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How to Parent Your Child When Your Ex is Toxic

by | Apr 29, 2020 | 3 comments

The term “narcissism” on this blog is used to describe a specific set of personality traits. It is not intended to be used as a professional diagnosis.

Recently, I received a comment on one of my posts that caught my attention.

It was a concern involving how to potty train and discipline your little one when your toxic ex refuses to be on the same page.

I, fortunately, did not have to deal so much with that aspect of parallel parenting since my ex only had access to our daughter a couple of times a week for only an hour or two.

So, where the vast majority of my daughter’s life was spent with me, I was able to handle all aspects of her development on my own.

The small amount of time she spent with her father did not hinder our progress.

However, this is a real struggle for a lot of moms.

What can you do when your parenting style differs so vastly from that of your toxic ex?

First, you turn to parallel parenting.

Parallel Parenting with a Toxic Ex

I’ll be the first to tell you that parallel parenting (which is really the only way you can parent with a toxic ex) is no walk in the park. It takes fortitude and effort, but it will absolutely pay off for your child.

The basis of parallel parenting is that you do your own thing with your child, and your ex does theirs. You limit communication to only what is necessary and give your little one all the extra love they won’t receive from their other parent.

In order to parallel parent successfully (which does not mean perfectly), you need to practice the following:

  • Limited communication and establishing communication boundaries
  • Make arrangements as specific as possible
  • Don’t give in to arguments or fights
  • Put your child first

Consistency and Parallel Parenting

Every parenting expert will tell you that children thrive on consistency. Consistency allows a child to internalize, rehearse and repeat behaviors – all important aspects of their learning process.

Consistency also provides a child with a sense of safety.

That is all well and good, but a child with a toxic parent is never going to get that consistency.

Inconsistency is detrimental to a child when it comes from one parent. If you’re scolding them one day for one thing yet tolerating it the next, your child is not going to understand what is expected of them.

Your ex is likely to be inconsistent in their parenting, and there’s really not a whole lot you can do about it on that end. What you can do is provide consistency for your child in your home.

Children are smart. They’ll quickly learn to understand what is expected in one household and what is expected in another. And, as long as you instill in them good values, they will grow to know what behaviors are appropriate and which ones are not.

So try not to stress too much about discrepancies between your parenting style and your ex’s parenting style. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the way they parent.

What you can do is provide your child with extra emotional support. This is the crux of parallel parenting: making up for what the other parent cannot provide.

The Toxic Ex and the Parent Competition

Your toxic ex is likely going to try and pull you into a parenting competition to see who the best parent is.

Everything you suggest in terms of nurturing your child’s development is probably going to be met with opposition – not because they believe in their choices as a parent but because they are the exact opposite of yours.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, but your child’s toxic parent is not in this to be a parent. They are in this to gain control over you and your child.

I’ll give you an example. When my daughter was old enough to move from the infant carrier to a car seat, I made sure to explain very clearly to my ex that she had to be rear-facing. I cited the law and sent him links to safety information.

Do you think he rear-faced her? Absolutely not. Simply because I told him to.

When my daughter was in the midst of potty training, wearing panties and still having the occasional accident, I still sent her to him in diapers. Why? Because I knew he wasn’t going to take the time to put her on the toilet.

(And, by the way, she potty-trained just fine.)

They are going to do this, and the best thing for you to do is ignore it (unless it puts your child in danger).

It’s frustrating, I know, but the more you argue against them, the more they are going to counter-parent. The best thing to do is do your best to maintain consistent parenting skills and try to pick up the slack they create.

Focus On Your Own Parenting Skills

As I mentioned, children are very good at figuring out how to behave in different situations.

How many children do you know (perhaps yours included) that act like complete monsters at home and perfect angels at school?

They are going to quickly figure out how to act in your home and how to act in their other parent’s home.

Since your child is not receiving proper parenting from your toxic ex, you may have to double your efforts to ensure that your little ones understand what behaviors are proper.

In other words, it’s up to you to teach them that how they are allowed to behave with their other parent may not be acceptable in the real world.

