Creating A Parallel Parenting Plan: Pros, Cons, And Tips For Success

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Divorce or separation can be hard, especially when it affects younger or older children's lives and involves significant animosity between parents. In cases like these, co-parenting may be challenging, and the two caregivers might find it difficult to interact on topics related to their child without stress or conflict for the whole family. That's why some may choose to engage in a parenting arrangement known as parallel parenting. Read on to learn about what it is, when parallel parenting may be helpful, and how it works in mutual parenting responsibilities.

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Is parallel parenting right for your family?

What is parallel parenting?

Parallel parenting is a strategy where separated parents, often in high-conflict situations, interact with each other as little as possible in their co-parenting relationship.

Parallel parenting minimizes direct contact and will usually not attend events or appointments related to the child together, either. In many cases, major decisions to be made about the child might be split by category and only collaborated on in extreme situations, or only via one limited, infrequent medium.

Parallel parenting allows both parents to maintain a complete relationship with their child while avoiding potentially distressing contact with each other as much as possible. Parents may choose this style if they find maintaining a civil relationship with their former partner to be challenging or not possible. It can be a short-term solution until they can address their interpersonal issues, or it may be a framework they rely on long-term.

In some cases, family and conciliation courts may order a parenting coordinator to oversee the implementation of parallel parenting for those with a history of disagreements and animosity in order to safeguard the child's well-being. A detailed parallel parenting agreement that covers as many aspects of the child's future as possible may be drawn up in these cases to further minimize parental interactions.

Parallel parenting versus co-parenting

The opposite of parallel parenting is co-parenting, where both parents actively work together in parenting arrangements to raise the child despite maintaining separate households. However, this method often requires good, or at least civil, family relationships between the parents. They need to be able to engage in flexible, effective communication frequently and be generally willing to cooperate for the sake of their child's well-being. Both households will typically be aligned on their parenting plans, rules, and expectations in order to provide the child with consistent routines and guidance. This will likely entail frequent phone calls, text messages, the use of co-parenting apps, and/or in-person meetings to discuss topics related to the child without conflict.

Co-parenting isn't ideal for all families after the end of a relationship, however. For some, successful parallel parenting may be the best way to provide a healthy, supportive environment for the child.

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Pros and cons of parallel parenting

Parallel parenting can be the best option for families in certain situations. Here are a few key potential benefits of this parenting arrangement for both the parents and children involved:

  • The child won't be exposed to parental conflict, such as direct fighting and hostility between the parents, which can be damaging.

  • The child gets to maintain a relationship with both parents.

  • Parents don't have to expend any more energy on their relationship with each other and can instead focus on parenting responsibilities for their child.

  • Parents can also take time to heal from the conflict that may have been present leading up to and during their separation or divorce proceedings with minimal negative impact on the child.

That said, there are some potential drawbacks to this parenting style. The child may experience regular disruption to their routines or confusion about what behavior is acceptable due to differing schedules and styles in the two households. Since parallel parents don't generally have ongoing collaboration on their approach to parenting, these may differ significantly. In general, both adults will have to trust that their former partner has and will keep their child's well-being and best interests at heart during parenting time.

How parallel parenting works

To better understand how families may function when this parenting style is used, let’s take a look at some of its key components. Note that while not every point below will apply to every family or situation, they offer a general outline for how parallel parenting works for many families.

It begins with a plan

The most effective parallel parenting arrangement is typically based on clear rules and expectations that are established at the start. Since one of the goals of this setup is for the parents to have as little ongoing contact as possible with each other, creating comprehensive parallel parenting plans with provisions for as many potential future situations as you can think of is usually helpful. If parallel parenting was court-ordered, you’ll likely be assigned a mediator to help the two of you create a plan. If not, you may still consider hiring family law attorneys to help keep you and your former partner on track through this process so you can create a fair agreement that will be best for your child. Either way, you'll likely want to make sure the plan is as comprehensive as possible and that the legal representatives of both parents have a copy of it on file.

These types of plans should typically include things like:

  • Formal child custody arrangements and schedules

  • Holiday and vacation schedules

  • Communication rules and contingency plans for emergencies and delays

  • A formal process for making joint custody decisions about the child’s schooling and extracurricular activities

  • Medical care plans and a framework for decision-making and contingencies

  • Agreements on significant parenting issues that will affect both households, such as cell phones, internet usage, dating guidelines, etc.

  • Consequences for not following the parenting plan

Communication is limited

One hallmark of parallel parenting is limited communication between one parent and their co-parent. That said, every situation is unique. Some parents may not communicate at all or only through their legal representatives. Others may only communicate monthly via a businesslike email with basic updates, or they may have a journal where they document any important details about their most recent parenting time with the child (notable events, illnesses, behavioral problems, etc.). Regardless of the exact format, the goal is to limit communication between parents in order to limit stress and conflict for everyone, particularly in situations of parenting after divorce.

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Is parallel parenting right for your family?

Both parents respect the decisions of the other

Part of parallel parenting is that you simply won’t have as much say over the details of your child’s life when they’re with your former partner. Besides what’s outlined in the agreement, you generally have to respect their decisions and trust that they’ll be in the child’s best interest. You should be able to expect the same from them. One exception to this, however, is if you suspect or find out that your child’s other parent is engaging in behavior or making decisions that are putting your child in danger.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.

The child is safeguarded from conflict

Again, one of the key aims of this parenting style is to shield the child from witnessing conflict or animosity between their parents. Peer reviewed studies suggest that children who are regularly exposed to their parents fighting may experience a range of negative effects, including anxiety, stress, hopelessness, aggressive behavior, sleep disturbances, frequent illness, trouble in school, and difficulty forming healthy peer relationships. That’s why sticking to the plan of minimal communication between parents is usually best in this type of situation, unless/until they become able to interact with each other in a healthy, civil way in the future.

Takeaway

Working with a therapist may help you identify and work through your emotions about the divorce or separation while building healthy coping mechanisms and parenting strategies for the transition to parallel parenting. A therapist can also act as a nonjudgmental listener as you process your emotions and handle challenges along the way. 

Some busy parents find it difficult to attend in-person sessions with a therapist regularly. In cases like these, online therapy can provide an effective alternative. Research suggests that online parenting interventions like therapy can be an effective alternative to appointments in a traditional office setting, so you can typically choose the format that feels best for you. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to get support for the challenges you may be experiencing.

The parenting style that a separated or divorced couple with a child may choose depends on their unique situation and their own parenting approach. For some, parallel parenting is an option that allows them to each have a close relationship with their child going forward while making independent parenting decisions, but that involves minimal interaction with each other, often not even being in the same room. If you’re looking for helpful parenting tips or just a listening ear while you navigate the challenges of parenting, connecting with a qualified therapist may be a good idea.

Explore the complexities of parenting in therapy

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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