Parallel parenting is a term used more and more in California divorce and child custody cases. It bridges the gap between the ideal low to no conflict cases and, in the other extreme, very high conflict ones. The latter leaves very little room for effective communication and co-parenting – enter the parallel parenting plan.
The high conflict cases of which we speak are not just those where the parents have trouble getting along. We are talking about one or both parent’s narcissistic or borderline personality or hostility that make co-parenting all but impossible. This includes situations where:
- one or both parents still harbor resentment toward the another due to the breakup or separation and that affects communication and the willingness to co-parent;
- one or both parents do not respect the other parent’s role and refuse to work with the other;
- one or both parents have related emotional upheaval that doesn’t allow for effective communication.
In this article, we are going to look at parallel parenting. We will discuss how it may work in a child custody case as well special challenges. This article is written with California child custody cases in mind. Nothing contained in this article is legal advice. Your situation is unique. Please consult with an attorney in your state.
Parallel parenting defined
Parallel parenting is parenting without traditional co-parenting and communication. It allows the parents to detach from each other and not engage in frequent discussions about day-to-day issues. Each parent is in charge of the custodial decisions while the children are under that parent’s care. Parallel parenting gives each parent control over their parenting responsibilities. It does so without the need for approval of the other parent or even communicate about anything other than an emergency or other serious issues.
Parallel parenting does not mean “no contact.”
Parallel parenting minimizes contact and the limits are on issues that are necessary to discuss.
In a parallel parenting plan, the communication is far more direct, with minimal emotion. For example, rather than telephone or face-to-face communication where “hearing the other parent’s voice” could cause high conflict parents to react, there is an alternative mode of communication. This alternative suppresses unnecessary opinions or editorial comments.
We are not a huge fan of email or text messages in high conflict cases. There is a program called “Our Family Wizard” which is found at ourfamilywizard.com.
Assigning a parenting coordinator or special master as part of a parallel parenting plan
In the highest of conflict cases, the court may appoint a parenting coordinator or special master. This is something parents can either agree on (called a “stipulation”) and have a court order or the court can order it despite the parent’s agreement. Such parenting coordinators or special masters receive duties and privileges to oversee the parenting and help resolve conflicts.
Parenting coordinators are not the same as private California child custody evaluators. They are not doing a forensic psychological examination of the parents and are not making custodial recommendations to the court within that context. However, parenting coordinators or special masters can still report to the court. These reports often occur if one or both parents are being unreasonable or difficult and interfering with the other parent’s legal or physical custody rights. Reports are also common when the other parent’s conduct is harming the children.
What is the primary purpose of parallel parenting?
Some believe that parallel parenting avoids conflict altogether. While that is what may eventually occur, that is not the primary goal. The goal of parallel parenting is to avoid conflict in front of the children.
Studies have shown that children who witness high conflict between their parents can suffer from psychological and behavioral problems in their own life.
The focus of any child custody case in California is not the mother or father but what is in the best interests of the children. Any parenting plan that the family court puts together must have that as its foundation and core intent.
Is parallel parenting wise in domestic violence or child abuse cases?
The purpose of a parallel parenting plan is not to keep the parents away from the children but to keep the parents away from each other. In cases where physical abuse has occurred, keeping the parents away from each other may not protect the children from that abuse. In physical and serious emotional abuse cases the children being alone and in the care of the abusing parent could be very harmful to the children’s best interest.
We spoke with psychotherapist and distinguished author, Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC about this topic. We asked her if parallel parenting works in cases of domestic violence or child abuse. Ms. Ferber told us:
In order for parallel parenting to be successful, it requires adherence to fairly strict guidelines including no personal contact between the parties.
Domestic violence is often aggravated by the assailant’s inability to adhere to certain guidelines including non-compliance with court orders.
Furthermore, cases of domestic violence are often complicated by one or more of the following – impulse control, anger management, obsession, substance abuse and a disregard for both rules and authority.
Simply put, regardless of what is mandated by a court order, some individuals will, regardless of consequences, feel compelled/entitled to repeatedly break those orders. There is no reason to believe that one would adhere to a parallel parenting plan, if, for example, they have violated a restraining order.
In terms of child abuse, counseling and supervised visitation may be better choices. A person who had abused their child needs more support and accountability to both the legal and psychological communities. In parallel parenting there is little accountability to the other parent: I can imagine the non-abusive parent’s anxiety would be sky high if they have no contact with their child during visitation.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, the parent with a history of either domestic violence or child abuse who can demonstrate change and have it documented by a mental health professional may be a candidate for parallel parenting. Supervised visits might be part of this model. We should always keep in mind the child’s safety and well-being are paramount.
Parallel parenting plans must be specific
Because parallel parenting, unlike a co-parenting situation, cannot rely on regular communication, the child custody order must cut out as much “need for communication” as reasonably possible.
A traditional child custody order may set holidays and vacation schedules for a certain duration and leave much of its details to the parties’ agreement. A parallel parenting plan and custody order should specifically state:
- the start and end time of each custodial segment,
- the specific exchange place, and
- elimination of other issues that could cause conflict if there is miscommunication or the court order is vague.
