Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting: The Difference

Two Healthy Homes | Co-Parenting Classes
Two Healthy Homes | Co-Parenting Classes

by Dr. Erica Ellis

Founder of Two Healthy Homes. Licensed psychologist, best-selling author, and a leading global expert on co-parenting and child centered divorce.

Separated or divorced parents must create a plan for parenting their children that is based upon the specific nature of their relationship and their unique parenting situation. This is typically done with the help of a family law attorney or through a custody case in the family court system. This court ordered plan will include such details as child custody, parenting time, and parenting responsibilities. Two of the most utilized plans are co-parenting and parallel parenting. Each is appropriate under different circumstances and can offer transitioning families the best option for moving forward in raising their children. 

What is Co-Parenting?

The most common arrangement is for the parents to continue co-parenting their children following a separation or divorce. Co-parenting is defined as two parents who no longer live together working collaboratively to raise their children. It does not require that they were previously married, but in most cases this parenting relationship is the result of a marriage ending. While it can take many forms, with many different parenting plans, the goal is to create a relationship where both parents are playing an active role in all aspects of their children’s lives. It works best when decisions are made based upon the best interest of the children. 

To learn more about how to be the best co-parents for your children, click here

When is Co-Parenting Not Appropriate?

The ability to effectively co-parent requires that neither parent poses a physical or emotional risk to their children or to the other parent. Such an arrangement becomes difficult, if not impossible, when there is a history of domestic violence or emotional abuse or if one parent has a serious mental illness like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or substance abuse problem. 

The other essential requirements for a successful co-parenting relationship are a basic level of trust, the skills to effectively communicate, and the capacity to resolve conflict. Without those, the ability to collaboratively work together on the children’s behalf will be extremely challenging, if not impossible.

Alternatives to Co-Parenting

In those situations where co-parenting is either unsafe or not appropriate, alternative parenting models need to be explored and utilized. Parallel parenting is the model most typically utilized in high conflict relationships, such as when dealing with a narcissistic ex-partner. Other options include sole legal/physical custody where the children live with only one parent who is responsible for all child-rearing decisions or supervised visitation where the children live with one parent and only visit the other parent under the supervision of another competent adult.

What is a Parallel Parenting Plan?

Parallel parenting is based on two assumptions. The first is that children generally benefit from both of their parents playing an active role in their lives. The second is that the parents are unable to work together in a cooperative way to raise their children and attempting to do so would be harmful both to the children as well as to one or both parents. Parallel parenting presents the best option to address both of those assumptions in that it allows parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives with minimal contact with the other parent. 

Benefits of Parallel Parenting

In this type of parenting arrangement, the amount of interaction between the two high-conflict parents is minimized as much as possible. Each parent has their own areas of responsibility, so they minimize the need for interaction and collaboration and can continue to utilize their own parenting style without interference from the other parent.  For example, one parent might be responsible for all details pertaining to doctor’s appointments while the other deals with extracurricular activities, and they each do so according to their own preferences. Parents also handle their time with the children in their own way, with no input from the other. Face to face communication is limited and the preferable mode of communication is electronic (such as through the Our Family Wizard or Coparently apps) or with the help of a professional mediator. 

Parallel Parenting as a Short-term vs. Long-term Solution

There are many situations in which creating a parallel parenting plan is necessary for only a limited period following the volatile end of the relationship to give both parents, especially the higher conflict parent, an opportunity to de-escalate from all the stress and emotional turmoil. Once that happens, it is sometimes then possible to transition to a healthier co-parenting relationship that involves more collaboration and interaction. In other more extreme high-conflict relationships, that may never be possible, and the parallel parenting model will be utilized throughout the children’s lives. 

The Importance of a Detailed Plan

Regardless of the plan that you choose, parallel parenting vs co-parenting, it is essential that your final parenting plan be as specific and detailed as possible. The more details you include, the less conflict there will be in the future. The goal is to avoid leaving things open to misinterpretation or debate to minimize conflict or stressful and costly court appearances. 

The Common Goal of Both Parenting Plans

While co-parenting and parallel parenting are two very different ways of raising children following separation or divorce, they share one major goal. They are both aimed at allowing children to maintain a relationship with both of their parents while minimizing the potential for any further emotional harm to everyone involved. 


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