Parallel Co-Parenting in a High-Conflict Divorce: 12 Tips for Making It Work

By: Deanna Conklin-Danao, Psy.D.
: November 21, 2017

Parallel co-parenting minimizes conflict between ex-spouses while maximizing each parent's involvement in their child’s life.

The term “parallel co-parenting” comes from the child-development phase called “parallel play”. Picture your toddler sitting next to another toddler, both playing with blocks but having no interaction. There is no interaction until the other toddler tries to take his blocks. 

Parallel co-parenting developed as a way for parents—particularly those in high-conflict divorces—to focus their energy on raising their child by disengaging from problematic communication with their ex-spouse. This model does not require active cooperation and is a valuable model to consider if you feel that continued communication with your co-parent will be toxic for you and your ability to parent.

The parallel co-parenting model minimizes conflict while maximizing the involvement that each parent has in their child’s life. Parents disengage from their co-parent and the pattern of destructive communication. Children benefit because they are removed from being in the middle of their parents' fights. This model assumes that both parents are safe and healthy with the children.

So, what does parallel co-parenting look like in practice? Parents communicate to a minimal extent and in neutral ways for anything except emergencies (which require immediate and direct contact). All communication is child-centered. 

12 Tips for Making Parallel Co-Parenting Work for You

  1. Use a website (such as Family Wizard) or parenting notebook for communication. Write down all relevant communications about your child’s visit (bedtime, meals, homework, behavior, strategies that worked to soothe your child). It should summarize all the events, including emotional and behavioral, for the other parent.

  2. Communication should maintain a business-like, respectful tone. It should focus only on the child’s needs, not commentary of the other parent’s parenting style.

  3. Unscheduled, verbal communication should be only in the case of an emergency.

  4. Use email to communicate non-urgent issues, and limit these emails to two times or less per month. Also limit them to one topic. Using email allows you to reread your communication to make sure it is respectful, and it allows the receiving party time and space to respond. Don’t give parenting advice.

  5. For issues that emerge, disagreements or changes that require discussion, work with a third party. This should be a neutral person, such as a mediator or therapist. These meetings should be scheduled and time-limited.  You can save up all your ongoing concerns for these meetings.

  6. Transfer of children should occur at a neutral location, such as the school, a library, or restaurant.

  7. Each parent should focus on their relationship with their child and not intervene in the other parent’s relationship or comment on the other parent’s style (this is not about issues of safety, but preference). Do not complain about the meals he makes or the amount of TV she lets them watch.

  8. Each household operates independently. Conflict is more damaging than having a child learn to cope with two very different households.

  9. Use a “Mom’s house” and “Dad’s house” mantra. The parent in that house determines the rules, chores, routines, and homework, and there is no judging the other house. Using this phrase also helps prevent kids from playing you against each other. if your child argue “Mom lets me do that…”, you can just respond, “That is in Mom’s house, but you are in Dad’s house right now. This is my rule.” Also, be up-front with the kids: “You don’t have to tell me what goes on in Dad’s house. That is for him to deal with.” Again, this is not about abuse or safety issues, just about personal preferences.

  10. Each parent develops their own relationship with teachers, doctors, and coaches so that he/she can get their own information. Explain this arrangement to the professionals so that they can be on the same page.

  11. Ideally, parents take turns with visits such as doctors and dentists so that each parent maintains that relationship, has current information, and shares the parenting duty.

  12. Avoid being together at child-related events, such as sporting events or school concerts. Take turns attending so each parent can see and support the kids without overlapping with each other.

This co-parenting model needs a highly specific parenting plan in order to minimize communication. Mediation and Collaborative Divorce are processes for divorce that will allow you to craft a highly specific parenting plan that meets the needs of your individual children. 

Parallel Co-Parenting Lets You Parent Your Child Instead of Fighting with Your Ex

After a divorce, it’s important that both parents remain involved in the life of their children regardless of their ability to work with each other. Parallel co-parenting is designed to allow both parents to be very involved in the children’s lives without being involved in each other’s lives. Some families find that after years of doing this model, the anger has subsided and they move into a more cooperative model. Some parents stick with this model for the long run because it allows them to stay calm, minimize the triggers for conflict, and use all their energy to parent the children instead of fighting with or trying to change their co-parent.