Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting: Which Style is Right for You?

The term “co-parent” is typically used to describe parenting with your ex after a separation. In fact it’s usually touted as the goal of a peaceful separation. But in reality some situations are much better suited to what is actually “parallel parenting” rather than “co-parenting.” What’s the difference? Which one is right for you?

With “co-parenting” exes need not be good friends, but they can generally communicate about their kids without conflict. They’re able to discuss issues that pertain to the kids, and accommodate changes to the existing schedule. In a good co-parenting relationship exes can freely communicate to work out differences with minimal tension and fighting. There may be issues that arise, but generally each party is supportive of the other and their efforts to parent well.

While co-parenting is the ideal, for a variety of reasons it may not be a healthy or realistic option for some families. Some exes just can’t be around each other without fighting and can’t communicate in constructive ways. Another reason may be that there was abuse in the relationship that makes it unhealthy to have the ex-partner coming into the house for pick-ups, texting frequently, or meeting for coffee. Sometimes there are mental health or addiction problems that make being in close contact with an ex unsettling and unstable.

With “parallel parenting”  the goal is to have parents disengage from each other and have very little interaction. Parents exist as two separate entities who make their own decisions, run their own household, and may have different parenting styles. For parallel parenting to work well a very detailed parenting plan is created at the outset, therefore eliminating the need for frequent communication. Such a plan plan would include specific pick-up and drop-off times, plans for all major holidays and special occasions, and specific details such as who is authorized to provide child-care, who possesses the health cards, and who will attend which parent-teacher interviews. Communication only happens when absolutely necessary and in an agreed upon manner such as emails that are CC’d to a third party, or a 3-way phone call with a mediator. These families may need a parenting coordinator to work with them. Sometimes a journal travels with the kids and each parent notes important things that happened during their time with the kids such as homework due, or medication given. In this way each parent stays up to date about the kids without any direct communication.

Compare how co-parenting and parallel parenting would work with the following scenario:

Bill and Mary have shared parenting of their 6 year old, David. It’s Bill’s weekend with David and he’s supposed to bring him back to Mary’s for 7pm on Sunday evening. Bill has a family dinner at 6pm that he’d like to attend, preferably with David.

Co-Parenting: Bill feels free to text or call Mary and see if she doesn’t mind him bringing David at 8pm instead of 6pm. Mary is fine with that, but asks that Bill have him dressed in his pajamas and ready for bed. Bill is fine with that. The dinner runs a little late so he texts Mary that he’ll actually be back at 8:15, and Mary is understanding of this. There is no conflict at drop-off and Bill thanks Mary for being flexible.

Parallel Parenting: Bill needs to adhere to specific agreed upon drop-off times. It’s not appropriate for him to contact Mary about his schedule conflict because it’s short notice and it’s not an emergency. Bill decides to attend part of the dinner, but leaves early so that he can bring David back to Mary by 7pm. Bill briefly says good-bye to David at Mary’s door and there’s no communication between Bill and Mary. 

In both scenarios there is peace. This needs to be the ultimate goal of any parenting style. In neither example does David witness his parents fighting with each other. It’s true that with parallel parenting David misses out on a family dinner that he could have enjoyed, but if the cost of that is continued fighting and tension between his parents then it’s not worth it. Parallel parenting isn’t ideal, but sometimes if can be the best choice for peace. Often parallel parenting doesn’t last forever, but can be good for a time to allow tensions to dissipate and parents to focus back in on their children. It’s common that after some time passes parents can grow and heal enough to be able to transition to more of a co-parenting situation.

Is your current parenting situation working for you and your children? Maybe it’s too rigid and you could co-parent more with you ex? Maybe there’s a lot of extra communication that’s causing fights and trying parallel parenting for a time might cool things off? If you’re consistently having conflict with your ex over parenting it’s worth it to consider changes that might bring more peace. Even if you already have a signed agreement you can always renegotiate some of the details, or add some specifics that will make things run more smoothly.




6 thoughts on “Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting: Which Style is Right for You?”

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