Verbally abusive ex and 12yo son


My ex and have a 12yr old son. We split due to ex's verbal abuse and currently have a unique living situation. As we own our home and have a unit in the lower half of the house, I have moved down there for financial reasons as well as being able to be close to my son. We have come up with a custody schedule that works but my son is often in my unit as he prefers to be with me. He has recently told me things that are really disturbing to me: Dad called me asshole and said fuck you to my face. My friends don't want to come over when dad is in charge because he's mean to me in front of them. I don't feel supported by dad. I didn't share the fact that I was getting bullied at school with him because I don't think he will do anything about it.

I have witnessed my ex being harsh in his consequences -as in punishment doesn't fit the crime so to speak - and have had to step in. He recently accused our son of stealing money (almost $200!) but my son denies this and says he didn't even know that dad kept money in the house. I know kids do stupid things, but honestly believe him. However, my ex "still has a bitter taste in his mouth toward our son" (his words) over this issue and has lashed out at him because of this. I don't know what happened with the money - ex tends to be absent minded and disorganized but regardless I believe my son. We are close and I know him well. 

My question is : How do I support my son without vilifying his dad? I was the victim of verbal abuse from a parent and know how horrible it feels - not to mention having tolerated years of abuse from ex.  I can't control others' behavior but what can I do to support my kid and make sure he doesn't internalize this or worse start acting this way? Are there books specifically for kids around this so I am using age appropriate language? In some ways I feel I'm very well equipped to support him given my experience. However, I also realize that dealing with my ex is VERY emotionally triggering for me, my mama bear instinct kicks into high gear. But I can't help but think that I really don't want to sour his relationship with his dad. Do I tell dad what kid has been telling me about him? I tend to think yes.

I would also like to know if it is possible to sue(?) request(?) 100% custody because of verbal abuse. How can I prove this is happening? Ex says one thing, kid another - ex tends to rarely take accountability for his words/actions and if he does it's short lived, it WILL happen again. I just want to protect and empower my son. I don't want him feeling and growing up with the issues I've had to face and overcome in my life. 

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I’m so sorry you’re going through this. There is an amazing book called “helping kids cope the sandcastles way” by Gary Neuman. It’s written for parents with kids of all ages managing divorce. It helps you learn the best way to talk to your kid through this difficult time. It’s not recommended to share the ins and outs of what he may saying when your son is not around. You’re absolutely right to want to support him without vilifying the father - he should make his own opinion on him. 

I would recommend finding a therapist for you that specializes in couples, divorce, and children. The therapist can help you identify healthy ways to support your son and also give you an outlet to manage understandable frustrations you have while going through this. 

If you’re genuinely concerned with verbal and emotional abuse you should contact child protective services. It’s your son’s right to not be abused and involving them can assist in insuring his emotional well-being. If you’re not sure if the abuse is to the threshold of emotional abuse, you can also get him a therapist (separate from your own - this is important for multiple reasons) to assess and then support your son through this. If abuse is suspected the provider would then notify CPS. What’s important to remember is that your responsibility is to protect your child from abuse, so act on your instincts (but not emotions).

At 12 years old your son can be heard in court and has a say in where he lives. It seems problematic that you live downstairs from your ex. I would suggest finding alternative living arrangements if at all possible. I would do this first while talking to your lawyer.Then when you are settled  elsewhere request the hearing and have your son state his preference. He can choose to say why in detail if he wants no visitation but otherwise he can give a limited reasoning that this is what he wants. I would NOT discuss this with your ex before you have a safe space as he sounds like he holds grudges and could retaliate against your son. If you want to protect him figure out how to be the primary parent without putting him in the crossfire. Good luck! Be brave! 

I think you should contact your lawyer and request of the court that you get full physical custody. The courts will most likely evaluate his parenting as well as yours. They also might require him to take parenting classes which might (?) help. I would not want my son to be raised with this type of parent. He will end up repeating the pattern or will marry someone who treats him badly ( just as you did.) The state of CA is very pro 50/50 custody but in my case I was awarded full custody as my husband was an alcoholic and I provided the judge with enough evidence of the impact it had in my kids that I won. Good luck!

To get 100% custody, I think you will need documentation. Get your son a cell phone that record video. After he and his father get used to it, he can start recording conversations. If you have a few recordings of abusive situations, you may be able to get 100% custody. 

In regards to supporting your son without vilifying his father, I have some suggestions.  No name calling. I think you need to state facts and then how you feel about it. For example, don't call his father an "assh*le" or  "bast*rd" or even an "abuser." Just say, "I understand that he is yelling at you and I think that is wrong." "I know he criticizes you all the time and I think he shouldn't." I think it find to verify the facts and how you feel about it. 


California has very strict privacy laws about recording [audio or video] confidential communications, which is defined more broadly than you might think.  Please talk to a lawyer BEFORE following the suggestion to buy your son a cell phone and record his interactions with his father.  That might be a crime.  He could not be charged; you could be.  

