5 co-parenting tips that won’t work with a high-conflict ex (...and what to do instead)

One of the things I found most exasperating as a new stepmom in a high-conflict stepfamily was that every stepparenting resource I found didn’t really seem to apply to me. Vanilla advice like “Just find common interests with your stepkids!” dismissively implied that any issues I might be facing with my stepdaughter were mild and would quickly pass. (Wrong on both counts, btw.)

The same was true for the problems Dan ran into with his high-conflict ex-wife. The divorce workbook, the co-parenting tips he read online, even their co-parenting class facilitator—every source implied that any friction they ran into as co-parents was unusual and should be minor. And that any and all problems could be solved simply and easily by someone working juuust a little harder to compromise.

Since his ex-wife insisted that Dan was the one being unreasonable, he apologetically bent over backwards even further. To do otherwise would mean he wasn’t being a good co-parent, right? 🙈

Super wrong, you guys. Super, super wrong.

Here’s a list of well-meaning co-parenting tips that will never ever work with a  high-conflict co-parent (and why), along with legit tips that can actually help when co-parenting with a difficult ex.

1. Don’t be selfish. Put the kids first!

This is my absolute favorite nominee for most irritating co-parenting tip. Yes, of course we should always think about what’s going to be best for the kids during and after a divorce. Yet isn’t it funny that the high-conflict co-parent is always the one who unilaterally mandates what’s “best” for the kid… which always super conveniently happens to always align with their own ulterior motives? What are the chances!

The low-conflict co-parent is then stuck going along with the high-conflict parent or risks getting accused of not caring about what’s best for the child. Pretty terrifying prospect if you’re in active litigation, which most of us in high-conflict stepfamilies frequently are. What’s a low-conflict parent to do?

When what’s really best for the kids is to not be stuck in the middle of constant conflict between houses, we tend to go along with the high-conflict co-parent in an effort to keep the peace, believing (incorrectly) that drama will drop off as a result.

Nope! A high-conflict person’s goal is to maintain conflict, not achieve a resolution.

Actual co-parenting tip that works in high conflict: Protect yourself and your kids with stronger boundaries, not more compromise.

A neutral third party—aka your friendly family court judge—handed out the guidelines that s/he thought most accurately reflected what was truly best for your child. As long as you’re sticking to whatever those legal documents say, you can feel confident that you’re acting in your kid’s inherent best interests—not a biased “best” that benefits one parent over the other. And don’t let anyone guilt-trip you into believing otherwise.

2. Co-parenting is best for the kids, so work together for their sake!

Ummm we know? We’re trying?? Listen, if we’re online searching for advice on how to co-parent with an ex who’s so high-conflict they make Genghis Khan look like Gandhi, then we clearly already know co-parents need to work together. The problem is that we’re not able to work together.

Most decent humans include the other parent of their child when making important decisions about that child (I mean, unless it's a medical emergency or something). We do this out of common decency—because it's the right thing to do and most of us have ethical standards.

No matter how angry we are at the ex, most of us are capable of putting bitterness aside long enough to send calm text messages like "The dentist thinks Kiddo needs braces. What are your thoughts?" before proceeding. Most of us also don’t throw temper tantrums about how the other parent will damage our child’s self-esteem if they don’t want the kid to get braces.

The key phrase in all of this being “most of us.”

High-conflict co-parents are never going to make the decent, courteous, ethical choice for their kids. Their interests are not the same as your interests; they don’t care about working well together—or really, working together at all. A high-conflict parent wants complete control, including control over their low-conflict ex as well as over their kid.

Actual co-parenting tip that works in high conflict: Do your best for the sake of the kids, sure, absolutely. But also know that some people are unworkwithable. Compromise requires two people; you can only meet halfway so far.   

If you’ve made repeatable, reasonable efforts toward meeting in the middle only to get smacked with constant rebuffs, you’re allowed to fall back on whatever the paperwork says and decline to participate in further drama.

3. Keep rules & schedules consistent between houses!

I'm sure there are super amicable co-parents out there who, by agreement, maintain a firm 8 p.m. bedtime no matter whose house the kids are at, coordinate on school projects, and generally share the same parenting philosophy (only in different houses now).

These people are not the ones out there looking for help on how to co-parent with an ex who’s toxic af.

The suggestion of consistency between houses after divorce comes from a good place, but isn’t realistic for most split families. And you know what? That’s okay!

Look, kids are totally used to rules being different in different places. They learn from a very early age that the rules are different with Grandma and Grandpa than with Mom and Dad, or that friends’ houses have different rules. Even different teachers for different classes at the same school have different rules. Kids get this.

Your child isn’t going to need therapy for years because they grabbed McDonald's with Mom but at Dad's house they have to eat veggies. A later bedtime at Dad's house vs. Mom's house isn't going to permanently scar your kid for life. No. What's going to destroy your kid's childhood is constant, increasing friction between houses caused by a high-conflict parent attempting to control every little thing that happens at the other parent’s home under the pretense of demanding what’s best for the child.