This means focusing on your own parenting skills and not worrying about what the other parent is doing – unless, of course, it is harmful to your children.

Ultimately, you have control over your home and parenting skills, and your ex can’t take that away from you. You can control what you say, how you react, and what rules you establish in your home.

Parallel Parenting and Discipline

Because you want to make sure you teach your child how to behave properly in the world, you want to focus on disciplining them instead of punishing them.

These two terms tend to be used interchangeably, yet they are vastly different. Disciplining means approaching improper behavior as a learning experience. Punishment uses fear to stop a behavior from happening.

Even if your toxic ex uses punishment with your children, discipline has proven to be far more effective in the long run for shaping behaviors.

So as long as you dedicate yourself to disciplining your children in a consistent and fair way, they are more likely to come out the other side minimally affected by your ex’s parenting skills (or lack thereof).

As with every aspect of parallel parenting with a toxic person, you can’t change how they do things. You can only take back control of how you parent and do it 110%.

Parallel parenting is exhausting, and with a toxic person involved, there’s no easy way to do it. Over time, however, you will eventually see how your hard work has made a positive impact on your children.

Explaining the Differences in Parenting Styles to Your Child

Because you are likely establishing more rules and expectations with your children than your ex is, you’re going to be constantly questioned about your differing parenting styles and fairness.

“But Dad lets me stay up past 10!”

“Mom never makes me finish my supper!”

Remember that parallel parenting is not a competition, and your children are not expressing that they love one parent more than the other. They are simply communicating that they sense an imbalance and don’t understand why it exists.

If you find yourself addressing this issue, here are some Do’s and Don’t’s when it comes to dealing with your child’s confusion:

  • Don’t guilt your children by listing all the wonderful things you do for them.
    “Sure, your dad lets you stay up late, but who bought you a new phone last Christmas?”
  • Do explain that you and their other parent are two separate individuals.
    “Your mom and I make different choices when it comes to being a parent because we are two different people.”
  • Don’t slam the other parent.
    “Your father lets you do these things because he’s a terrible parent.”
  • Do let your child know why you parent them the way you do.
    “My rules are to make sure you are safe, healthy, and happy.”
  • Don’t disregard their feelings.
    “You don’t even know what unfair is. What until you’re an adult.”
  • Do maintain an environment of open communication and understanding.
    “Tell me what you think is fair, and maybe we can come to a compromise.”

Unless your ex is a strict totalitarian, you’re going to be the bad cop. There’s really no way of escaping that.

Chances are, your toxic ex is going to counter-parent and put very little effort into raising your children. In the end, you’ll look like the bad guy who never lets your children do anything.

But your children won’t see you like that all of the time. The ranting against unfairness will rear its ugly head from time to time, but this will not define your relationship with your children.

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It’s Not an Easy Path, Mama

Your toxic ex may do everything they can to make your life difficult, and, unfortunately, they automatically do just by existing.

However, you can combat their need for control and conflict by limiting your communication, not engaging in their instigative behavior, and focusing on your own parenting style.

It’s hard, I know, but the more effort you put into nurturing your children and resisting the urge to rip your ex a new one, the easier your life will become.

It will never be “easy,” but you’ll find it less stressful, frustrating, and conflicting.

As the kids say: “You do you, boo.”

Are you dealing with a toxic ex? How are you making out with your differing parenting styles? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Avatar

    I am dealing with a narcissist. I’ve dealt with all of this before and still today I am trying to be strong and show my kids how to get through it all I still hate sending them back to him every other week but I have no choice

  2. Avatar

    I love this approach and my husband and I are trying to figure it out the best way we can. It’s been pretty brutal for him through the divorce and for me too since coming into their lives. My concern is that we are not primary, their mom is and SHE is the narcissist. I’m wondering if the approach changes when the girls spend most of their time WITH the narcissistic parent.

    • Chelsy

      That is an excellent question and definitely a perspective I haven’t considered. I would say that, for the most part, it will work when the child is in the care of the narcissist. You want to make your home with your husband the safe place for his daughters, giving them structure and consistency and always validating their feelings, and listening to them without judgment.



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