parallel parenting

Parallel parenting: what is it and how does it relate to my coparenting?

My parents

Parallel parenting is a term referring to a style of coparenting, usually after divorce or separation of the parents. Where parents have attempted to exercise cooperative coparenting and talk through all the specifics of raising their children in separate households, but have continued to have communication problems and disputes many months (or years) after their legal matters are finalized, moving on to a parallel parenting model may help reduce their conflict.

Parallel parenting is not a failure, nor is it only appropriate in “high conflict” cases. Calling a case “high conflict” has fallen in disfavor recently, no matter how appropriate the term might be in a given circumstance, because it labels the parties as high conflict.  In fact, each party may be decidedly not high conflict when it comes to any situation other than attempts to coparent.  Thus, it’s sometimes not the parties who are high conflict, but just the coparenting circumstances.

In some post-divorce/ post-separation cases, the parents simply have trouble getting along and aren’t overly cooperative with each other, but they also don’t actively argue about raisin the children. High conflict cases go beyond that, and involve ongoing and numerous disputes about child issues:  what extracurriculars will be undertaken, what doctors will treat the child, whether the child will be vaccinated, where the child will attend school. High conflict cases also may involve one or both parents with certain personality traits (narcissistic, hostile, borderline are some of those traits) that make coparenting far more difficult than usual, and maybe impossible.   Sometimes the unusual level of hostility relates back to harboring resentment about the relationship or how it ended. Sometimes the disagreements reflect one or both parent’s inability to respect the other parent’s role and authority over the children, and attempts to control that parent’s time and decisions.

A primary goal of parallel parenting is to avoid parent conflict in front of the children or that directly affects the children.   Another goal is to keep the parents out of court when possible, as protracted court proceedings cost more and tend to create more conflict between parents.  Numerous research studies have shown that children who witness or are aware of high conflict between their parents suffer from a greater degree of psychological and behavioral problems in their own lives.

Gatekeeping.   Coparenting can’t be discussed without a mention of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping means that one parent or the other is more in possession or control of information about the child, or has more control of the child himself.   How that parent (the “gatekeeper”) controls or manages the child’s relationship with the other parent can be a big point of conflict between parents and can cause coparenting issues.   In intact relationships, gatekeeping is often intentionally practiced by the family.  One parent may have been “in charge” of most child information and day-to-day issues for the family.  That parent may be the one who knows all the child’s teachers and medical providers, is responsible for all the phone calls to caretakers, and takes the children to all their appointments and activities.    That gatekeeper parent may report to the other parent about what’s going on (or the other parent may not need or want a report), and the parents may be perfectly happy with their unequal status when it comes to the children, because the family is still intact, and that arrangement works for the family.

When the parents then separate, that unequal arrangement can suddenly feel harsh and unfair to the non-controlling parent.   The gatekeeper parent may feel the status quo should be maintained for the benefit of the child and s/he should remain in charge of all information.   This tension in post-separation gatekeeping often leads to difficult coparenting situations.  Both the former gatekeeper and the former non-gatekeeper need to be aware of the changes they both must make because of their separation/ divorce.   Changing the nature of what was a long-standing parenting relationship is often very difficult and doesn’t happen immediately.

When one parent, after separation, intentionally withholds time and information about the child from the other parent, this is considered “restrictive gatekeeping”, which is disfavored when two parents are trying to coparent.   Restrictive gatekeeping can be a pathway to a child’s estrangement from one parent.    While gatekeeping is often a normal relationship the parents created and agreed on during their relationship, restrictive gatekeeping after the parents separate is harmful to the child and to each parent’s relationship with the child.

It can also be the case that the previously intact family always had one parent who was unusually   dependent on the rest of the family to solve his or her routine daily life problems.   After separation, that person no longer has the support of the other parent and the rest of the family in helping him or her.  That person sees the separation as something “caused” by the other parent and resents that it’s made his or her life more difficult.    This also makes coparenting more difficult.

Interesting sidenote about Parallel Parenting:  In Canada, a court order for “parallel parenting” is actually a legal designation, and Canadian courts can order a custodial status known as “parallel parenting”.   It’s considered a form of joint legal custody (legal decision-making).   That’s not the case in the United States, where parallel parenting is a style of coparenting and not a legal designation.  In Arizona, the court must order either joint legal decision-making (formerly joint custody) or sole legal decision-making (formerly sole custody), or the court can order “joint legal decision-making with final authority vested in one parent.”       If parallel parenting is ever ordered by an Arizona court, it’s usually after the court has been presented with evidence of significant problems in the parents’ communications.

