Creative Alternatives to the Courtroom

Parallel Parenting: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

I very much appreciate working on divorce cases with a team, as it has so much value for clients. Mental health professionals can bring much needed clarity to very difficult situations. The following article, written by Howard Dructman, PhD and Marsha Schechtman, LCSW, Atlanta Behavioral Consultants, explains how the concept of parallel parenting works:

A literature search of peer-reviewed professional journal articles yields very few articles that contain references to parallel parenting. Even with the scant references in the professional literature, the use of the term is common with mental health professionals, attorneys, and even judges. So what is parallel parenting and is it something important?

Effective co-parenting after divorce requires two parents who can communicate with each other and stay focused on the needs of the children. Two parents may not see eye to eye on their relationship, but can still place the needs of the children above their differences. High conflict parents, on the other hand, have difficulty focusing on the children’s needs over their own. They view the parenting ideas and behaviors of the other parent as moral weakness, signs of psychopathology, poor parenting, or just plain wrong.

These attitudes fuel the conflict for the children to witness. Multiple studies have shown that the chronic exposure to parental fighting post-divorce contributes to poor outcomes for the children. To cope with the conflict, the children may blame themselves, align with one parent, develop depression and anxiety, internalize the conflict and harm themselves, regress, or act-out the conflict with inappropriate social behavior or substance abuse.

In his book, “Complex Issues in Child Custody” (1999), Philip Stahl, Ph.D., described parallel parenting as one strategy high-conflict parents could utilize to parent children in a way that protected the children from some of their conflict. In other writings, he described parallel parenting as a process of parenting when two parents are unable to parent together. For parallel parenting to work, both parents must have the basics of parenting and be “good enough.” Often parents will need some parenting coaching or classes to assist them in learning what is appropriate for a child’s developmental needs. This is particularly important if there was a marital division of labor with one parent doing most of the parenting while the other worked.

Dr. Stahl wrote that the first step for parallel parenting was for the parents to “disengage” from each other. High conflict couples often have difficulty disengaging from their conflicts even though they live separately. The same type of fights that were routine during their marriage continue post-divorce. Having a neutral problem solver, such as a Parent Coordinator, can assist these couples in understanding the destructive impact their behavior has on the children.

The Parent Coordinator explains that most divorced parents vary in routine parenting behaviors without serious impact on the children. Many parents feel relieved to find out that children can not only tolerate, but also thrive without perfect conformity in the expectations at both homes. Furthermore, the Parent Coordinator can assist the couple with conflict resolution.

Parallel parenting is focused on parenting behaviors that are routine for the children’s day-to-day life. Household chores, discipline, dress, bedtime, bedroom cleanliness, etc., are the routine issues that each parent can manage as they please at their own home. As with co-parenting, all emergencies are still communicated promptly directly to the other parent. Urgent situations, requiring a response within a day or two, can be communicated directly via email or voicemail.

Parallel parenting gives each parent the sense of being the master of his or her home. Most importantly, it enables the children to experience life with each parent without hearing ongoing conflict. Further, with decreased conflict, there is less of a need for the children to escape into either their own psychological world or the world around them. Less conflict from their parents will lead to decreases in the children suffering from ongoing depression, anxiety, parental loyalty binds, or dangerous acting out. Parallel parenting can be an extremely important tool to teach those divorced parents with high-conflict.

As a mediator, I know how confusing the divorce process can be. Family attorneys and mental health professionals that provide divorce services tend to use terms that often go undefined. I am here to help you make sense of your new reality. Contact me today.