When two people decide to have a child together, they typically don’t expect to find themselves separated and having to figure out how to continue parenting that child through an established agreement.
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When you think of divorce and children, co-parenting comes to mind as the only option to move forward with. However, that is not the case. There are instances where co-parenting just doesn’t work and parallel parenting is the best—and sometimes safest—option.
So what is parallel parenting?
Parallel parenting is a method of separated parenting where each parent decides how to parent during the allotted time they have with the child (or children). Each individual will make decisions on their own on how to handle all situations that arise while with the child. If you are the parent, you will attend functions on your own, celebrate birthdays separately, and choose everything your child does in the time they are with you.
“When I describe parallel parenting to a client, I often ask them to think of a road with two lanes going in the same direction. Each car is on the same journey (in this case, raising children), but each stay in their own lane and follow their own directions (the parenting plan),” said Michelle Dempsey-Multack, certified divorce coach and author of Moms Moving On.
How does parallel parenting work?
While going through the divorce process, you can opt to do a parallel parenting plan from the start. Everything can be decided with your ex and established through the court. Here, you can make decisions on how you’ll communicate with your ex, what items you and your ex will have full reign over, and what things you will need to decide together. You get to choose how everything will look on the other side of the divorce.
“Parallel parenting, in my experience with clients, is much easier when you are still trying to heal from the pain of the divorce and adjust to this new reality,” Dempsey-Multack said. “It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself to try and be a harmonious co-parent when tensions are still high. The goal of parallel parenting is to shield children from conflict that can be damaging and traumatic.”
If you’re already divorced and want to make a change, you can definitely come up with a strategy with your ex directly or go through the court system for an official agreement.
“It is not uncommon for high-conflict parents to follow a parallel parenting style for years and eventually find themselves co-parenting in a healthier manner after tensions and emotions have subsided,” Dempsey-Multack said.
How is parallel parenting different from co-parenting?
While co-parenting may work for individuals who have a decent relationship after a divorce or separation, parallel parenting is the answer to those families who just cannot get along.
“Co-parenting emphasizes more collaboration, which can be difficult for many divorcing parents, especially in the beginning stages of divorce,” Dempsey-Multack said.
In order for co-parenting to work, parents need to have a somewhat amicable and agreeable relationship post-divorce. Without that, it only creates more tension and instability for the child.
With parallel parenting, however, there will be minimal interaction and communication with the other parent, which will minimize any arguments that the child can witness. You will also get to decide the rules and routines of the house in regards to your child that work for you and how your child spends their time. This will also apply to the other parent.
It may seem like having two houses with two sets of rules and routines is more difficult for the child to adjust to, but in high-conflict situations, parallel parenting may create the argument-free zone a child needs to thrive.
Why might parallel parenting work for your family?
As with all parenting matters, there are pros and cons. Depending on your situation, parallel parenting may seem like a nightmare or a dream. But the determining factor will be the relationship you have with your ex. If you two can’t be in the same room together without arguing, which is common after a divorce, then parallel parenting may be an excellent option for you. If the divorce was mutual and you can agree on most matters without additional conflict, then you can go the traditional route of developing a co-parenting plan.
“Parenting is hard no matter which way you do it. I think a parenting plan without explicit detail is where most parents run into the most trouble and what will likely bring them back to court post-judgment,” Dempsey-Multack said.
Deciding between parallel parenting and co-parenting
Ultimately, this decision will come down to how it will affect your child or children. Unfortunately, they are usually the most impacted when a divorce or separation happens, so choosing a plan that works for the adults and, more importantly, minimizes tension and instability for children should be top priority. Having open and honest communication with your child will help you gauge how each option will affect them and can be tweaked to make the best decision for all involved.
“You don’t need to be best friends with your ex in order to be a good co-parent, and parallel parenting does not make you a bad parent,” Dempsey-Multack said. “So long as you follow your parenting plan, encourage the relationship between your child and their other parent, and exercise good parenting judgment, your kids will be OK.”