Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting

Co-parenting is a concept that most people are familiar with, but you may not have heard of parallel parenting before. So, what exactly is parallel parenting? In simple terms, it’s a version of co-parenting that divorced parents use when they prefer to have limited interaction with each other. This approach is commonly used in high-conflict divorces.

When I went through my divorce in 2010, parallel parenting wasn’t a widely known term. Because I had difficulties communicating with my ex-spouse, I naturally started parallel parenting without even realizing it. I questioned whether I was doing something wrong by not being able to co-parent in the ideal way described by the court. Looking back, I wish I had known how to intentionally establish an alternative parenting arrangement.

If you’re going through a divorce, in the midst of one, or struggling with co-parenting, it might be beneficial to understand parallel parenting as an option. In this article, I’ll cover the following topics:

Understanding the Difference Between Co-Parenting and Parallel Parenting

Not all divorces are the same, and every parenting situation is unique. However, there are certain characteristics that differentiate co-parenting from parallel parenting.

Co-parenting involves:

  • Amicable communication with your former spouse
  • Mutual decision-making when necessary
  • Calm discussions about deviations from the parenting plan
  • Attending events and special occasions without any issues
  • Sharing financial responsibilities and being able to discuss them directly
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On the other hand, parallel parenting entails:

  • Limiting direct contact with your ex-spouse
  • Handling important decisions on your own and involving the other parent only in emergencies
  • Keeping financial responsibilities separate
  • Strictly following the parenting plan to avoid conflicts
  • Celebrating holidays and birthdays separately, and possibly taking turns attending performances or sporting events

Choosing Between Parallel Parenting and Co-Parenting

While a cooperative co-parenting relationship is ideal, it may not always be possible. In such cases, parallel parenting can be a viable alternative. However, the decision to adopt this parenting style doesn’t always involve mutual agreement.

Typically, a family court judge or mediator will initially encourage a divorcing couple to co-parent. If conflicts arise during the divorce proceedings, the mediator or one of the attorneys may suggest parallel parenting as a suitable alternative.

Some parents find themselves in parallel parental roles due to personal circumstances. For instance, if you’ve experienced spousal abuse or have been attempting to co-parent with a narcissistic ex-spouse, you may choose parallel parenting as the only viable option. This decision may or may not be endorsed by a lawyer or judge.

If you’ve been co-parenting but are facing difficulties, it’s worth considering whether parallel parenting could help you and your former spouse become more effective parents going forward. Before making a decision, here are a few factors to consider.

Review Your Legally Binding Parenting Plan

Ideally, you should incorporate specific details about how you’ll interact with your ex-spouse into your initial legal agreement. In high-conflict divorces, a judge or mediator may recommend a detailed parallel parenting plan. This plan could include:

  • Scheduled communication with your child when they’re at the other parent’s home
  • Pick-up and drop-off locations, as well as other custody-related arrangements
  • Approval of mutually agreed caregivers
  • Handling the selection and payment of extracurricular activities
  • Adjustments to child custody percentages if there are changes in employment or circumstances
  • Determining the child’s school up until high school
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Having this level of detail can prevent confusion and minimize communication between divorced parents. If you’re already divorced, you might want to add some of these details to your existing parenting agreement. Explore whether you have any legal flexibility to transition to parallel parenting without going back to court.

Consider the Effects on Your Child’s Life

Moving to parallel parenting can have various effects on your children, depending on their age and their previous experiences with your relationship with their other parent.

Initially, your children may experience some difficulties as their routines and the attendance of certain events change. Children of divorce are naturally sensitive to changes in their lives. However, temporary challenges don’t necessarily mean that parallel parenting is a wrong decision. Over time, if parallel parenting reduces parental conflict, it will likely have a positive cumulative effect.

When making decisions about changes to your divorce arrangements, try to think like a judge. Judges prioritize the needs of the children above all else. Although you may not be able to predict every detail regarding how a change will affect your child, keeping your child’s well-being as the priority will help you and your former spouse make sound decisions.

Focus on Your Well-Being

While your child’s experience of your co-parenting relationship is important, your own mental health is equally crucial. If you believe you’ve given traditional co-parenting your best effort and it’s not working, you may need to make a change to protect yourself from further emotional damage or excessive stress. When you’re not okay, your child will sense it too.

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Trying parallel parenting could reduce conflict between you and your child’s other parent, or at the very least, help remove a source of stress, allowing you to be more present during your parenting time.

These are just a few factors to consider before deciding to switch to parallel parenting. In complex cases, it’s advisable to seek legal advice to thoroughly assess the pros and cons of parallel parenting versus co-parenting.

Making Parallel Parenting Work

Once you’ve decided on parallel parenting, whether through legal channels or mutual agreement, you may have questions about how it works on a day-to-day basis. Here are some tips for getting the most out of parallel parenting:

  • Avoid unnecessary conversations with your ex-spouse. Even if you don’t agree with their actions, it’s best to refrain from starting conversations. Parallel parenting works better when both parties make independent decisions within the agreed-upon guidelines.
  • Use convenient tools to minimize communication and keep records. Utilize a shared calendar to reduce the need for constant updates about your child’s events and to keep track of parenting time. Consider using the Onward App to simplify discussions about shared expenses.
  • Let go of the need to know what’s happening when your child is not with you. This may be the most challenging aspect, but it can have the most significant impact. Over time, you’ll learn to trust that your child will return home safely. Instead of worrying during your free time, allow their life with the other parent to unfold naturally.

Conclusion: Choosing the Best Parenting Approach for You

In my experience, parallel parenting can be just as effective as co-parenting as long as you prioritize your child’s needs and feelings. If you believe parallel parenting would benefit your situation, thinking about how to implement it ahead of time will help you manage the details and interact with your former spouse in a respectful manner from the moment your divorce is finalized. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting after a divorce.

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