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Parallel Parenting vs Co-Parenting: How To Know Which Is Best For You?

Written by Rossana Snee
Rossana is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She aspires to motivate, to inspire, and to awaken your best self!
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It is common knowledge that being a parent has its difficulties. All parents know that the task of rearing a child is not the easiest job in the world. In fact, it’s one of the toughest. You’re dealing with human beings—complex human beings, still unfolding—with feelings, wants, and wills of their own.

Being a parent is sometimes akin to walking a minefield—no one knows what’s going to happen at any given moment. If you have children and are fortunate enough to be raising them alongside your partner, then good for you! You have a certain advantage: two parents together, supporting each other as their children grow and mature, making unanimous decisions, and in sync about what’s in the best interest of their child. This scenario has numerous benefits, including happy children who turn into happy adults.

But what happens when there is no “happily-ever-after” for the parents? When things just don’t work out? Now, you have a situation where you have children, but living apart and often with different ideas and ways of doing things. Then what?

Well, then you have to decide how those children will be parented moving forward.

There are several ways of doing this, two of which I will discuss in this article: parallel parenting vs co-parenting—very different approaches, each with their own pros and cons. If you happen to be one of those parents who don’t make it as a couple, then reviewing these two very disparate parenting styles is important.

Let’s start with the least favorable one, at least for the children: parallel parenting.

What Is Parallel Parenting?

If you’re divorced or if your situation is toxic and you are unable to interact or solve problems in a respectful and friendly way, then parallel-parenting may be the best option for you.[1] Not all parents divorce and stay friends. In fact, a great many of them may not want to have anything to do with each other, and if it weren’t for the kids they produced, they’d choose never to see each other again. So, how does Parallel Parenting work?

In a scenario where the parents are less than amicable, everything is kept completely separate. Communication is maintained to a minimum and is usually in written form or by phone instead of in person.


Parents assign specific days to attend sports or school events. For instance, you may take your child to this weekend’s soccer game, but your ex-spouse will take them to the next one. It’s the same with school activities, such as back-to-school nights or parent/teacher conferences.

Currently, I have a client who, while married, was in a terribly venomous, abusive situation. Unfortunately for my client and her partner, they share a 3-year old daughter. My client was abysmally abused for years by her partner.

Now, they are in the process of divorcing and their little girl has to go back and forth. Sadly, the abusive mother is belittling and disparaging in nearly every interaction they have regarding their daughter. This is highly traumatic for their little girl who is forced to witness the hurtful strikes thrown at my client, her other mom. In this situation, the less contact for these mothers, the better—not only for their benefit but for their daughter’s as well.

For children raised in a parallel parenting setting, it isn’t easy. Psychologically, it can be very damaging to have your parents interacting regularly and acting like they want to kill each other in the process.

You might want to consider parallel parenting as a last resort. The negative impact on the children can be lifelong. Regrettably, some parents care more about their animosity toward each other than the reverberations their interactions will have on their children.

3 Tips on Effective Parallel Parenting

Although parallel parenting is not necessarily optimal, several things can be done to minimize the damage.

1. Keep Communication to a Minimum

Whenever possible, communicate via emails, text messages, or in writing. This prevents face-to-face confrontations. If the communications can be kept brief, to the point, and business-like, then all the better.

On your scheduled days, it’s best not to reach out to the other parent, unless there is a true emergency. Again, this diminishes the possibility of any toxic face-offs.


2. Avoid Attending Child-Related Activities

Because of the possible level of conflict that can erupt, attending school conferences, or any extra-curricular activities should be avoided. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to relay the situation to the school so that they’re aware. In that way, you’re kept informed of important upcoming events without having to consult with the other parent. The chances, then, of missing an important event in your child’s life is eliminated.

In addition, this diminishes the tension, animosity, and conflict associated with hurt parents that are not prioritizing their child’s well-being.

3. Stay Informed

It’s important to know what’s going on with your child, not only physically but mentally as well. Prepare a list with addresses and phone numbers of all the relevant people in your child’s life. This includes doctors, dentists, teachers, friends, etc. Stay in the loop. In this manner, you can have input when necessary.

The parallel parenting framework isn’t always the best for the children, but there are some positive aspects to consider. Because the parents have little or no contact, the children aren’t exposed to their parent’s hostility and antagonism toward each other. It also reduces stress for the kids who often have to deal with their parent’s unpredictable and nasty behavior.


Here are some of the other benefits of parallel parenting:

  • Children have a decreased exposure to conflict.
  • Children have the chance to develop healthier relationships with both parents.
  • Parents can have their own personal set of rules separate from the other.

One thing to keep in mind is that your divorce may have been highly volatile, and as you start to parent separately, parallel parenting may be a better option at the beginning. However, it doesn’t have to be permanent.

