Tips to help you to better support your clients who feel helpless in their attempt to co-parent with a toxic ex.

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Clinical Psychologist and Custody Evaluator

Helping Clients with Difficult Co-Parenting Family law attorneys, like all types of attorneys, like to win cases for their clients.  But what does winning look like when your client or client’s ex- spouse is mentally ill or is an alcoholic or substance abuser?  And how can you make sure that the advice you might offer regarding the co-parenting relationship is in the best interests of the child or children in situations like this?

“My ex-husband is a narcissist” or “my ex-wife is an alcoholic” or “my ex-husband has bipolar disorder” or “my ex-wife is a borderline” or “my ex-husband is a sociopath” are statements you might hear from client’s who are struggling with co-parenting.  Sometimes the statements reported in these moments are exaggerated or entirely inaccurate, while at other times, mental illness or active addiction has made the co-parenting relationship difficult to manage.

Research has shown that addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders increase the likelihood of divorce.  The personality disorders that occur most frequently in high conflict legal matters are:  narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder,  paranoid personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder.

The task of successfully managing cases that involve mental illness and/or substance abuse can be challenging for even the most seasoned family law attorneys.  And successfully supporting a client can become especially taxing when the contention remains high in the co-parenting dynamic.

While every co-parenting relationship and dynamic is unique, there are some common experiences for clients who attempt to co-parent with ex-spouses who suffer from mental illness and/or alcoholism or substance abuse.  Clients can have serious co-parenting struggles before, during, or after the divorce, and your services may be sought at any time to address the problems.  I offer the following general tips to help you to better support your clients who feel helpless in their attempt to co-parent with a toxic ex.

Gather as much Information as Possible

Client's Child Best InterestWhen an ex-spouse has mental illness or is in active addiction, having a thorough understanding of those sorts of problems will be helpful in determining how and when you can assert yourself.  If the mental illness or alcoholism/substance abuse problem is seriously impacting your client’s ex-spouse’s ability to parent,  you should not wait to turn to the court to protect your client and the involved child or children.

For seriously impaired individuals, you could file an emergency motion and request the court’s attention and involvement.  The court could do a number of things to protect the involved children:  order mental health and/or addiction evaluations and treatments; order the involvement of a parenting coordinator; or even make immediate changes to visitation or custody if the children’s safety is at risk. If the mental health concerns and/or alcoholism or substance abuse concerns do not meet the threshold for an emergency motion, working closely with opposing counsel may be the next best approach to remedy the co-parenting problems. With a collaborative approach, perhaps your client’s ex-spouse will agree to treatment without your needing to assert a more aggressive legal approach.

Also, advising your client to contact Child Protective Services and to call 911 immediately if there is reason to believe that the child’s safety and wellbeing is in jeopardy in the care of a mentally impaired ex-spouse is important.  You may not always be available if there is a crisis, and getting a court date for an emergency hearing could take time.

Show Compassion and Work Therapeutically with Your Client

While you are not a trained or credentialed therapist, working therapeutically with clients in these moments is important.  Be sensitive to what your client has gone through and what he or she is continuing to go through with an ex-spouse who struggles with mental illness and/or active addiction.  Because of what they have been through, these sorts of clients may require additional time, reassurance, support, and guidance from you.

Know Your Bandwidth and Set Limits 

Being compassionate with your client, who is struggling with his or her ex-spouse’s behavior, doesn’t mean offering more of yourself professionally than you are able to give.  Inasmuch as these sorts of clients may require additional time, make sure you have that time before agreeing to take on the case.  Setting limits on how and when you will communicate is also important when problems occur for your client with his or her ex-spouse in the co-parenting of the children.  Do you want to give out your cell phone number to your client?  Do you want to receive calls from your client over the weekend or during a crisis? 