Parallel parenting is a style of co-parenting which reduces parental communication and engagement.  Parallel parenting (Par-squared or Par-2)  allows the parents to detach from each other and it discourages frequent and detailed discussions between the parents about day-to-day child issues.    Consistent with Arizona’s legal definition of “parenting time”, each parent is in charge of day to day decisions for the child during that parent’s own parenting time.   [https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/25/00401.htm, ARS 25-401.05. “Parenting time” means the schedule of time during which each parent has access to a child at specified times.  Each parent during their scheduled parenting time is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing and shelter and may make routine decisions concerning the child’s care.”]    Each parent has control over his or her time, without the need for approval or input from the other parent.   Ideally, the parents communicate as little as possible about those day to day items, except of course when the day to day decisions or activities affect the other parent’s time, or affect the child as a whole.  Par-2 doesn’t mean no contact between the parents, but it does minimize contact.

In a Par-2 Plan, the parents’ communication is kept as emotionless as possible.  Instead of telephone or face-to-face communication, email is almost always used.   The use of email is non-concurrent (the parents usually aren’t writing and responding at the same time, and can check email at their own convenient times), and strict email guidelines can eliminate the urge to include opinions or editorial comments.    Email platforms devoted to coparenting, like www.ourfamilywizard.com, add an additional layer of formality to the communications.  Text messaging in Par-2 cases is discouraged, as text messages allow immediate and emotion-filled messages.

Parenting Coordinators and Par-2 Plans.

Girl and parents

Parallel parenting is not a failure, nor is it only appropriate in “high conflict” cases. Calling a case “high conflict” has fallen in disfavor recently, no matter how appropriate the term might be in a given circumstance, because it labels the parties as high conflict.  In fact, each party may be decidedly not high conflict when it comes to any situation other than attempts to coparent.  Thus, it’s sometimes not the parties who are high conflict, but just the coparenting circumstances.

In some post-divorce/ post-separation cases, the parents simply have trouble getting along and aren’t overly cooperative with each other, but they also don’t actively argue about raisin the children. High conflict cases go beyond that, and involve ongoing and numerous disputes about child issues:  what extracurriculars will be undertaken, what doctors will treat the child, whether the child will be vaccinated, where the child will attend school. High conflict cases also may involve one or both parents with certain personality traits (narcissistic, hostile, borderline are some of those traits) that make coparenting far more difficult than usual, and maybe impossible.   Sometimes the unusual level of hostility relates back to harboring resentment about the relationship or how it ended. Sometimes the disagreements reflect one or both parent’s inability to respect the other parent’s role and authority over the children, and attempts to control that parent’s time and decisions.

A primary goal of parallel parenting is to avoid parent conflict in front of the children or that directly affects the children.   Another goal is to keep the parents out of court when possible, as protracted court proceedings cost more and tend to create more conflict between parents.  Numerous research studies have shown that children who witness or are aware of high conflict between their parents suffer from a greater degree of psychological and behavioral problems in their own lives.

Gatekeeping.   Coparenting can’t be discussed without a mention of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping means that one parent or the other is more in possession or control of information about the child, or has more control of the child himself.   How that parent (the “gatekeeper”) controls or manages the child’s relationship with the other parent can be a big point of conflict between parents and can cause coparenting issues.   In intact relationships, gatekeeping is often intentionally practiced by the family.  One parent may have been “in charge” of most child information and day-to-day issues for the family.  That parent may be the one who knows all the child’s teachers and medical providers, is responsible for all the phone calls to caretakers, and takes the children to all their appointments and activities.    That gatekeeper parent may report to the other parent about what’s going on (or the other parent may not need or want a report), and the parents may be perfectly happy with their unequal status when it comes to the children, because the family is still intact, and that arrangement works for the family.

When the parents then separate, that unequal arrangement can suddenly feel harsh and unfair to the non-controlling parent.   The gatekeeper parent may feel the status quo should be maintained for the benefit of the child and s/he should remain in charge of all information.   This tension in post-separation gatekeeping often leads to difficult coparenting situations.  Both the former gatekeeper and the former non-gatekeeper need to be aware of the changes they both must make because of their separation/ divorce.   Changing the nature of what was a long-standing parenting relationship is often very difficult and doesn’t happen immediately.

When one parent, after separation, intentionally withholds time and information about the child from the other parent, this is considered “restrictive gatekeeping”, which is disfavored when two parents are trying to coparent.   Restrictive gatekeeping can be a pathway to a child’s estrangement from one parent.    While gatekeeping is often a normal relationship the parents created and agreed on during their relationship, restrictive gatekeeping after the parents separate is harmful to the child and to each parent’s relationship with the child.    Once again, restrictive gatekeeping by one parent could call for

It can also be the case that the previously intact family always had one parent who was unusually   dependent on the rest of the family to solve his or her routine daily life problems.   After separation, that person no longer has the support of the other parent and the rest of the family in helping him or her.  That person sees the separation as something “caused” by the other parent and resents that it’s made his or her life more difficult.    This also makes coparenting more difficult.

