“What’s in your children’s best interests” is what is always asked when parents are divorcing. You may have even asked yourself that question. However, when you are in pain or trying to heal yourself, it can be hard to determine if a parenting choice is really in your child’s best interest if it hurts, harms, or negatively affects the mental health of you, the parent. Therefore, we are going to explore the key differences between parallel parenting vs. co-parenting.
One of these parenting choices is choosing between “co-parenting” or “parallel parenting.” Just like it was essential to have a birth plan before you had your baby, it’s necessary to know what kind of parenting style is the most healthy for you and your child. However, just like birth plans evolve, so do parenting plans.
The involvement of each parent can vary on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, and there is no magic formula to structuring your plan except that it works for your family. As your relationship evolves with your ex-spouse or the other parent and as your children get older, you may find that you move between co-parenting, parallel parenting, and some hybrid that you find works for you.
Definition of Co-Parenting
What is co-parenting? “Co-parenting” is a term frequently heard in the parenting world, especially during a divorce. Yet, it can also be confusing because as you are both parents of the same child, you are effectively both co-parents. Co-parenting is one of many styles of jointly parenting children who do not live with both parents in the same home. Co-parenting works best for parents who can problem-solve together. Communication is key to co-parenting effectively.
In contrast, parallel parenting works best for parents in high-conflict situations, those who cannot problem-solve together, or when one parent has a mental health issue or addiction that would affect the child’s daily activities.
So what’s the difference between co-parenting and parallel parenting? Co-parenting is when communication is agreeable and even pleasant. Parenting choices and solutions are made jointly. Many parents who co-parent effectively can use text, call, or email to make joint decisions about their children’s lives.
While many parents who co-parent have a formal parenting plan in place, they may be more flexible about time spent with the children outside of the formal parenting plan. For example, if their formal parenting plan calls for a week on/week off custody and one parent has a work issue, parents who co-parent can be flexible and swap weeks.
However, co-parenting goes beyond mere scheduling. Parents who co-parent effectively can jointly participate in parent-teacher conferences, attend the children’s activities together and attend doctor’s appointments with the children together. They also can make decisions about money together outside of child support plans.
For example, if a child wants an iPhone, the parents would decide together if it is in the best interest of the child versus one parent buying it while the other parent is very against it. Another situation is allowances and chores required to receive the allowance.
Often, money is a contentious topic in divorces and can be an area of resentment between parents. If one parent gives the child large gifts or allowances, the other parent may get angry or resentful if they feel that it was not in the child’s best interest to have such an item or a large amount of money.
Going beyond the day-to-day, the four key decision-making areas are education, health, religion, and recreation. Typically in a parenting plan, a parent has final decision-making in these four areas. Some parents split who has final decision making. An example is one parent having education and religion final decision making and the other parent having health and recreation.
When parents effectively co-parent and problem solve together, the final decision-making designation becomes a moot point because both parents have effectively made the decision together.
The main benefit of co-parenting is in the alignment of decision-making. When both parents are aligned in their choices and decisions for their children, stability and consistency prevail. There is no “well Daddy said I could” or “Mommy always lets me eat pizza for breakfast.” There is a constant stream of communication between parents, and the children have a strong understanding of the expectations of both parents and the consequences that may follow.
While co-parenting may seem ideal, a significant downside is that you have to continue actively making decisions with a person you are no longer married to. This means that you are not legally bound any longer to give them your opinion or hear theirs (which is ideal for many of us).
Co-parenting prevents you from having the freedom to express who you are as a parent as you may still be hurting from what causes the separation or divorce in the first place. Co-parenting also enables communication patterns from your marriage to continue, and for some, that can be painful, degrading, or downright harmful.
For example, if you have to “co-parent” with a narcissist or are divorced from a narcissist, you may not want to endure the love-bombing, constant shaming pattern. Hearing things like “Wow, great job, you are such a great mom!” to “What kind of mother wouldn’t want to see their child an extra weekend?” is a roller coaster that affects the healing process.
The Definition Of Parallel Parenting
This is exactly why parallel parenting exists. What is parallel parenting? While parallel parenting is primarily intended for parents in high-conflict situations or who do not problem-solve well together, parallel parenting can be beneficial for parents who are escaping unhealthy, demeaning, or hurtful relationships. Parallel parenting can give both parents much-needed space to work through their problems without affecting their children’s well-being.
When one parent “bullies” the other parent over decisions, one parent is more passive, or one parent agrees to keep the peace, parallel parenting is the best option. Parallel parenting is particularly useful if you are co-parenting with a narcissist or toxic ex.
Parallel parenting can empower the parent who has felt their voice was never heard in the marriage. Parallel parenting allows them to make choices and decisions that they think are in the best interest of their child. Parallel parenting also allows parents to feel safe while working through the healing process and helping their children heal.
Parallel parenting comes in many forms, but it is just as it sounds. You each parent moving forward in parallel. You make your own decisions without input from the other parent. You are free from having the other parent question your choices, and it minimizes any obligations other than what you choose.
It can be as simple as not attending the same sports activities on the same day or having separate parent-teacher conferences. Parallel parents do not host joint birthday parties for their children and do not share holidays, etc., with their blended families. Parallel parents make their own choices, the choices they feel are best for their child.
Parallel parenting is necessary for parents who cannot communicate without a situation escalating. Parallel parents in high-conflict cases often use a co-parenting app such as Our Family Wizard to manage communication.
Everything is in writing and can be shared with court officials. This allows parents to not only track their communication of who said what, when, etc., but it also allows them to limit their communication.
It’s highly unlikely that a parent will send a barrage of mean things or unkind words if they have to stop and think about what they are doing before they send that communication. Some software tools also have a tone meter which allows you to see if your communication is too strong or aggressive before sending it to the other parent. You can read more about the best co-parenting apps here.
By limiting interaction, parallel parenting minimizes stress. Parallel parenting prevents the other parent from calling and asking, “why did you allow” or “did you agree to this.” It also makes parenting together more of a business transaction which makes sense because your emotions and feelings are towards your child, not the other parent.
Parallel parenting also works well with blended families, especially when dealing with multiple ex-spouses. There is less drama that occurs as communication is direct and straight to the point to get things accomplished.
The age and stage of your child and your relationship with your ex-spouse determine whether it is right for you to choose co-parenting or parallel parenting. Parents of young children who have relatively cordial relationships find that co-parenting is a great way to divide and conquer.
Parents of teenagers often find that their children would rather spend time with their friends (not their parents), so the child’s preference is sometimes to trump the parents’ decisions, whether joint or not. Parallel parenting works really well in high-conflict situations and with blended families where multiple ex-spouses are involved.
However, just like every child is unique, so is every parenting model. You may have to implement a hybrid approach where some things are always documented and not discussed, like finances or diet, and other topics like recreation might be more fluid. You may also choose to co-parent with your partner over one child and parallel parent with the same partner based on that child having special needs or behavior issues. The best approach is the thoughtful approach, which meets the needs of both parent and child and creates stability in your home.