According to Our Family Wizard,[2]

“If your divorce was particularly contentious, co-parenting immediately after your separation may be too big an ask. In these situations, parallel parenting may be a good transition strategy to ease the way into co-parenting at a point further down the road, when emotions aren’t running quite so high. Your children will also be at their most vulnerable immediately after your separation. Going the extra mile to ensure they’re not forced to cope with the added stress of co-parenting conflict will be of tremendous benefit.”

Now, let’s take a look at the flip side of the coin.

What Is Co-Parenting?

What is Co-Parenting? And is it right for you?

Co-Parenting is for those parents whose divorce hasn’t made them mortal enemies. These parents have no issues working together to solve problems and can easily work with each other to come up with a solution that is in the best interest of their child, even though they’re no longer living under the same roof.[3]

Their child goes from home to home without incident. Parents attend school functions, talk about their child’s report cards, meet with their child’s teacher, etc., all without any distressing episodes. With co-parenting, parents talk often and compare notes to make sure they’re on the same page, all while being civil and respectful to each other. You can see how much better this is psychologically for the children.

Co-parenting doesn’t mean that there are never any problems. It simply means that if there are any problems, there is a forum where to discuss them—a direct and effective way to head off worse problems before they escalate. In this way, tension is minimized, which means less suffering for the children in the long run.

If co-parents can continue in this way as their children walk the path into adulthood, their children will have a much better chance at growing up with minimal psychological damage. You might want to think of co-parenting as an investment in the mental well-being of your child’s future.


4 Benefits of Co-Parenting

If you’re not convinced, let me share some of the co-parenting benefits.

1. Minimized Conflict for Your Children

Having divorced parents is bad enough, but why not extinguish the additional conflict for your child of witnessing their parents bicker? Co-parenting is a much less stress-producing situation for the children involved.

2. More Stability for Your Children

When the children see that their parents get along—act like regular parents—not like vicious enemies intent on maligning and attacking each other’s characters, the children feel more comforted.

3. Semblance of Normalcy and Routine

It’s stabilizing for the children to see their parents together—to know that even though they’re no longer married, they can attend school functions, discuss outings, etc., without a yelling match.

4.  Feelings of Security in the Shared Routine and Rules.

While growing up, children need stability. The more stable the better. Hence, having shared routines and rules is very beneficial to the children’s well-being.

According to Dr. Gail Gross,[4]

“A well-bonded child is secure and does better at everything. If raised in a stable environment, your child will have less anxiety and a higher threshold of security. Therefore, your child will approach everything with a stronger sense of self. . . and a strong central core. As a result, he will learn to depend on his own resources and capacities, which allows him to be independent and self-actualized.”

With co-parenting, the children don’t feel as though they have to choose sides. And it actually provides them with the opportunity of building a strong and loving relationship with each of their parents. Furthermore, there is a lesser chance of parentification in which the child feels the need to take on the role of peacekeeper between their parents.[5]

General Tips for Divorced Parents

In addition, I’d like to share some general tips for divorced parents. These tips can help make an unfavorable situation more favorable.

  1. If you have issues with your partner, talk to your partner. Do not talk to your partner through your child. Don’t rely on them to be the messenger as it puts children in a terribly awkward situation.
  2. If there are corrosive feelings between you and your ex-spouse, it’s best to express them away from the child. Your problems are none of their business. Also, don’t talk to your child negatively about their other parent. This is very hurtful to the child. You may be divorced, but you and your ex-spouse, as parents, remain parents forever. And the children love them both.
  3. Don’t interrogate your child as soon as they get home from the other parent’s home. For example, don’t ask questions such as “was Ellie there? What’s she like? What did your father say about. . .?” Neutrality is the key.
  4. Make it easier for your child to have duplicate items in both homes. It’s less for them to cart back and forth. Try living in two houses and alternating every few days. That will give you a picture of what it’s like for your child.
  5. Allow your child some control by giving them some freedom when choosing “parental time.” As they get older, they may want to be at one house when it’s the other parent’s turn because something special might be going on with friends. Flexibility is crucial. It’s also important because it gives the child a sense of control.
  6. Don’t make your child feel guilty if it’s your turn with them and they want to hang out with friends. It’s not their fault their parents couldn’t work it out. Let them have friend time without the guilt trip.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article gives you a better idea of the two different versions of child-rearing: parallel parenting and co-parenting. You can also create a hybrid model that might work better for you. Divorce can be traumatizing for children, but what makes it much worse is the tension between the parents.

Divorcing is never easy—it’s actually downright painful. But if you can remember that together you brought precious cargo into this world and that they have to be cared for in the best possible way, then things can go a lot more smoothly—not only for your children, but for you as a parent dealing with the challenging task of turning a child into a good, kind, and responsible adult.

More Tips for Divorced Parents

Featured photo credit: Tyson via unsplash.com


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