What Is Parallel Parenting and Is It Right for Your Family?

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The end of a relationship does not necessarily signal the end of a productive and cooperative relationship between parents. No longer being in love does not mean that the two are incapable of getting along in a platonic manner, especially when children are involved. Co-parenting is a common solution to the question of how to raise children in a separated household, but a co parenting relationship may not be the best solution for every family. The alternative method known as parallel parenting could provide a healthier, more supportive environment for your children. Still, it is important to keep in mind your own personal wellbeing and talking to an online therapist is a great way to get more support.

The Alternative: Co-Parenting

What is co-parenting?

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Co-parenting is when two parents, after a separation, raise their children together. Co-parents will often have their children move from house-to-house on a predetermined schedule. Unlike in parallel parenting, there is a lot of flexibility and effective communication in a co parenting arrangement, due to the cooperative nature. This would include consistency in the two households parenting plan, in terms of rules and expectations of each co parent and child. It also includes rather frequent communication through text messages, phone calls, and in-person meetings.

What Are The Problems With Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting and parallel parenting both have their flaws. When separated couples have been unable to reach reconciliation for whatever reason, structuring the complex parenting relationship in a co-parenting style can present multiple hurdles. For instance, open lines of communication between parents, through the child’s youth and young adulthood, are necessary for making parenting decisions. Parents will also be in the same room at special occasions like graduations and/or weddings. However, co-parenting can have several negative impacts on children, especially if parents are constantly getting on each other’s nerves.

The conflict between parents creates an environment in which children can blame themselves, feel guilty, or form other harmful thought habits. On the other hand, kids can sometimes fantasize about the possibility of their parents reconciling if certain boundaries are not kept clear. Parents in co-parenting situations often expect their kids to pick sides (which could also be true in parallel parenting), which can lead to them having a bad relationship with one, or even both, of their parents. It can also lead to mental health and well being issues in children.

The Parent-Child Relationship Is Key

Research done by Wake Forest University professor Linda Nielsen shows that, aside from situations of extreme conflict, the quality of the parent-child relationship is the strongest indicator of a child’s future success and happiness. If parents are unable to cooperate for any reason, parallel parenting sets up a fragile framework that puts children’s best interests in jeopardy. This situation may allow each parent time and space for themselves, but it also allows them to avoid the ongoing prejudice that a sole physical custody solution can fuel.

What Is Parallel Parenting and How Does It Work?

Parallel parenting is a more structured system that allows for joint custody of children without the traditionally frequent communication that is necessitated by co-parenting. The child splits their time between parents, but the parents behave more like two single parents than as a divorced couple.

Each parent’s space and time is their own, allowing them to interact with their child on their terms and set up the rules and expectations that they prefer. Parallel parenting does not mean there is no contact between parents at all. Instead, that communication is limited to strictly necessary information, which might be exchanged in circumstances like medical care emergencies rather than day to day decision making .

What Is The Goal Of Parallel Style Parenting?

When compared to a traditional co-parenting structure, parallel parenting offers the benefit of increased separation between parents who may not yet be ready to communicate with each other in a mature, responsible fashion. One of the main benefits of a parallel parenting agreement is that it seeks to eliminate as many possible causes of conflict as possible. Each parent is given the space to live their own life and practice their parenting style with their own set of rules and routines, all the while having limited communication with the other parent.

One of the other benefits is that a parallel parenting arrangement can give children a shot at having a healthy, conflict-free upbringing without losing a relationship with one or both of their parents. In the ideal situation, children avoid seeing any conflict between their parents, and parents’ hostilities have time to cool as they work toward a less rigid co-parenting situation that serves the whole family’s best interests.

What Does This Look Like In Practice?

The key to effective implementation of a parallel parenting solution is effective planning. Conflict arising after divorce is entirely unsurprising, but carefully laid out rules can circumvent issues before they escalate further. Every situation is unique, so the following advice may not work perfectly for your family. Regardless, it can provide a good place to start in improving the health of your parenting arrangement.

Family law attorneys can help you with family law matters such as parallel parenting plans. In extreme cases, such as situations where domestic violence was prevalent, they may suggest you ask for full custody in family court. It is important your attorney client relationship involves full disclosure about domestic violence or any other child custody issues, so they can best support you and your family’s needs.

As stated on the Ochoa Family Law Attorney’s website (a family law practice in San Diego and Orange County, California), you should “expect the other parent to be unreasonable and plan accordingly.” This means while you think you have a good idea of what parallel parenting will look like in practice, it’s important to understand that child custody cases and family law litigation rarely goes according to plan.

