What's the Difference Between Co-parenting and Parallel Parenting?

By: Terry Gaspard
: October 30, 2016

Over the last few decades, research by child development experts has demonstrated numerous benefits to children when their living arrangements enable support from both parents. One reason is that parents who co-parent tend to experience lower conflict than those who have sole custody arrangements. Studies show that conflict is what creates the most pain and anguish for children after their parents split, and that keeping parental disagreements to a minimum is a key aspect of helping kids become resilient.  

However, very few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when parents don’t get along or have high conflict relationships. According to parenting expert, Dr. Edward Kruk, children of divorce benefit from strong and healthy relationships with both parents and they need to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. He writes, “Some parents, however, in an effort to bolster their parental identity, create an expectation that children choose sides. In more extreme situations, they foster the child’s rejection of the other parent. In the most extreme cases, children are manipulated by one parent to hate the other, despite children’s innate desire to love and be loved by both parents.”  

According to author Virginia Gilbert, MFT, co-parenting is an option only when both ex-spouses support the other parent and respect their right to have a good relationship with the children. She writes, “But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone else who will listen.”  

Many experts recommend parallel parenting as an option to parents who are adversarial. But what exactly are the differences between co-parenting and parallel parenting? In order to answer that question, I will illustrate key aspects of each of these approaches to post- divorce parenting.

What is  "Co-parenting"?

Co-parenting describes a parenting situation where the parents are not in a marriage, cohabitation, or romantic relationship with one another. In the United States, co-parenting often describes a parenting situation in which two separated or divorced parents take care of their children.

The term 'co-parent' may also be used to describe a situation where, following divorce or separation, the child's parents seek to maintain equal or equivalent responsibility for the child's upbringing. In principle, it states that a child has always and in any case the right to maintain a stable relationship with both parents, even if they are separated or divorced, unless there is a recognized need to separate him/her from one or both parents.  

Co-parenting, at its best, is a wonderful opportunity for children of divorce to have close to equal access to both parents – to feel it is okay to love both of their parents. Dr. Joan Kelly, a renowned psychologist reminds us that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance.

Keep in mind that when you co-parent, communicating with your former spouse is going to be necessary for the length of your children’s childhood into young adulthood. This may include special events, graduations – and perhaps even weddings.  It’s important to keep clear boundaries so that your children wouldn’t harbor fantasies that you will reconcile. For the most part, this means less personal sharing and focusing on exchanging information and cooperation so you can make good decisions about your children.  

Let’s face it, communication with your ex is key to successful co-parenting. It’s a good idea to sit down with your ex and come up with a few strategies to encourage your children to cooperate with their “parenting time” schedule. For instance, you may decide to make different arrangements for drop off and pick up. Most importantly, it’s crucial that your children see that you and your former spouse are working together for their well-being.

Next, you may need to examine the “parenting time” schedule to make sure that it’s working for your children. For example, the younger child will adjust better if they are not transitioning between houses too frequently and adolescents usually want more control over their schedule due to school, activities, and time with friends. They may develop resentment toward you if they can’t make some decisions about their schedule.

Loyalty Conflicts  

Over the years, I’ve interviewed many children of divorce who describe the pressure of loyalty conflicts. Lauren, a lively 13-year-old speaks candidly about her struggle to cope with divided loyalties since age nine. She recalls, “It was really hard to interact with both of my parents after their divorce. When they were saying nasty things about each other, I just never wanted to take sides.”  

In fact, loyalty conflicts can make some kids feel as if they don’t want to spend time with both parents.  Lauren continues, “I felt like I had to keep my mom’s new boyfriend a secret because my dad didn’t have a girlfriend for awhile. When my dad asked me if my mom had a boyfriend, I didn’t know how to deal with it so I said I wasn’t sure.” Lauren’s story reminds us that children should never be used as a messenger between their parents post-divorce. Let them enjoy their childhood and think about how you want them to remember you when they grow up.  

What is Parallel Parenting?  

While co-parenting is usually the best decision for children, it takes two special parents to navigate this arrangement over time. Interacting with each other at drop-offs, making shared decisions, or even speaking to an ex who you’d rather forget can be a challenge.  

