How to Create a Parallel Parenting Plan That Works for Your Family

Child looking at her hostile parents

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Everyone hopes that the vows they exchanged on their wedding day will remain true over the years, through moves, career changes, children, and more. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen for every couple. Many people reach a point at which they need to make the brave decision to leave a toxic or conflict-riddled relationship.

When there are children involved, parents may feel like they can’t simply sign divorce papers and part ways forever. A crucial part of the divorce proceedings will be determining the best method for parenting their children going forward. For some, that method may be parallel parenting.

“Parallel parenting allows the parents to each spend time with and care for their children independently,” explains Joleena Louis, Esq., an attorney in New York City focused on family law matters including divorce, child custody, and child support. “This parenting structure helps minimize communication between the parents and attempts to shield the children from conflicts between them.”

Issues and laws surrounding divorce and child custody may vary from state to state. The information here may be slightly different than the laws in your state. Be sure to check your state's laws when creating a parallel parenting plan.

What Is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel parenting is an optimal model for couples who find it impossible to get along but who both still want to be involved in raising their children. “In this method, each parent has control over their own parenting responsibilities without the need to collaborate with the other parent or obtain the other parent’s consent,” explains B. Robert Farzad, a partner at Farzad & Ochoa Family Law Attorneys, LLP, a California family law firm with offices in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego.

While there is limited communication involved in this parenting model, communication between parents is not nonexistent. “This isn’t no-contact parenting, which would be an unusual extreme,” says Farzad. “Contact is just minimized to only serious situations, or issues with a significant impact in the children’s lives, such as their education, health, and safety. And if there is regular contact, it is short and to the point.”

Louis adds that when communication is necessary, it is often done via text, email, or an app like Our Family Wizard, which simplifies and documents all communication.

Parallel Parenting vs. Co-Parenting

It is primarily in the degree of communication that parallel parenting differs from a co-parenting model that might be adopted after an amicable divorce. “Co-parenting emphasizes working together and communicating regularly to jointly meet the needs of the children,” explains Louis.

This collaboration typically doesn’t exist in a parallel parenting situation. “The parents detach from each other on parenting decisions,” notes Farzad. “Co-parenting and most other models rely on effective communication and collaboration. Parallel parenting minimizes that.”

In a parallel parenting situation, children have the opportunity to spend time with and have both parents in their lives while minimizing the possibility of domestic conflict.

When to Choose Parallel Parenting

The nature of the relationship between the parents determines if a parallel parenting model is appropriate. “We recommend parallel parenting where the parents are in high conflict with each other and there is a risk one or both parents will expose the children to that conflict,” says Farzad.

Examples include relationships where there is a history of domestic violence between the partners or if one of the parents has narcissistic personality traits.

But if this conflict extends to or is directed towards the children, the game changes. “This assumes one parent is not physically or emotionally abusive toward the children," Farzad says. "If one parent is physically or emotionally abusive toward the children, not even parallel parenting is appropriate. The non-abusive parent should have sole or primary custody (including decision making) depending on the nature and extent of the abuse.”

B. Robert Farzad, partner at Farzad & Ochoa Family Law Attorneys, LLP

If one parent is physically or emotionally abusive toward the children, not even parallel parenting is appropriate. The non-abusive parent should have sole or primary custody (including decision making) depending on the nature and extent of the abuse.

— B. Robert Farzad, partner at Farzad & Ochoa Family Law Attorneys, LLP

How to Create a Parallel Parenting Plan

Divorce or child custody lawyers will typically assist in creating a parallel parenting plan as part of the divorce. It may be court-ordered (in which case the parents don’t necessarily have to agree to the terms), or it may be suggested as part of a divorce or child custody judgment if it becomes clear that the parents won’t be able to handle a traditional co-parenting situation, says Farzad.

“The logistics are in identifying whether parallel parenting is necessary and then collaborating with the other side to see if we can get everybody on board,” he adds. “It is common for courts to infuse parallel parenting provisions in a contested child custody order.”

A parallel parenting plan may also be put in place at a later date if the relationship between the parents becomes high conflict after the divorce and/or custody case has been finalized.

What to Include in Your Parallel Plan

When it comes to creating your plan, specifics are everything. “Think of it as a roadmap and a safety net for everything that can reasonably be anticipated,” Farzad explains. “The more specific the parallel parenting plan is regarding the health, safety, and education-related decisions, and each parent’s specific parenting time with the children, the more successful the parallel parenting plan will be.”

Some of these specific issues include (but may not be limited to):

  • Each parent’s parenting time
  • Where and how custodial exchanges (when the child goes from one parent to another) will take place
  • Holiday and vacation schedules and what to do if dates conflict
  • How decisions will be made regarding the child’s schooling, extracurricular activities, emergency and non-emergency medical situations, etc. “In California, this category that deals with decision-making falls under the umbrella of legal custody and in a parallel parenting situation when parents are unlikely to reach consensus, it is common for a court order to require a collaboration between the parents but allow one parent to be the tiebreaker on certain issues,” notes Farzad.
  • Rules regarding the cancellation and rescheduling of parenting time
  • Rules regarding communication, often through a third party

When to Make Changes

Since there is so little communication between parents in a parallel parenting model, it is rare that minor issues will arise. “When parallel parenting court orders are specific, they give high conflict parents little to no wiggle room to create conflict,” Farzad says. But if one or both parents are violating a court order, the situation becomes more serious.

“There are certain steps you have to take to modify a court-ordered agreement, so we would determine if the issues qualified for a modification,” explains Louis. If that doesn’t work, further legal action may be required.

“If one parent is undermining the process, perhaps a contempt action against that parent is appropriate,” Farzad says. 

A Word from Verywell

Unless there is a threat to the child’s health or safety from one parent in a divorced couple, a parallel parenting plan provides both parents the opportunity to continue to raise their children, all while limiting communication with their former partner in order to avoid conflict. Speak to a divorce, family law, or child custody expert to determine if this parenting model is best for you and your family.

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  1. University of Florida. Co-parenting vs parallel parenting.