What Is Parallel Parenting? Creating a Plan for Your Family

Parallel parenting limits interaction between high-conflict divorced parents, giving them independence over their child care approach. Decide whether the co-parenting strategy might be right for your family.

<p>Getty Images / MoMo Productions</p>

Getty Images / MoMo Productions

Medically reviewed by Emily Edlynn, PhD

Going through a divorce is always difficult and painful, but it can feel especially agonizing when you have kids together. One crucial step is deciding on a co-parenting plan—and for your family, it might be parallel parenting.

Parallel parenting often works for couples who have a high degree of conflict and difficulty communicating. It reduces the need for contact between the separated parents, letting each person have greater independence in child care.

The goal of parallel parenting is to “minimize conflict through structure and clarity, allowing both parents to contribute meaningfully to their child's upbringing," says Min Hwan Ahn, an attorney in Philadelphia.

Keep reading to learn more about parallel parenting, and decide whether it might be the right co-parenting strategy after your divorce.

Related: Signs You're Co-Parenting With a Narcissist—and What To Do

What Is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel parenting is a co-parenting approach commonly adopted by divorced or separated parents experiencing high levels of conflict, says Kalley Hartman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California.

A well-implemented parallel parenting plan reduces the need for contact and communication between parents. This allows for greater independence and autonomy when making child care decisions.

In most cases, parents will work with their legal representatives to draw up a plan that covers the important aspects, such as emergency situations, holidays, or other big decisions. Then, almost everything else is handled by each parent separately when they have custody of the children.

Parallel parenting "can serve as a long-term strategy for parents struggling to communicate without conflict," says Hartman. "However, for some families, it may be a transitional phase that eventually leads to a more cooperative co-parenting approach as tensions diminish.”

Related: 5 Things Parents Should Do After Separating From a Partner

How Does Parallel Parenting Differ From Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting and parallel parenting are both strategies for parenting after divorce. The difference lies in the type and amount of collaboration that occurs between the parents. Below, we’ve highlighted some specific ways in which parallel parenting is different from a co-parenting approach.

Co-Parenting Approach

Parallel Parenting Approach

Parents frequently discuss issues that arise with the kids.

Parents only discuss major issues and don’t communicate otherwise.

Parents talk, call, or text each other to discuss kids and are physically present at pick-ups and drop-offs.

Parents are encouraged to communicate only through indirect methods like texting, emailing, and apps. Parents may keep a physical distance at pick-ups and drop-offs. They don't attend the same appointments or functions.

Parents make joint decisions about the kids, regardless of who has custody when the decision needs to be made.

Parents have the freedom to make autonomous decisions while the kids are in their care, without consulting the other parent.

There's limited rules and set guidelines, as parents are able to manage each situation as it arises.

There is often a predetermined schedule and set of guidelines.

Benefits of Parallel Parenting

According to the American Psychological Association, ongoing conflict between parents raises a child’s risk of "psychological and social problems." That's why it's important to reduce conflict between both parents as much as possible, especially after the upheaval of a divorce.

If you and your ex-spouse simply can’t agree on how to move forward, or you can’t communicate without conflict or arguments, a parallel parenting approach might be right for you. Below, our experts have shared some of the advantages of parallel parenting after divorce:

  • Reduced conflict exposure for kids

  • Children can maintain relationships with both parents

  • Less stress for both parents and kids

  • Parents enjoy greater autonomy in decision making

  • Both parents adhere to a predetermined schedule and set of guidelines, which makes logistics easier

  • Parents can avoid direct communication if this works better for them

Of course, there are also downsides to parallel parenting. Minor rules might differ greatly between households, for example, leaving children confused about expectations. Also, living in multiple different environments can be disruptive to a child's routines.

Related: 11 Divorce Counseling Services We Recommend For Parents and Kids

How to Implement a Parallel Parenting Plan

If you decide on a parallel parenting plan, it might be created during the divorce proceedings. Most plans consist of clear and enforceable guidelines for each parent to follow, so it’s vital to address a comprehensive list of topics.

According to Hartman, some of the things you’ll want to include in your parallel parenting plan are:

  • A schedule detailing the time spent with each parent, including weekends, holidays, and special occasions

  • Logistics of custodial exchanges (pick-ups and drop-offs)

  • Daily routines

  • Educational responsibilities

  • Health care decisions

  • Financial obligations

  • Rules for emergency situations, specifying what constitutes an emergency and how it should be handled

  • How to manage cancellation, delays, and rescheduling

  • Guidelines for communication

Most importantly, "include a clause that allows for periodic reviews of the plan to adapt to your child's changing needs or unforeseen circumstances,” says Hartman. This can reduce unnecessary future communication that can increase the chance for ongoing conflict.

Ahn also suggests making your plan legally enforceable to ensure fairness and to prevent one parent from violating the terms of the agreement.

Finally, when making a parallel parenting plan, you want to think about the kids. Research shows that children in high-conflict families can actually fare better after a divorce, but even so, it's important to ease their transition. That's because any divorce has been linked to academic difficulties, behavioral issues, mental health problems, and engagement in risky behaviors. Check in regularly about your child's thoughts and emotions, and don't be afraid to seek outside help if needed.

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