The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Parallel Parenting

What is parallel parenting?

Parallel parenting is a parenting methed for high-conflict divorced or separated parents that share child custody. The goal of parallel parenting is to control communication so that conflict is averted.  Parallel parenting grants each parent independence from one another, while still enabling each parent to make child-rearing decisions for their children.

With parallel parenting, the parents do not have to consult each other or seek approval when making decisions on their children's behald.  Rather, each parent agrees to let the other parent make their own decisions, in exchange for them being able to do the same.  Parents who are able to successfully engage in parallel parenting, ackowledge that high-conflict parenting is much worse for the children than being in agreement with the other parent on child-rearing issues.

How does parallel parenting differ from co-parenting?

It could be said that parallel parenting is a form of co-parenting, only it implies that the parents must be guarded with how they choose to communicate because of the potential for conflict.  The primary difference between co-parenting and parallel parenting is "how" parents will communicate.

Co-parenting Communication
Co-parenting parents can openly discuss issues with one another.  The potential for conflict is low, and each parent can bring up issues without worrying that the topic will trigger an argument.  Verbal communication is effective for co-parents.

Parallel Parenting Communication
People who need to communicate in a parallel parenting relationship, must find ways to do so without offending the other person.  Any verbal communication should be limited, avoided, and/or treated with a "walking-on-eggshells" approach.  Communication is best performed electronically with email or online divorce software capable of sharing information about the children.

Why do divorced parents choose parallel parenting over co-parenting?

Parallel parenting is a good choice for divorced parents who meet two criteria:

  1. They are committed to the idea that a child deserves and benefits from having both parents deeply involved in their children's lives;
  2. They have too much conflict between themselves to be able to co-parent.

The primary reason that split parents choose to follow a parallel parenting plan is that they are determined to stay out of conflict for the sake of their children. Much research that has demonstrated that children of divorce are prone to many negative effects, such as an increased chance of substance abuse, diminished self-esteem, lower grades, and an increase chance of being divorced themselves (Amato, 2000; Krishnakumar & Buehler, 2000); however, it has also been shown that the divorce itself, is not the cause.  The divorce merely correlates to those negative effects, but the causal factor is largely believed to be the ongoing conflict that many divorced parents engage in following the divorce.   Therefore, it is extremely important that parents find ways to eliminate that conflict, and parallel parenting is very good at doing that for many high-conflict parents.

There is still a need to have a relationship with the other parent, for the sake of the children.  Some communication is necessary between the parents, since the children will spend a significant about of time in the home of that other parent.  But not every detail needs to be communicated.  What should, and what should not be communicated should be discussed in a parenting plan

A parenting plan is important because it will enhance important communication and prevent communication that is not necessary.  Further, a parenting plan provides guidance on how to minimize and manage any disagreements that do arise.

What is meant by "disengagement" with regard to parallel parenting?

"Disengagement" is merely a term that means to avoid the communication that leads to conflict.  If talking verbally about a child-related issue will lead to an argument, don't talk verbally about that issue.  Communicate via email, online divorce software, or some other means.  If certain topics are likely to trigger conflict, avoid discussing those topics.  Think of conflict as the worst situation your family can be in.  Remember that conflict is ultimately what leads to the negative effects that children of divorce experience.  If communicating a certain issue is not going to be beneficial and might lead to conflict, don't communicate it.

Parallel parenting more or less communicates only the topics that the other parent "needs to know", and each parent should understand that idea.  Disengagement does not only apply to the person who is delivering the communication, but the recipient, as well.  It becomes critical that the person who is being communicated to, does not overreact to issues they don't agree with.  Parallel parenting not only requires that the parents learn to "pick their battles", but that they learn to avoid most battles altogether.  It requires that each parent understands and accepts that they will not always get their way - that they each have their own ideas on parenting and that they recognize that children are much more able to adapt to two completely different parenting styles, than they are able to adapt to parents in ongoing conflict.

Does parallel parenting mean parents should not communicate?

Yes and no.  Parents who are unable to get along should not communicate in ways that are likely to trigger conflict; however, that does not mean parallel parents should not communicate at all.  Because parallel parenting means that each parent has decided to allow the other parent to raise the children as they wish, not every issue needs to be communicated.  Many issues related to the child will not be passed on to the other parent, but the important ones will.  For this reason, it is necessary to know what is important enough to be communicated, what is not.

For example, assume that the two parallel parents choose their own bedtime for the children.  One parent may like the child to go to bed earlier, because they have to wake up and go to school the next day.  The other may like them up late because they do things in the evening.  Parallel parenting acknowledges that there is no right or wrong choice, but if the child has a problem adjusting to the early sleep schedule because they were up late with the other parent, then this becomes and issue that needs to be communicated.  

