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Parallel Parenting: When You Can No Longer Co-Parent

silhouettes of parents arguing

Some parents will never be able to co-parent effectively. Often that is due to one parent having a mental illness or personality disorder, substance abuse problem or some other issue that is an impediment to the parents being able to work together cooperatively. If you are stuck in the midst of a high-conflict divorce or custody case/battle, it may be time to move forward with parallel parenting. Often this will ease the tension when the parents cannot co-parent effectively with one another.

How is Parallel Parenting Different than Co-Parenting?

Some family law attorneys/professionals, therapists and other people addressing family needs in broken families will try to encourage “co-parenting” in every family dynamic and situation. This can make parents who are trying so hard to be cooperative, feel defeated and as though they can never do anything right. It can also facilitate a situation where one parent, generally the reasonable one, cooperates and compromises on everything, whereas the other parent never reciprocates and the “giving” parent ends up feeling defeated and hopeless. They feel that their role in life is to be a doormat to the other parent, which can often feel as destructive as the marriage/relationship dynamic the party was attempting to exit.

Parallel parenting means taking a viewpoint of radical acceptance to the unfortunate reality of the situation. It means you stop placing hope or expectations on a future of cooperation and co-parenting and you focus on living your life, controlling what you can (i.e. your parenting time, the things that happen within your time) and stop focusing on cooperating with the other parent.

How Can You Practice Parallel Parenting?

The most central goal in parallel parenting is to limit your own contact/communication and interactions with the other parent. This reduced conflict is designed to allow your children to see less conflict between the parents, less sadness and frustration of each parent and overall, a more peaceful, cooperative environment for the children. The following are the best ways to attempt to institute a parallel parenting atmosphere:

  1. Communicate with the other parent as little as possible. Almost every time you speak with the other parent, you are drawn into an argument, sometimes about ridiculous/unnecessary things. They often like to fight for the sake of fighting and not actually accomplish progress or steps forward. Avoid phone contact, limit communication to writing (such as texts or a parent communication app or portal) and/or email. You can be intentional about when you choose to review communications, how you respond to them and you will be able to reflect on your responses, if you can tell you are preparing a response with too much emotion or frustration. Whereas, in person or phone communications are happening “live” without the benefit or opportunity of reflecting on what is being said and thinking about how you want to respond.
  2. Follow communication rules and boundaries. Hostile, difficult co-parents often cross your boundaries so you need to be firm about creating boundaries and then sticking to them. Use communication tools for required interactions such scheduled vacations, doctor appointments and other things you are required to share. If you start compromising/adjusting boundaries, it is likely you will be bombarded with requests/demands to amend your boundaries.
  3. Do not respond or react to threats of lawsuits. High conflict ex’s frequently make threats of returning to court, request or demand mediation, have their attorneys send “demand” letters and take other action that they believe will scare you into compliance with their demands. Don’t show signs of continued compromise through these threatening tactics or you may face a situation where you are getting this type of communication or threat almost weekly.
  4. Avoid being together, especially if it is just the two of you. Yes, it is the ideal situation for your children to see you and your ex together, being happy and cooperative, but given that your interactions do not end well, avoid situations that will put your children in an uncomfortable place. Sit separately at public events, schedule separate parent-teacher conferences, trade off hosting birthday parties, do curbside exchanges where you don’t interact. Allowing your children to see hostile, negative interactions is damaging to them!
  5. Be proactive with school and medical professionals. School and mental health/therapy and other professionals may have heard things that are not true. Be proactive by giving them a copy of your custody order, requesting to meet with them, share background information and help/cooperate as needed for the benefit of your child. Usually therapists, school personnel and other medical professionals welcome the involvement of parents so insert yourself and make sure to communicate. Even if you are not the “primary” parent, you are still entitled to information and to be involved in your child’s school and medical care.
  6. Don’t Sweat Small Stuff. Parallel parenting requires letting go of trying to constantly figure out what is going on in the other parent’s house. The other parent may have rules and parenting practices that you do not agree with but you will drive yourself crazy trying to find out what is going on and fighting/arguing about what you believe they are doing that is different than what your choices would be.

Your child can learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each home. If your child raises concerns about something going on at the other parent’s house, encourage your child to speak with the parent about it. If you don’t believe the other parent is able to communicate with the child, or it is a safety risk/concern, seek out a therapeutic environment for the other parent and your child to work through issues. You want to empower your child to speak up for themselves, not teach them that they need to be rescued from each unhappy thing that happens to them.

Parallel parenting is a last resort and should only be utilized when all previous attempts at healthy co-parenting have failed. Failing at co-parenting does not mean that you have failed. By reducing the conflict for your children, parallel parenting will hopefully enhance the quality of both, your life, as well as your children’s lives. If you are at the point that you believe parallel parenting is the only or best option, it is best to speak with legal counsel about how to transition to this model and move forward in a way that is healthy for you and your children. Call Pingel Family Law today at (816) 208-8130 for a consultation with one of our knowledgeable and experienced attorneys.

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