Typically what we like to see in a parallel parenting plan order is the following:
- the specific days of the visits,
- the specific start times and end times,
- the pick up and drop off location,
- specific provisions about cancellation and make up time, if any,
- responsibility for transportation, and
- what happens after a dispute between the parents over the custody schedule.
Is parallel parenting the beginning or the end of the parenting plan?
A parallel parenting plan does not mean hope for co-parenting and communication is over. In fact, the exact opposite may occur.
Think about it logically for a moment – if the parents are not required to constantly communicate with each other and co-parent, they will stop getting on each other’s nerves. They will have some peace from each other while they continue to raise their children in a conflict-free environment.
Just as the expression goes, time heals all wounds. Parents are no exception and there is a chance, absent the extreme cases, two parents who had a lot of hostility toward each other and could not communicate and co-parent effectively during the divorce can get over that and do better after the divorce.
I do not base this on speculation. I have seen this happen.
We asked Ms. Ferber her opinion of whether parallel parenting can lead to co-parenting in situations when parents just need a cooling off period post-divorce. She stated:
Absolutely! It is always easier to relax the rules than tighten them.
Initially co-parenting agreements should be very specific, leaving no room for different interpretations and therefore no room for additional conflict. A period of parallel parenting could give both parents a chance to recover from the loss/anger of the marital relationship that often gets acted out in a co-parenting venue. During this cooling off period when the parents are not in constant contact, each has a time to heal, gain perspective and deal with their resentments.
As they let go of the spousal role, they can begin to see each other predominately as co-parenting partners. With this change in perspective and their own issues mostly settled, they are more likely to be able to co-parent effectively and calmly, thus creating a better environment for all members of the family.
Parallel parenting plans and joint legal custody in California
Joint legal custody in California requires parents to share in the decision-making process about the children.
With high conflict parents, sharing anything is difficult. Sharing in important decisions that concern children can become an opportunity to create conflict by taking unreasonable positions or simply refusing to compromise.
A parallel parenting plan can delegate certain decision-making authority to each parent. This is as simple as activities that relate to sports being handled by one parent and other activities being handled by the other. This can work for a variety of issues although it’s not wise to do it for medical ones, especially for anything serious.
There are too many dynamics from one case to another to have a one-size-fits-all parallel parenting plan as it relates to joint legal custody. Custom plans toward parents’ needs make a lot more sense.
In the alternative, the parents can have a traditional joint legal custody order whereby all or the significant decisions are mutually made. Once again, unemotional and logical communication through electronic or other nonverbal means is best. A parenting coordinator, special master or other designated third-party can also help to become a tiebreaker or advisor on disagreements.
Parallel parenting plans and joint physical custody in California
Parallel parenting plans do not have much of an effect on the label of physical custody. If it is a joint physical custody situation or both parents have significant time with the children, it’s the time with the children that matters, not a label attached to it.
Arguments against a parallel parenting plan
The most compelling argument against parallel parenting is that it gives up on co-parenting. In extreme situations, that is actually a true statement. But, is that really a bad thing for the children if the children are the focus?
While we would all like parents to co-parent and communicate as well as be reasonable, it simply will not happen in some situations. Just as we would like spouses not to physically abuse each other, physically or sexually abuse children or not place their children in danger, when the problems are self-evident and there is no other way to protect the children, we must explore alternatives.
Another argument against co-parenting is that it is inconsistent with the California Family Code’s preference of joint legal and physical custody, sharing of information and co-parenting. That however is a bit of a straw-man argument. Parallel parenting can involve joint legal and joint physical custody. Parallel parenting works when parents have frequent and regular time with the kids. This includes 50/50 parenting time cases.
Parallel parenting doesn’t so much deprive a parent of frequent and continuous contact nor take away any rights as it does change the way parents communicate with one another about those rights. In that respect, parallel parenting is not inconsistent with California child custody laws.
The best and worst of parallel parenting
At its most efficient, the children avoid seeing conflict between their parents. At its most idealistic, the parents cool down the hostilities and work toward a co-parenting arrangement.
At its worst, it doesn’t work and the court makes other orders depending on which of the parents is causing the parallel parenting to fail.
Giving co-parenting and communication a chance
Should parallel parenting be the first parenting plan? Especially when there has not been a history of unresolvable conflict?
The short answer in our opinion is no. If there is a history of conflict that validates the plan or co-parenting and communication has clearly failed in the child custody proceeding, parallel parenting makes more sense. However, even in that situation, a wild swing from one parenting plan to another is unnecessary.
Elements such as limiting communication, except through specific means, are a starting point. We can add other elements of parallel parenting when necessary, including something as extreme as dividing joint legal custodial decisions.
The future of parallel parenting plans
The future of parallel parenting is now. Family law attorneys may not know it but they have implemented portions of parallel parenting within their agreements and requests for years.
Where the evolution must take place is the family court becoming more willing to adopt a parallel parenting plan in high conflict cases, especially where cramming co-parenting related orders down each parent’s throat is completely inconsistent with the children’s best interest.
Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC was kind enough to provide us her insight. She graciously did this without charge to us. Nothing contained therein should be construed as advice of any kind. Ms. Ferber is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award-winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback. For more about her work, or to read her weekly blogs please visit www.donnaferber.com.