What is Parallel Parenting?
Even the most skeptical of parents think that once the legal paperwork is all signed sealed and delivered, everything will be fine and they will move beyond the relationship they had before the divorce. During the divorce process, professionals likely assured them that they would be able to co-parent and share in parenting responsibilities and continue the relationship they’ve had with their child or perhaps even build a better relationship. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.
Co-parenting requires parents to communicate regularly and frequently. Given that life can change on a dime and schedules can sometimes get interrupted by things that are beyond our control, the best of divorced parents are able to be flexible with their schedules and adapt to changes without much difficulty or make adjustments to their plans and the distribution of parenting responsibilities as they need to, but few families can really achieve that level of commitment or cooperation when the divorce is over. For a high number of parents, the fighting they experienced during the divorce process does not end with a decree and sometimes, it ramps up. Even though they previously drafted carefully worded agreements on how they would manage parenting responsibilities and different conflicts and scenarios, the agreements do not work when the parents try to put them into practice. Either one of the parents will not follow the agreement or each parent has a different interpretation of what the words on the paper actually mean. On top of that, some parents find their co-parent uses information against them or tries to manipulate the parenting time schedule by scheduling appointments, activities and play dates on the other parent’s time without permission. It is beyond frustrating to live that way. So what can be done to change it?
Parents who struggle with co-parenting can try a style called parallel parenting. For those whose interactions are moderately or highly conflicted, parallel parenting can be a way to move forward when co-parenting proves to be too difficult for them to manage successfully. Unfortunately, court professionals rarely suggest parallel parenting as an option. Some professionals want to push you to co-parent no matter what because it offers your child the best chance for success in the future, while others naively think that the contention will die down once parents put the legal system behind them. It is naive to think that relationship problems or significant communication problems will magically disappear and foster cooperation if they have never been addressed. It is also fairly common to find professionals out there who have never heard of parallel parenting. If the professionals you encounter have no concept of what parallel parenting is, how can they explain that it is an option to you? They can’t, and that is very unfortunate because parallel parenting can help parents move away from conflict to keep their child out of the middle of it.
So what is parallel parenting anyway? Parallel parenting is a style of parenting that allows parents to disengage and reduce the frequency of interactions they have with each other. It allows each parent to operate independently of the other and manage their own day to day parenting responsibilities. Parents will still need to communicate about important issues that are related to their child, and make major decisions together, but they will only communicate when necessary. Typically all communication will take place in written form, such as via email.
Parallel parenting is not ideal and it tends to put a higher burden on the the child to adjust to two different sets of households, routines and rules so that the parents do not have to make adjustments that they are not ready or willing to make, but it does not have to be a permanent arrangement. Sometimes, parallel parenting is used only until both parents have come to terms with the situation or while they take measures to work through hurt feelings following contentious legal battle. However, some parents will continue parallel parenting until the children are grown and there is nothing wrong with that. While it is best when parents can co-parent and work together to parent their children after divorce, if they cannot, parallel parenting is better than always being in a state of conflict, arguing over who is right, being disrespected or having to rely on someone you learned long ago was unreliable and it protects children from being caught in the middle of the battle.
Parents are humans. Humans have different ways of coping and managing disappointments and hurts. It’s just the nature of the beast that some humans have the skill set to be resilient while others need significant time to heal, deal or feel. You cannot put a time limit on grieving the loss of a relationship, nor can you decree it be done. You also cannot make someone cooperate with you or communicate well if they do not want to. Co-parenting requires a good faith effort on the part of both parents and an ability to separate their own feelings from the feelings of their child. It also helps when parents have good communication skills and maintain healthy boundaries. Still, the odds that a couple held all those qualities and ended up divorced seems illogical. Most relationships break up for a reason and that reason has be set aside or forgiven in order to form a successful co-parenting relationship. When not set aside or forgiven, parents need to find other ways of sharing their children peacefully.
What are some of the reasons to try parallel parenting?
- One or both parents still holds highly negative feelings about the other.
- One or both parents have boundaries issues.
- Communication between parents is ineffective, hostile, or disrespectful, or the parents are unable to stay child focused when they interact with each other.
- One or both parents is unable or unwilling to work together to meet the child’s day to day needs or make decisions together.
- There is a moderate or high level of conflict.
- Each parent has a vastly different parenting style from that of the other and they fight over which one is right.
How does parallel parenting work?
- Parents disengage from each other and do not interact during child exchanges or school events. They may alternate attending school events or not sit together when in attendance at the same time and they will schedule separate parent-teacher conferences if the school will accommodate such a request (most schools will).
- Parents communicate only in written form (except for emergent or time sensitive matters) and do not communicate about routine, day to day issues. Communication is kept to a minimum and is typically done via email or an online communication tool, such as Our Family Wizard.
- Each parent is responsible for the day to day care and parenting during their parenting time and basically mind their own business when the children are at the other parent’s home
- Routines and discipline decisions may vary from house to house
- Parents do not attend medical, dental or counseling appointments together, but divide up who has responsibility and when.
- Parents are responsible for accessing information from school, doctors, dentists or other professionals in the child’s life without relying on the other parent to provide routine information.
- Parents do not share personal information and may use a neutral location for child exchanges or have a neutral person do the pick ups and drop offs.
- Parenting time schedules are rigidly adhered to and are very detailed as to times and exchange locations. A third party may be in place to address parent disputes or situations that are unclear or were not covered when the schedule was created.
Parallel parenting can offer families some much needed breathing room that opens to door to co-parenting in the future, but if it doesn’t, it provides something better than the conflicted situations that cause tremendous amounts of stress to families and it gets children out of the middle of hostile situations that put their healthy development and well-being at risk.