Help Your Client Become Realistic about Their Situation

When your client’s ex-spouse is suffering from mental illness and/or active addiction, your client may understandably become emotional, defensive and/or reactive when their ex-spouse behaves poorly.  It may be difficult — and at times not even possible — to reason successfully with an ex who is suffering from severe mental health problems or active substance abuse or alcoholism.  However, while your client may have strong feelings that his or her ex-spouse should not be around the children, the ex-spouse may still have the legal right.  Managing your client’s expectations is important and you should help your client to understand and accept the reality at hand; your client should stop expecting his or her ex-spouse to behave differently when the ex-spouse is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to change.

Help Your Client Minimize Contact and Simplify Communication  

Just because your client has a child or children with their ex-spouse, doesn’t mean he or she needs to be in contact often.  In fact, limiting contact in a toxic co-parenting relationship is probably a good idea for all involved, especially the children who could be exposed to upsetting exchanges or behaviors.  Perhaps you could invite your client to think about all of the ways and all of the areas he or she currently communicates with his or her ex-spouse, and ask the client if what he or she is doing is necessary or productive.

Certainly all divorced parents need to communicate about certain things when raising children (e.g., academics/schooling, doctor’s appointments, sport teams, etc.), and especially if something important arises, or if there’s an emergency.  However, establishing ground rules for productive communication with one’s ex-spouse in these situations is very important.  Your client receiving 100 angry texts from his or her ex-spouse after a visitation exchange of the children is not acceptable and does not need to be tolerated.

Encourage Your Client to Speak Positively to the Children 

Regardless of how bad your client’s co-parenting relationship is with his or her ex-spouse, speaking negatively about the ex to the children is never a good idea.  Even if your client feels justified in his or her position that their ex is a horrible person, the ex-spouse is still their child’s other parent and always will be.  Thus, it’s a good thing to recommend that your client keep his or her statements about their ex-spouse respectful in the presence of the children.

As difficult as it may be for your client to accept, he or she may need to be reminded (and perhaps several times) that it’s not his or her place to predetermine the child’s relationship with their ex – even when mental illness or alcoholism or substance abuse is present.  If your client must discuss his or her ex-spouse’s problematic behavior with the children, encourage him or her to choose their words carefully and think long and hard about the message; having a respectful and loving manner is important inasmuch as there may come a day when your client’s ex-spouse makes positive changes in his or her life.

Your client’s children have the rest of their lives to figure out their relationships with their mentally ill or substance abusing parent, so it’s important that your client give his or her child the respectful space to do that.  Your client’s ex-spouse will likely be at the same graduations, weddings, etc., and the children need to feel good about themselves in those moments; they shouldn’t be placed per force in the unhealthy position of worrying about how their mother and father will get along.

Encourage Your Client to Take Care of His or Her Children 

Divorce for a child is hard enough to manage, and being the child of a parent with mental illness or alcoholism or substance abuse is an additional burden.  Thus, encouraging your client to check in with his or her child or children frequently and providing ample support and guidance is important when a toxic ex is involved in their lives.  And keeping life as calm and consistent as possible for the child is also a good thing.  Counseling for your client’s child or children can also be helpful, and is often necessary, since having a parent with a mental health condition or some form of active addiction can be difficult to understand, accept, and manage.

Encourage Your Client to Model a Healthy Lifestyle for the Involved Children 

Because of your client’s difficult co-parenting situation, self-care is essential.  Psychotherapy, exercise, eat healthily, spending time with close friends and family, getting enough rest and setting near-term goals (and achieving them), are not luxuries but necessities for stress management.


More from Family Lawyer Magazine

Managing Clients’ Psychological Responses to Divorce and Child Custody Disputes

Representing the Emotionally-Abused Client in High-Conflict Divorce

Techniques to Improve Communications with Clients


Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., NCCE, NCPC, is the Founder and Director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services.  Dr. Oberschneider is also a licensed clinical psychologist and a nationally certified custody evaluator and parenting coordinator.  He is a Washingtonian Magazine “Top Therapist” who has also appeared as a mental health expert on Good Morning America, CNN, NPR, and other popular news agencies.   www.ashburnpsych.com