By Jen Segura
Working as a mediator, it is rare that we work with couples who ultimately need to parallel parent. However, it does happen. Many of our clients haven’t heard the term “parallel parenting” and have no sense of what it means, nor do they have a lot of information on what the impact may be on the children who are being raised in this manner. So let’s start from the beginning.
What Is Parallel Parenting?
To understand parallel parenting, it is essential to clarify what is often referred to as “co-parenting.” When parents divorce or separate and choose to live in separate residences, and they BOTH want to continue to be active parents, the parents will begin co-parenting their child or children. This typically entails a regular and consistent schedule from week to week between the parents’ households. It also very often includes regular and ongoing communication between the parents, shared parent/teacher conferences, joint doctor’s or therapists’ visits, helping each other out when one parent gets stuck at work late or is sick, and in a lot of cases shared family vacations and monthly family dinner nights. Right of first refusal is generally part of a co-parenting relationship – either formally or informally. Long story short – there is still a lot of collaboration between the parents even though they now live in two separate homes. This can be an excellent experience for children to see their parents get along and work together to continue to provide a family-like structure, even though the relationship between their parents is no longer romantic.
To some of you reading this, you may be thinking, this is crazy! It is like they are continuing the relationship! For others, it sounds like a dream! To continue a friendship and partnership to raise a family together, even though the love is very different than it once was. Whatever the ongoing relationship looks like, whether the parents are still super intertwined with each other, or they spend very little time together. However, they still collaborate and can speak respectfully and help each other out – you are in what we call a “co-parenting” relationship.
So how does one cross over from a co-parenting relationship to a parallel parenting situation? All the collaboration goes away. Each parent parents the way they want, independent of the other parent. There is only communication if necessary. There isn’t any effort put towards trying to have family events (be they dinners or a walk on the beach). Every time there is a conversation, it usually ends badly. There is very little flexibility with the schedule, and in some instances, the parents are entirely forbidden from requesting a change of days, etc. Right of first refusal is not part of the parenting plan. The rules may be very inconsistent between the households. Each parent will not have any say over what is happening in the other parent’s household.
At first glance, parallel parenting may seem very cold and an unhealthy environment for children to be raised in. This can be true in some instances. In others, the alternative is far worse. Usually, you only see a parenting relationship set up as parallel parenting when there is a lot of contention between the parents. Perhaps one or both parents are narcissists. Whatever the case may be, the switch to parallel parenting is typically done to protect the children and keep them from being stuck between two adults who cannot get along. There is a ton of evidence supporting the most significant pain point for children going through their parents’ divorce: watching their parents fight. Or worse, being in between their parents’ fighting. For these children, being insulated from the constant turmoil of their parents’ inability to get along is far better for them in the long run. They, of course, lose the family unit that many kids still have, even after a divorce. But the damage inflicted on children in the middle of their parent’s conflict is so detrimental that it prohibits the parents from talking… EVER – is the best-case scenario for all involved.
How Do Parents End Up In a Parallel Parenting Situation?
Of course, any couple may choose to parent however they feel fit. That said, not many will opt-in to parallel parenting. It is usually a path suggested for the family’s health, or a Judge imposes that after the parents continue to show up in their courtroom repeatedly.
How Can I Avoid Ending Up In a Parallel Parenting Situation?
Stay open and flexible. Try not to demand certain things in your parenting plan. It is nice to think you and your co-parent can agree on rules and whatnot between the two homes, but if that is not happening, unless it is imperative, try letting go of some of the control. It can be challenging, especially if you were the primary parent throughout the marriage. The truth is that each of you legally may parent your child how you deem fit (of course, as long as the child is safe and adequately cared for). So, if one parent feels the other is overly controlling, it may cause that parent to seek outside assistance, which may lead to parallel parenting.
Remain friendly and respectful. When tensions rise, and the situation becomes toxic to a child, it is more likely a Judge will order parallel parenting. Suppose one parent prohibits the other from seeing the children or makes it very difficult to co-parent. In that case, the court may eventually look more harshly at the parent who seems to alienate the children from their other parent.
As hard as it may be, you need to follow court rules and orders. It seems ludicrous that anyone can have more authority over your children than you do. However, when parents are separated, the court may take some of your authority away. However, the court does not WANT to take away your parenting authority. The court wants both parents to enjoy equal authority. You and your co-parent must work your absolute hardest to make the transition as smooth as possible for your kids and do all you can to support the other parent in being their best parent. Try to keep your eyes on the future and not look backward.
Your co-parent will not likely be the same parent after the divorce. That may mean that mom backs off a bit, gives dad a chance to parent more than he used to, and starts taking weekend trips away from the kids. Or, it may mean that dad now gets off work early to ensure he can pick up the kids on his days. It is essential to understand that you each parented the way you did because of your circumstances, allowing you to parent that way. Even if one parent NEVER did something throughout the marriage, try not to assume they will continue that habit post-separation. Each of you will have to change; often, the changes are for the better. I have seen it so many times – one parent who was very detached from the kids during the marriage became a stellar parent after the separation.
Sometimes the relationships we are in allow one parent to “check out” some parts of parenting because that is how the roles were assigned when the baby was born. It doesn’t make one parent better or worse than the other parent. There are often reasons why one parent is more absent than the other throughout the marriage. For example, maybe they were the sole breadwinner and worked long hours to provide a particular lifestyle for the family.
It truly isn’t fair to say that parent was absent… any more than it is to tell the stay-at-home parent didn’t contribute or didn’t “work.” There is no work harder than being a stay-at-home parent (which is quickly discovered once one becomes a single parent). Moreover, that was the way the family was set up. You both agreed to parent in this way. So take that for what it is (was) and keep moving forward.
Think of the great possibilities for your family under this new dynamic. And more than anything, please remember, always allow your children to see their parents through THEIR OWN eyes. Do not cloud their vision of their parent or project your feelings about the other parent onto your child. Doing so may cause them to view the other parent differently. That is not OK. And lastly, remember that your child is 50% you and 50% the other parent. If that child constantly hears what a piece of crap their other parent is, they will internalize that and start to believe that at least 50% of them must also be crappy. And if the other parent is doing the same – then 100% of them is crappy. And we can all agree – no child ever needs to feel they are crappy people based upon who their parents are.
So support your co-parent, love your kids, and work hard to keep them safe and insulated from the pain of the separation. Work hard for them to grow up and say, even though you were divorced, it never felt that way to me. I always felt like we were a family.
Want more advice or help with parallel parenting? Contact West Coast Family Mediation Center at (858) 736-2411 today to schedule a free consultation.