First, I'm sorry your son is going through this. He is close to the age when courts start listening to the child's preference, so I would consult a lawyer about getting increased or full physical custody. That said, please be careful not to share what your son said with your ex. Not only is your ex likely to retaliate, "parental alienation" is something that is weaponized against mothers and children in family court. Your son can record the interactions with his dad if he feels safe doing so. Don't record (or share any recordings of ) your son saying negative things about his dad to you -- it will be read as you coaching him. You can call CPS if there's an urgent situation, but this too is often discounted if a co-parent calls it in, so it's better for the school or other third party to call CPS if they witness abusive behavior.

I have some strong opinions. I hope my thoughts and experience is helpful to you. I've been there, too, and dealt with all this. I understand all the emotions that go with it. I have a 10-year-old son, his father was/is abusive, to me, and to our son. It has been a long journey to where we are now where his father is mostly now what I call "contained" and less abusive (because he constantly has at least a few professionals looking over his shoulder, and he desperately wants to uphold his fake dad-of-the-year facade).  I send good energy and strength to you and your son.

First: do you have official custody orders at all at this time? It sounds like perhaps not, if your arrangements are currently agreed upon between you informally? This matters. You have a lot more options, one of which would be to gather evidence, enlist the aid of a domestic violence agency like STAND, move and take your son with you, immediately file for a restraining order and simultaneously file an "ex parte" motion for full legal and physical custody, and his father placed on supervised visitation only or have his visitation entirely suspended for a period of time (or even indefinitely, depending on the severity of the abuse and how much you are able to prove). Alternatively you could file for the restraining order and custody orders while taking temporary shelter somewhere, and get his abusive father kicked out of the house. Remember, abuse is a crime. I'm not a lawyer. You need advice. More on this later.

Next: How to support him? Sounds like you are doing really well there, so give yourself a hug, ok? Seriously. This is not an easy situation. Next, get your son into therapy, and yourself as well. There are so many reasons why it would be a good idea. Therapy was a miracle for me and my son. At one point, my son's therapist independently filed a report against his father to CFS for emotional/verbal abuse and neglect, which did eventually help in court. Therapists are "mandated reporters." This report is the main reason I have maintained sole custody and my son's father has only limited visitation time with him.

I understand the desire to not sour or hurt your son's relationship with his dad. Remember, however, that his dad is the one doing the souring. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that concept. I think therapy can help to guide in finding ways to talk to your son about everything and address the abuse in age-appropriate ways. Some abuse is insidious and the courts are less likely to react for prolonged periods, but we know they are just as harmful - such as the emotional, verbal, and manipulation kinds. So your son may have to continue to put up with that for a long time before a court might step in. this is why you might indeed have to gather evidence.

I agree with other posters about NOT telling your ex what your son has been telling you. Just my opinion. Abusers do not take kindly to being called out. This might harm your son's trust, even though you obviously wouldn't want that as a result. I have personal experience here and can share in a private message if you want. So after getting your son to a therapist, talk to them about how to approach this to see if there is any point in trying to broach the subject directly with the father.

I have more opinions to share but am about to run out of room. I'll leave another post.

Ok. Post continued. Again I am not an attorney, and I'm mentioning that since none of what I am saying is legal advice, just my opinions and knowledge from my own research and my own custody case history.

I agree with the parent poster "AboutTheSame" regarding her advice to talk to a lawyer. It is important to understand your and your son's rights. With that said, I also agree with another poster who suggested getting your son a cell phone so that he can start to covertly record abusive behavior from his dad. There are some circumstances under which video/voice recordings can be used legally in the state of California even when one party did not consent. Read California Penal Code 635.5 and CA Statute 633.6. Domestic Violence, including verbal and emotional abuse, can serve as the motive to record interactions as evidence of violence. Case law has supported this. Can you find a way to covertly install something yourself that may catch the abuse -- an invisible nanny cam hidden in something, like a new alarm clock, that your son can put in his room in your ex's part of the house? Or a hidden wireless nanny cam that you can hide in the home somewhere? California court recently held that a parent who reasonably fears harm or abuse to her child can consent to a secret recording, or essentially a parent can use a secret nanny cam without consent from the suspected abusive caregiver.  
lso see here:   (I don't work for this law firm. I feel this is just a relatively well-written blog explaining this statute).

Additionally, one can record someone without their consent in any "public" place, where there is no "reasonable expectation of privacy," or where any rational person would not expect to have privacy or where they might possibly be overheard (i.e...  when the dad is yelling at and verbally abusing the son in front of son's friends). At the very least you yourself should start saving all emails, texts, voicemail messages, and start recording all interactions with him, immediately.

Important: your son, if he were to try a secret video-recording app, would need to know how to use it completely covertly. This will ensure his safety. Is he mature and emotionally healthy enough to handle this? If you are uncertain, then this may not be a good option. And, he's still young. Seek the advice of a therapist about this? 

Definitely talk to an attorney, one who knows the CA statutes -AND- case law findings regarding abuse of a minor, DV, custody cases involving verbal abuse, and getting recorded evidence admitted whether for Domestic Violence proceedings (and find out if under limited circumstances it might be admissible in family court.) It is not impossible. Just need to find a knowledgeable attorney. Be careful. You don't need to wait to start recording your ex yourself - If I were you, I would just do it (and I do, on a regular basis, still record all interactions with my ex - and have had them admitted to court before).

Please feel free to reach out. You're not alone. Take care and keep going.