Parallel Parenting vs. Co-Parenting: Which Applies to You?

Follow this guide to parallel parenting to learn how it differs from other parenting situations and how to implement it in your family.
Chelsea Williams
November 25, 2021
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o-parenting is a concept you're probably familiar with, but the idea of parallel parenting could be a little less clear.

What is parallel parenting? Simply put, it's a version of co-parenting that divorced parents use when they're not comfortable having much interaction with each other. It typically applies to high-conflict divorces.

When I got divorced in 2010, this wasn't yet a popular term. Due to some struggles to communicate with my former spouse, I naturally began engaging in parallel parenting without realizing it. I felt that perhaps I was doing something wrong by not being able to co-parent in the way the court described as optimal. Looking back, I wish I had known how to set up an alternative parenting arrangement more intentionally.

If you're considering divorce, in the midst of one, or struggling to co-parent already, it could be helpful to understand parallel parenting as an option. Below, I'll cover:

  • What differentiates parallel parenting from co-parenting
  • How to determine which parenting style is right for your family post-divorce
  • Ways to make parallel parenting go smoothly

What's the Difference Between the Parenting Models?

Parallel parenting: mother and daughter walking together

Not all divorces are created equal. Your parenting situation is unique, and your family may have different needs than others.

That being said, there are some defining characteristics of both co-parenting and parallel parenting.

Co-parenting looks like:

  • Having mostly amicable communication with your former spouse
  • Engaging in mutual decision-making when necessary
  • Calmly discussing deviations from a parenting plan
  • Being able to see the other parent at events or on special occasions with no problems (e.g., birthday parties)
  • Perhaps directly exchanging money or sharing some financial responsibilities and being able to talk about them

Parallel parenting looks like:

  • Limiting direct contact with your ex-spouse
  • Handling big decisions on your time and only involving the other parent in an emergency
  • Keeping financial responsibilities separate
  • Following your parenting plan to a T to avoid conflict
  • Celebrating holidays and birthdays separately, and maybe alternating who will show up at performances or sporting events

Deciding on Parallel Parenting vs. Co-Parenting

While a reciprocal co-parenting relationship is ideal, it may not always be possible. Parallel parenting can be a good substitute, but going with this parenting model is not always a mutual choice.

Usually, a family court judge or mediator will first encourage a divorcing couple to co-parent. If conflicts arise during the divorce proceedings, the mediator or one of the party's attorneys may suggest parallel parenting instead.

Some parents come to parallel parental roles out of personal necessity. If you've experienced spousal abuse or been trying to co-parent with a narcissist, you may want to pull back from attempting to cooperate with an ex-spouse who isn't willing to meet you halfway. 

In this case, you'd be making a solo decision to parallel parent because that's the only thing you can reasonably do. That decision may or may not be endorsed by a lawyer or judge.

If you've been co-parenting for a while but are encountering some problems, you may also want to think about whether parallel parenting could help you and your former spouse be more effective parents going forward.

Here are a few things to think about before you consider this approach.

Review Your Legally Binding Parenting Plan

Parallel parenting: woman reading a document

Ideally, you'll be able to build the specifics of how you'll interact with your ex-spouse into your initial legal agreement. Especially in a high-conflict divorce, a judge or mediator may recommend a detailed parallel parenting plan, which includes things like:

  • How often and during what windows of time you'll communicate with your child when they're at the other home
  • Where you'll meet for pick-ups and drop-offs, and other details of custody arrangements
  • Which caregivers you mutually approve
  • How you'll handle choosing and paying for extracurricular activities
  • How child custody percentages could change if either parent's employment or circumstances change
  • How the child's school will be determined (through high school)

This level of detail can prevent confusion and minimize the amount of communication divorced parents have with one another.

If you're already divorced, you might want to add some of these details to an existing parenting agreement. You could investigate whether you have any legal flexibility to move to a parallel parenting style without going back to court. 

Does your current paperwork have stipulations for making changes? Do you and your former spouse both want to do things differently? Sometimes, it's possible to informally agree on new terms outside of court. Other times, you'll need to file a new petition to request changes. 

As with all elements of family law, the outcome in your case will vary based on your state laws and the particular preferences of the judge you're assigned.

Think About the Effects on Your Child's Life

Parallel parenting: father hugging his daughter

A move to parallel parenting could have varied effects on kids — depending on their age and what they've witnessed of your relationship with their other parent so far. 

In the short term, your children could experience a wobble because everyday things like scheduling and who attends their events might shift. Children of divorce can be (understandably) sensitive to change. But some initial difficulty doesn't necessarily mean parallel parenting is not the best decision.

Over time, if parallel parenting helps to reduce parental conflict, it will likely have a positive cumulative effect.

A good rule of thumb is to think like a judge any time you're considering a change in your divorce arrangements. Once you've been to family court, you probably understand that judges consider children's needs above all. You may not be able to predict every detail about how a change will affect your child, but keeping your child as the focus will help you — and hopefully your former spouse — make sound decisions.

Focus on Your Well-Being

Happy bearded man

Your child's experience of your co-parenting relationship is important, but so is your mental health.

If you feel you've given traditional co-parenting your full effort and it's just not working, you may need to make a change to protect yourself from further emotional damage or high amounts of stress. When you're not OK, your child will pick up on that.

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

These factors are just some that you may want to weigh before deciding to switch up how you parent. Should your case be particularly complicated, it might be wise to seek legal advice to sift through the drawbacks and benefits of parallel parenting vs. co-parenting.

How to Make Parallel Parenting Work

Mom helping her son with his homework

Once you've decided on parallel parenting in or out of court, individually or mutually, you may have some confusion about how it works day-to-day.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of parallel parenting:

  • Avoid unnecessary conversation. You may see or hear about things your ex does that you don't agree with, but it's probably best not to start conversations with them. While co-parenting is based on relatively frequent communication, parallel parenting works better when the two parties make independent decisions within the agreed-upon parameters.
  • Use convenient tools to minimize communication and keep records. A shared calendar can reduce the need to update your former spouse about your child's events and keep track of parenting time. And the Onward App makes talking about shared expenses as simple as possible.
  • Let go of needing to know what's going on when your child's not with you. This is perhaps the hardest, but most impactful, thing you can do in a parallel parenting situation. I've found the ability to let go comes with time. You'll see your child come back home in one piece enough times that you'll eventually be able to simply allow their life with their other parent to unfold, rather than worrying about it in your free time.

There's No Right Way to Parent Post-Divorce

In my experience, parallel parenting can work just as well as co-parenting, so long as you keep your child's needs and feelings top of mind.

If you've decided there would be benefits of parallel parenting in your case, thinking about how to make it happen 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 final.

Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.