down” an infected parental relationship. Try the following:

Manage all communication in writing: Choose WhatsApp or other platform and create a chat with your co-parent. Invite two other people that you both trust (preferably) or one person which both parties consider “neutral” not to escalate the situation. 

Communicate only about things that concern the child!  You do not have to listen to insults or accusations. If that happens tell the co-parent that you will withdraw from the conversation at this point and that the conversation about the child will continue a while later (sometimes it is good to decide when you will talk again not to cut off the conversation abruptly. Doing so may be a way to exert power on your end, which can escalate the situation). When you continue the conversation make sure to stay on the right topic (the child) and try to resolve matters as quickly as possible.

Limit communication to a specific time of day or week when you read and respond to chat/text/email. This way you save energy that you can spend on the child instead of the co-parent. If you say you will get back to your co-parent a certain day or time, make sure you keep your promise or send a message informing them that something has come up and that you will get back to them. Being reliable yourself is important to prevent “mind games”, which can be an obvious trigger to more aggression.

Take care of handovers via preschool/school for some time!  If you have younger children take care of handovers via preschool/school. This way you do not have to meet as often (one parent leaves the child in the morning and the other picks up in the afternoon) and handovers take place in a neutral place that “belongs” to the child.

You can also ask a friend or family member you both trust and respect to help the child with handovers if preschool/school is closed so you do not have to meet for a while.

Try to stay calm as aggressions often lead to more aggressions. If the recipient is calm, sometimes the anger diminishes after a while. 

Step 2: If the verbal abuse continues – seek help!

For some, the most effective thing is to send a straight ”cease and desist-mail” yourself informing them that you are considering taking the matter further if the behavior continues.

For others, it’s better to get help from the outside right away:

Book an appointment with a professional:
Contact the social services in your area and ask what help they recommend for you. Also consider booking an appointment with a lawyer specialized in Family Law. It is usually expensive but well worth it to inform yourself of the legal situation around your child and yourself.

What can the consequences be of constant verbal abuse?

It is important to know that different types of negative behavior may be illegal depending on what has happened. If you or your child are subjected to threats, physical violence or recurring verbal abuse, you should contact the police and social services immediately for help! It is important to be brave and to act to help your child and yourself out of the situation.

A negative behavior can also be inappropriate without being criminal. A lawyer specialized in Family Law can give more detailed answers on how to best protect your child and yourself if the verbal abuse continue over time.

Summary

Verbal abuse may include: swearing, insults, accusations, derogatory descriptions and more.

Children are badly affected, directly or indirectly, when one parent repeatedly abuses the other. Children need protection from such negative behavior.

Adults also suffer from verbal abuse, and no one should have to accept it repeatedly.

There are several different ways to protect yourself: review communication patterns, limit contact, invite other people into your communication, get help from your local community like social services, private organizations or the police.

If the negative behavior continue seek legal help and investigate how the behavior can affect the rights to custody.

Elisabeth Scholander