The following is a parallel parenting communication example.  Using parallel parenting techniques, the parent with the earlier bedtime might write something like:


"Hello other parent's name,

I wanted to see if we could discuss an issue regarding child's name bedtime.  He is having difficulty waking up in the morning because his bedtime with you is later.  Do you have any ideas for adjusting bedtimes to help avoid this issue?  I am worried about his ability to concentrate in school if he is not rested.

I typically put him to bed at 9:00 pm.  I am open to ideas, but I just want him to get eight hours before school.

What are your thoughts?

your name"

The idea in this form of communication is that the issue is brought up in a respectful manner, and it gives the other parent a say in the solution to the issue.  There is no sarcasm in the message, and the potential for conflict is low, due to the respectful nature of the message.

What is a parenting coordinator, and how can one help divorced parents succeed with parallel parenting?

The services of a parenting coordinator may make the process of entering into parallel parenting easier. This can help avoid any loopholes or problems that may arise. Seemingly minor issues that tend to become difficult include clothing, activities, and bedtimes. Each of the parents has to know their primary responsibility. For instance, one of the parents can be responsible for making decisions concerning the education while the other will be responsible for the medical needs of the children.

A parenting coordinator can be thought of as an intermediary for separated parents who struggle with conflict while attempting to raise their children.

In states where a parenting coordinator is court-ordered, the PC might be expected to testify in a family court, if litigation ever occurs about the parents they are attempting to help.

A parenting coordinator is not authorized to change the visitation schedule or custody schedule; however, they can help with parent-to-parent communication about many things. A parenting coordinator can help parent avoid parental alienation, by restricting what they can and cannot discuss around their children. They can even be the final say on issues that the parents cannot resolve without conflict, like which sports the children will play, what religion they will follow, what activities they can engage in, and so on.

What are the benefits of parallel parenting?

Significantly lower conflict
Conflict is the primary cause of just about every negative effect that children of divorce experience.  Parallel parenting can essentially prevent children from suffering the negative effects of divorce on children.

Save significant money on legal costs
Conflict is expensive.  When parents are in conflict, the likelihood for litigation increases.  Any money spent on litigation is money that is not available for the children.

Children grow up happier
Children are able to enjoy a meaningful relationship with both parents.  They do not have to feel that they are somehow at fault for the conflict that is happening between them and their children.

Parents are less stressed
With less conflict comes less stress.  Parents are much more likely to be able to move on from the divorce and find happiness thereafter.

Parents enjoy their time with their children more
The entire family unit, though separate, is able to better enjoy their time with their children.  If parents know that conflict will not erupt from the decisions they make during their parenting time, parenting becomes much more enjoyable for both parents.

What are some drawbacks associated with parallel parenting?

Parallel parenting does have some drawbacks:

  • Children will have a difficult time in containing their feelings. The child may not be able to ask the right questions.
  • Navigating and moving between the two households involved is difficult for the children. It usually raises loyalty issues especially if the child feels like being in one household for a longer period than the other household.
  • For the parents, they will not have a complete picture of the children. In most cases, it becomes difficult to know what the child is doing when he or she is at the other house.

How should parallel parents communicate so conflict can be reduced?

In parallel parenting, communication is still very important - though guarded. If there is any emergency, both parents should communicate and make the necessary decisions immediately. The communication can be done through email, via a third party, or via online divorce communication software.  Verbal communication should be avoided or restricted in ways that avoid conflict triggers.

One of the most important tools a parallel parent should use is something called a "parenting notebook".  A parenting notebook lets each parent share the events that occurred during their parenting time, so certain details can be provided to the other parent when it is their turn.  In a nuclear family with both parents living in the same household, parents automatically share day-to-day events with the other parent.  In a parallel parenting situation, this type of communication must be more formal.

A parenting notebook is a valuable tool for both co-parents and parallel parents, but it is almost a necessity for parallel parent since their verbal contact is limited due to the potential for conflict.

Can parents who use parallel parenting ever become try co-parents?

Yes.  Ideally, parents in high-conflict after a divorce will be able to put the conflict behind them as time goes on. By committing to parallel parenting techniques, it is very possible that a new level of respect will emerge after the emotions of the divorce have passed.  At that time, co-parenting becomes possible.

It is advisable to gradually segue into co-parenting, rather than radically switching the entire parenting strategy.  If parallel parenting is working, the last thing that either parent wants to do is to ruin that.  If parents become more amicable and are able to talk verbally over time, then gradually introduce verbal communication.  But if the conflict begins again, retreat back to parallel parenting before the entire situations becomes high-conflict.


Learn issues and logistics of parallel parenting
Psychology today write about understanding why parallel parenting is helpful and offer words of caution.
Dealing with a crazy co-parent?
Though this article is written for men, it could apply to either gender and is chalk full of good tips.

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