Having A Specific Plan Ahead Of Time

Parents using parallel parenting should lay out a specific plan so that they don’t need to consult with one another often about how parallel parenting works. This parallel parenting plan should encompass details like the start and end dates for each section of time with a parent, including when, where, and how they will exchange their child. This meeting should occur in a neutral location to reduce high conflict situations. It could be a public area, to encourage both parents to be on their most sociable behavior, or a private one if public spaces tend to provide one party with an audience to create conflict. Minutia in parenting responsibilities, such as transportation details and what the child should bring, all need to be laid out for the parallel parenting structure to work as intended. 

There should also be provisions for how cancellations, or schedule changes (such as vacation schedules) will work in parallel parenting plans, though they should be avoided to maintain overall neutrality towards one another in regards to parenting time. No changes to parenting time exchanges may occur without documented permission. A process for handling disputes should be outlined as well, and anything that the court order leaves vague must be addressed if using parallel parenting plans. The higher the level of conflict between parties, the higher the structure and detail within the plan must be to minimize the need for communication and cooperation between feuding and high conflict parents.

In The Rare Situation When Communication Is Necessary…

When it is necessary in parallel parenting, the limited communication you do have should be impersonal and neutral, especially in high conflict cases. Make a point to have all correspondence, including via text messages, be business-oriented. What you communicate should focus purely on the required details, with no opinions about parenting techniques appended. Each parent thus becomes responsible for learning about their child’s health, moods, grades, activities, and obligations on their own, rather than hearing about them from the other parent. They should hear nothing about the other party’s life or how they have chosen to raise their child when limiting communication through parallel parenting.

Have An Outside (Neutral) Opinion

A neutral third party may be able to help coordinate in high conflict situations, if necessary. The court may appoint a parenting coordinator to a household using the parallel parenting structure or, if no such party is specified, may be agreed upon by the parents. Parallel parenting allows this person to help facilitate exchanges, meetings, the divulging of information, and any other processes that the parents cannot be expected to carry out impartially.

What Are The Benefits Of Parallel Style Parenting?

The main goal and benefit of a parallel parenting structure is its ability to keep your kid out of the middle of parents’ conflict. Children can handle divorce and come to terms with their parents seeing new people. However, they should never need to endure the behavior of parents who actively undermine each other.

Philip Stahl, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Parenting After Divorce, writes in his book:

“When parents divorce, children hope the fighting will go away so that they can get some peace in their life. Many children might not mind the divorce if their parents would finally learn to get along better. After the divorce, children want peace in their lives, and they want the opportunity to love both of their parents without loyalty conflicts. Instead, when conflicts worsen, children are left with many wounds.

These wounds and prolonged frustration can include feelings of disillusionment, fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and other such emotions. Children develop loyalty conflicts and become afraid to love both of their parents or to express their love for one parent in front of the other parent.” (http://parentingafterdivorce.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ParallelParentingForHighConflictFamilies1.pdf)

The benefits of a parallel parenting arrangement includes giving children the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, giving both parents the right to have a relationship with their child without any interference, and minimizing contact and communication, to lower the risk of further conflict.

What Do Parallel Parents Look Like?

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It is important to remember that parallel parenting arrangements are not necessarily the final solution for a divided household. It is far easier to loosen rules down the road than it is to become more strict and structured, so a parallel parenting arrangement provides an excellent stepping stone for parents who maintain hope for reconciliation and being able to talk down the line. It affords them time away, which can allow wounds to heal and circumvents the fear of losing their relationship with their child that may occur in sole custody or a poorly executed, toxic co-parenting situation.

It is important to remember that parallel parenting is not a magic salve for the pains of a bitter divorce. It will not succeed if both parties do not want it to succeed. If one parent grills the child about what the other is up to the minute their custody period begins, the child is thrust back into the middle of the conflict.

What parallel parenting does do is increase the chances that both parties can have the relationship with their child that they desire without interference, and that they will have the time they need to come to terms with their new role in the life of their family.

When parents cannot see eye-to-eye about how to proceed, parallel parenting presents an avenue for progress and stability. It shifts the focus away from simply getting the other parent to cooperate and instead toward spending quality time with their child.

If you choose to proceed with parallel parenting or another type of parenting, keep in mind that healing after divorce can take a very long time no matter what. It is up to the parents how to proceed, but the children should always stay at the forefront of the discussion. Children deserve a chance at a normal childhood, and it is not fair to clutter a child’s developmental years with worry about family conflict and aggression.

How You Can Reach Out For Help

Navigating through a separation is indescribably hard. Whether you choose parallel parenting or another style, you may want to recruit professional help to counsel you through parenting your children in the way that works best for your family. BetterHelp is an online counseling company with hundreds of licensed therapists that can help provide online counseling to you and your family through this difficult time.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

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