Actual co-parenting tip that works in high conflict: All hail parallel parenting! An ingenious, simple solution to no longer stressing over how a high-conflict co-parent thinks you should do this or that with the kids. Your house, your rules—their house, their rules. You do you and let go of what you can’t control.

A low-conflict parent too often buys into the bullshit narrative that the high-conflict parent is the “primary” parent, therefore the low-conflict parent needs to go along with whatever the high-conflict parent says or there’ll be hell to pay. So we roll with whatever in the interest of trying to reduce conflict and to take the kids out of the middle, even to the point of compromising our own parenting philosophy and moral integrity to do so.

But it’s important to remember that neither parent is the boss of the other. You are equal co-parents in the eyes of the law, regardless of the physical visitation schedule. Like the Wizard of Oz, a high-conflict ex is really just a small, scared person using a lot of loud voices and pyrotechnics to scare us into doing their bidding. In reality, they don’t have any more power than we do.

You (and your partner!) have every right to parent your child how you feel is best within your own home—and your high-conflict ex has every right to do the same in theirs, no matter how much you disagree. If you’re genuinely concerned about the health or well-being of your child, call your lawyer or CPS and let the pros do their jobs. 

4. Never say negative things about your ex!

Yet another a total no-brainer that’s closer to common sense than actual advice on co-parenting. Obviously none of us should bash the ex to our kids, and no one with a working conscience would ever do so. Plus, anyone who would trash-talk their ex to their kid isn't out there reading helpful articles on how to be a reasonable co-parent so could we please stop including this on every single goddamn list of co-parenting tips?

This suggestion is not only unhelpful in instances of high-conflict co-parenting, but can be straight-up harmful if there’s deliberate parental alienation happening.

Thinking we should only ever be all sunshine and rainbows about our kid’s other parent leads us to clam up when our kids report negative things the other parent has said about us. We reluctantly remain silent when our kids throw false accusations at us based on crap their high-conflict parent has force-fed them: “Well I can’t say anything to defend myself because then I’d be saying negative stuff about the other parent.. which I’m not supposed to do! In fact it’s the worst thing I could do, all the books say so!!”

Then, over time, your relationship with your kid degrades due to the slow but steady erosion caused by unchecked negativity. Awesome.

Actual co-parenting tip that works in high conflict: There’s a whole lot of acceptable middle ground between “defending self” and “attacking other parent.” If your kid comes to you with negative comments from the other parent, respond with calm, factual, age-appropriate responses.

Example: “I’m sorry you had to hear that. I know Mom/Dad is angry and sometimes when people are angry, they say hurtful things. If you ever have questions about why I made a decision about something, you can always ask me directly.” Or: “I’m sorry you’re in the middle of this. This is a grown-up issue that your Dad/Mom and I need to discuss between ourselves.” Offer love and reassurance, then redirect to a new topic.

Whatever answer you give, make sure the buck stops with you. You definitely don’t want to put your kid in the position where think they’re obligated to report your response back to their other parent (“Tell your Mom/Dad this is something they shouldn’t have brought up with you!”).

And finally, remember that any kid who hears a bunch of shitty garbage about either parent is going to feel pretty shitty themselves. Their emotional response might be a little all over the place, so do your best to stay grounded and neutral (feel free to freak out later in private, though).

You can’t stop the other parent from bashing you, but you can model appropriate parenting and co-parenting for your kid—even if you are the only one of their parents to do so.

5. Don't put your kid in the middle!

This one’s another “duh” tip taken from the Co-Parenting for Idiots guide. I mean, why else is anyone even looking for co-parenting tips except to prevent their kids from getting stuck in the middle in the first place?

Here’s a secret that no one tells you about co-parenting successfully with a difficult ex: co-parenting takes two, but putting your kid in the middle only takes one. If you’re dealing with a difficult ex, your kid is already in the middle. And it’s not your actions keeping them there.

Actual co-parenting tip that works in high conflict: The best way to take your kid out of the middle? Build some big, beautiful boundaries! You can’t make your high-conflict co-parent suddenly become a sane and reasonable human who won’t use their kid as a weapon anymore. But you can stop the crazy at the door with a firm “No thanks!” and send it on its way.

I know boundaries seem like they’ll make any existing conflict even worse, but this isn’t quite accurate. The high-conflict ex will probably get angrier, true—but hey, they’re angry already, and nothing you’ve done so far has helped fix that, right?

And that shouldn’t be your motive anyway. Your goal should be to achieve relative peace within your own home and give your kiddo a safe place to land, not worry about appeasing the high-conflict ex (which you can’t do anyway). Once you have solid boundaries in place, you’ll find their attempts to sabotage you and your family really lose oomph. It’s like at the end of Labyrinth when Sarah finally gets it and is all “You have no power over me!” and Goblin King David Bowie and all his tricks dissolve in a kaleidoscope instant.

Setting boundaries with a high-conflict co-parent is way less hard than constantly fighting with them, and creates a much more sane environment for everyone. Especially your kids.