Interesting sidenote about Parallel Parenting:  In Canada, a court order for “parallel parenting” is actually a legal designation, and Canadian courts can order a custodial status known as “parallel parenting”.   It’s considered a form of joint legal custody (legal decision-making).   That’s not the case in the United States, where parallel parenting is a style of coparenting and not a legal designation.  In Arizona, the court must order either joint legal decision-making (formerly joint custody) or sole legal decision-making (formerly sole custody), or the court can order “joint legal decision-making with final authority vested in one parent.”       If parallel parenting is ever ordered by an Arizona court, it’s usually after the court has been presented with evidence of significant problems in the parents’ communications.

Parallel parenting is a style of co-parenting which reduces parental communication and engagement.  Parallel parenting (Par-squared or Par-2)  allows the parents to detach from each other and it discourages frequent and detailed discussions between the parents about day-to-day child issues.    Consistent with Arizona’s legal definition of “parenting time”, each parent is in charge of day to day decisions for the child during that parent’s own parenting time.   [https://www.azleg.gov/viewdocument/?docName=https://www.azleg.gov/ars/25/00401.htm, ARS 25-401.05. “Parenting time” means the schedule of time during which each parent has access to a child at specified times.  Each parent during their scheduled parenting time is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing and shelter and may make routine decisions concerning the child’s care.”]    Each parent has control over his or her time, without the need for approval or input from the other parent.   Ideally, the parents communicate as little as possible about those day to day items, except of course when the day to day decisions or activities affect the other parent’s time, or affect the child as a whole.  Par-2 doesn’t mean no contact between the parents, but it does minimize contact.

In a Par-2 Plan, the parents’ communication is kept as emotionless as possible.  Instead of telephone or face-to-face communication, email is almost always used.   The use of email is non-concurrent (the parents usually aren’t writing and responding at the same time, and can check email at their own convenient times), and strict email guidelines can eliminate the urge to include opinions or editorial comments.    Email platforms devoted to coparenting, like www.ourfamilywizard.com, add an additional layer of formality to the communications.  Text messaging in Par-2 cases is discouraged, as text messages allow immediate and emotion-filled messages.

Parenting coordinators are appointed by court orders in select cases to oversee the parenting, help resolve conflicts, and act as a referee for disputes about parenting, including interpretation of the Plan when needed.  While parenting coordinators are not strictly mediators, a large part of parenting coordination is a mediation-type process with attempts to get the parents to agree on their disputes, with some help.

The purpose of Par-2 is not to keep the parents away from the children but to keep the parents away from each other and to maximum each parent’s ability to enjoy their children during their own parenting time, without interference.

Why does Par-2 work in some cases?

When specific enough, Par-2 plans work, because they reduce the need for parents to communicate constantly about what’s going on.   The written Plan itself includes specifics that cover the vast majority of child situations, so all the parents need to do is read their Plan.   While most custody orders/ Plans have some provisions about holidays and vacations, for example, a Par-2 Plan will include:

Logically, this makes sense.    When specifics are set out in writing, the parents don’t have to  constantly communicate with each other.    If a parent continually fails to read the Plan to figure out the schedule, that parent will be chastised and possibly sanctioned by the court or the parenting coordinator.    Less communication gives less opportunity for the parents to irritate each other, and each parent will have peace in order to enjoy their children and parent them without undue conflict.  More importantly the children will notice the lack of bickering and conflict between the parents and will be able to relax because they are no longer being used as go-betweens in the conflict.

When Par-2 is working and efficient, the children avoid seeing conflict between their parents.  Ideally, Par-2 gives the parents a reprieve from their hostilities stemming from the relationship, forces each parent to acknowledge the other parent’s ability to raise the children in his/ her own home, and makes the parents view each other as coparents rather than the (failed) former partner.

If Par-2 can’t work, that may be an indication that joint custody or decision-making isn’t workable with these parents, and the court may have to decide which parent should have decision-making, while the other parent’s input on decisions is limited.   Par-2 is one way of trying to keep the parents in relatively equal positions, without forcing them to work together constantly.

A few handouts about parallel parenting are included here:

Parenting Pointers – High Conflict divorce (Mark Rohde, Ph.D.) (PDF attachment)

Parallel Parenting for High Conflict Families (Philip Stahl, Ph.D.)

Co-Parenting Styles:  Cooperative vs. Parallel Parenting, and Ten Tips for Successful Parallel Parenting, Jean McBride, 2000 (“Programs for High Conflict, Separated/ Divorced Parents”)  (PDF attachment)    http://www.divorcehelpforparents.com/co-parent.html

Co-Parenting Communication Guide, Maricopa County Superior Court

Parenting Communication Resources in High Conflict Cases, a project of the Arizona chapter of AFCC (2011)

CONTACT ANNETTE FOR A CONSULTATION

ABOUT MEDIATION, PARENTING COORDINATION, OR PRIVATE REPRESENTATION IN A FAMILY LAW MATTER


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