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Co-parenting and Parallel Parenting

In this article, Dr. Jennifer Harman discusses two ways parents can continue to parents their child after separation from each other.
© Colorado State University
Although separation and divorce can alleviate some of the conflict between parents, they still must continue to parent their children afterwards. There are two ways that this can be managed, depending on the ability of the parents to be able to work together.


Co-parenting is an option only when both parents support each other and respect their right to have a good relationship with the children. This form of parenting resembles healthy parenting in families that are still together—the parents communicate and coordinate with each other about decisions related to the child by exchanging information and minimizing personal sharing. Both parents set aside their negative feelings towards each other to do what is best for the child, and they keep any conflicts that arise away from them. Effective co-parents are able to periodically evaluate their parenting plans in order to negotiate and coordinate ways to make things better for their child. For example, a parent may report that Wednesdays are challenging for their child because they have too many activities planned and are not able to complete their homework. Working with the other parent, they coordinate a plan to move one of the activities to another day of the week. When children see their parents working together, it has positive outcomes for their well-being.
Co-parenting situations are not perfect; parents will not always agree, despite their best efforts to reach consensus. Some parents use a parent coordinator (discussed later in this course) or a mediator to help resolve their conflicts. In addition, co-parenting arrangements will not work when the problems become intractable. Unfortunately, many parents are unable to move on after their separation. They hold on to anger directed towards the other parent, and many even come to believe that the other parent is dangerous, mentally ill, or incompetent. Typically, it is one parent who exhibits these feelings and behaviors; it is less common for both parents to be responsible for the continued conflict after separation. In these adversarial situations, co-parenting is nearly impossible—it leads to too much conflict that is detrimental to the parents and children’s well-being.

Parallel Parenting

Parallel parenting is an alternative form of parenting that is a more realistic option for families in which there is high conflict. This form of parenting allows parents to disengage from each other, have very minimal contact, and still remain fully connected to their children. When parents have joint decision-making of their children, they will coordinate major decisions together or with the help of a third party. The day-to-day care of the children is then handled independently by the parents during their parenting time. Decision-making authority can also be divided across domains so that the parents do not need to coordinate directly with each other, such as assigning one parent major medical decision-making and the other parent educational decision-making authority.
Some conflictual parents try to use their authority to control and harass the other parent. For example, a parent may demand that their children do homework for a certain amount of time each day during the other parent’s parenting time, and use their educational decision-making authority as their justification. Decision-making authority does not mean a parent has the authority to micro-manage routine decisions when their child is with the other parent. In addition, just because a parent has authority to make certain decisions, the other parent still has a right to information about the child and has a voice in the decision-making. Both parents have a right to know what is happening with their child in all spheres of the child’s life. When a parent excludes the other from information, or denies them input on their decisions regarding the child, they are engaging in a form of family violence toward the other parent that ultimately hurts the child.
In order for parallel parenting plans to work, written plans must be very clear and unambiguous. The parents may need a neutral party mediate their communication in order to minimize hostile emails and phone calls. Courts may need to restrict the amount of communication (e.g., 2 emails a day about the children only) that is allowable between the parents in order to avoid escalation of conflict.
In cases where there has been substantiated family violence, even parallel parenting may not be an option, but it could be a goal for the future. When a parent is unsafe, interventions and plans can be developed to protect the child, while still encouraging a healthy relationship with them. Importantly, parenting plans and arrangements should not been seen as static agreements that are etched in stone. Children grow and develop; so do their parents. Many parents move on and remarry, introducing new step-family members and half-siblings to their children’s lives. Such changes often necessitate the restructuring of parenting plans, either together or with outside assistance.
© Colorado State University
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Positive Parenting After Separation

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