The Definition and Merits of Parallel Parenting
Allison J. Bell, Psy.D.

Since the late 1990’s, there has been a fair body of research literature published regarding families of divorce and the styles of parenting after divorce. In a 2005 article for the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Dr. Joan B. Kelly, widely known and respected for her research on children of divorce, writes about beneficial parenting plan models for children post-divorce. The impact of conflict is now well-known to be the key predictor of children’s adjustment post-divorce, and this knowledge has informed a greater acceptance of multiple access options for parents and professionals, as well as the courts, to consider.

The majority of parents are able to lessen their conflict within the first two to three years following a divorce, but as many as 20% of such parents remain entrenched in conflict. Parenting styles generally fall into three categories: cooperative, conflicted, or disengaged. Parents who argue a lot and who cannot gain control of their hostility need to learn to disengage. They can still parent together, in a form known as Parallel Parenting.

In parallel parenting, each parent agrees to parent their child effectively, parenting “next to” one another rather than “with” each other. Minor issues concerning the children are not communicated about. However, each parent does provide the other parent with “important information” about the children, without debating about the parenting plan or either one’s style of parenting.

Important information means anything that refers to the health, welfare and interests of the children. Thus, if a child is sick, the other parent must be notified of this fact, including details on what medications have already been administered and what treatment needs to be continued. If a child has a school field trip, the other parent must be notified. A decision about which parent might chaperone the trip shall be made in accordance with the parenting plan outlined in the Agreement/Stipulation/Judgment of Divorce. The same is true of Little League or other extracurricular activities that the children participate in.

Each parent develops and maintains their own relationships with the child’s teachers, coaches, doctors, dentists and friends. The child has one set of these professionals in his/her life, not multiples. The child goes to one school or daycare center and has one set of teachers there. The child has one pediatrician, one dentist, etc. The parents maintain independent communication with each of these professionals, unless required to be at a particular forum jointly.

Since communication remains vital and necessary, it is often advised that non-emergency communications be done by email or fax (Philip M. Stahl, PhD. 2000). It is all right to limit non-emergency communications to once a week, barring time-sensitive information. Immediate concerns need to be shared by telephone and any additional method as soon as possible. Reducing general communication helps reduce conflict.

For parents with very young children, it is vitally important to share information frequently, perhaps on an almost daily basis. This does not have to be done in a conversation; a useful tool for sharing detailed communication is a “parent communication notebook”, in which all the highlights of a child’s emotions and behaviors can be written down for the other parent to read upon each exchange of the child. Things that are typically included in this notebook are observations about the child’s health, feeding and sleeping patterns, language issues, the child’s moods, what techniques might soothe the child best, and what circumstances seem to upset the child. It is important that this notebook stays with the child so that both parents have access to it and can use it as a forum for sharing thoughts and observations about the child’s needs.

These guidelines can, and should, be meticulously spelled out in the parenting plan. Many parenting plan models include highly readable, user-friendly research-based information about what situations and parental behaviors are known to be harmful and/or beneficial to children. Different rules and routines may be confusing for a child at first, but research has demonstrated that most children acclimate quickly, learning the rules of the road in each home. This works as long as both parents agree not to meddle in each other’s rules, not to undermine one another. Though the rules in each home may be different, the child must get a clear message that the lifestyle in each house is to be respected.

Parallel Parenting may be contraindicated in cases where one or both parents continue to undermine the parental authority of the other parent, cannot resist the lure of conflict, or engage in behavior that may be detrimental to the children (Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW, Ontario, Canada). On the other hand, in Ontario, recent case law indicates that Parallel Parenting is being ordered in high-conflict cases where both parties are capable parents and ought to have an active role in their children’s upbringing. If used correctly, Parallel Parenting can reduce conflict and still provide a stable and consistent lifestyle for children.