What is a good solution for parents who want to attempt to co-parent when they have high conflict? According to Dr. Kruk, “Parallel parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited direct contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”

Here are five guidelines to help with parallel parenting:  

  1. All communication must be non-personal and business-like in nature and relate to information relevant to your children’s well-being.
  2. Parents never use their children as messengers to communicate back and forth.
  3. No changes to the schedule are made without written agreement.
  4. No personal information is shared with the other parent in any form.
  5. To minimize conflict, schedules are shared via a calendar or in writing.  

In other words, parallel parenting allows parents to remain disengaged with one another while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc) but decide on the logistics of day-to-day parenting separately. Parallel parenting allows the dust to settle in high conflict situations and may lay the groundwork for co-parenting if parents can put aside their hostilities and grievances. Ultimately, both parallel parenting and co-parenting can benefit kids if parents consider what’s in their children’s best interests.  

What are benefits of co-parenting and parallel parenting for kids?

The five benefits are that children will:  

  1. Feel a sense of security. Children who maintain a close bond with both parents and are more likely to have higher self-esteem.
  2. Have better psychological adjustment into adulthood. My research showed that adults raised in divorced families report higher self-esteem and fewer trust issues if they had close to equal time with both parents.
  3. Most likely grow up with a healthier template for seeing their parents cooperate. This is true even if they practice parallel parenting and are disengaged as long as they are respectful.
  4. Foster good communication skills. By cooperating with their other parent, you establish a life pattern of healthy relating that can carry your children into their future. This includes graduations, weddings, and family events.
  5. Have better problem-solving skills. Children and adolescents who witness their parents cooperate are more likely to learn how to effectively resolve problems themselves.

The key to successful co-parenting and parallel parenting after divorce is to keep the focus on your children – and to maintain a cordial relationship with your ex-spouse. Most importantly, you want your children to see that their parents are working together for their well-being. Never use them as messengers because when you ask them to tell their other parent something for you, it can make them feel stuck in the middle. It’s best to communicate directly with your ex and lessen the chances your children will experience divided loyalty.  

The following are suggestions based on my own experience and advice from experts. First of all, it’s paramount that you gear your parenting plan to the age of your children and that it is consistent. Try to develop routines for them leaving and coming home when they are young. As they reach adolescence, strive to be more flexible and adapt to their changing needs.  

Tips to help kids live happily in two homes:  

For children under age 10:  

  1. Reassure them that they have two parents who love them. If they balk at going to their other parent’s home, you can say something like “Even though mom and dad aren’t married anymore we both still love you and are good parents.”
  2. Maintain a cordial, business-like relationship with your ex-spouse. It’s important not to express anger at your ex in front of your children so they don't have to choose sides.
  3. Help your kids anticipate changes in their schedule. Planning ahead and helping them pack important possessions can benefit them. However, keep items to a bare minimum. Most parents prefer to have duplicate items for their kids on hand.  
  4. Encourage your younger child to adhere to their parenting time schedule – being consistent with their schedule will help your kids feel secure. Younger children often benefit from avoiding frequent shifts between homes.
  5. Show enthusiasm or be neutral about their visit with their other parent. It’s important to put your differences with your ex aside and to promote your children’s positive bond with them.

For children over age 10 to young adulthood: 

  1. Be understanding about your teen’s schedule. At times, teens may have difficulty juggling their busy life with school, extracurricular activities, friends, and jobs if they start working. 
  2. Encourage them to spend time with their friends and extended family (on both sides). Avoid giving them the impression that being with their friends is not as important as spending time with you. 
  3. Plan activities with them that might include their friends at times – such as sporting events or movies. Encourage opportunities for them to bond with peers at both homes.
  4. Respect your teen's need for autonomy and relatedness. Researcher Dr. Robert E. Emery writes, “Teenagers naturally want more freedom, but they also want and need relationships with their parents, though your adolescent may be unwilling to admit this.”  

It’s important to consider that your children may not have the wisdom, insight, and clarity to make decisions about spending time with both of their parents on their own and can benefit from your guidance. Researcher Dr. Emery writes, “According to leading experts in developmental and clinical psychology, there really are only two critical aspects of parent-child relationships: love and parental authority.” Your role as a parent is to help your children adjust to divorce and setting boundaries, routines, and limits is an important aspect of parenting.  

Finally, recognize that your ex is your children’s parent and deserves respect for that reason alone.  Modeling cooperation and polite behavior sets a positive tone for co-parenting. When children are confident of the love of both of their parents, they will adjust more easily to divorce. Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will open up opportunities to move beyond divorce in the years to come.