3 Tips for Parallel Parenting When Co-Parenting Isn’t Working

I sat across from a friend as he told me how the woman he’d married and had three kids with had become unrecognizable. She’d cheated multiple times, drained their bank account, and, during their divorce proceedings, spread lies about him. He’d come to me for advice on co-parenting, but I was at a loss for words. This situation was terrible, so I asked if he’d heard of parallel parenting.

Parallel parenting is parenting side-by-side with your ex-wife instead of jointly as you do in co-parenting. It’s not ideal, as cooperation and consistency are best for children. Still, if your ex is a narcissist or you have a contentious relationship, parallel parenting could be the most productive option. Here are 3 ways to do it well.

1. Keep interactions to a minimum.

Communication is essential when you’ve got kids who need you to share information and be on the same page. But if your ex is difficult and you can’t speak without fighting, go with a bare-bones approach.

In parallel parenting, the ex-spouses limit direct contact to protect the kids from becoming collateral damage in their war. During the school year, avoid interactions by exchanging the kids at school. During the summer, find a public place for a meet-up. When you’re communicating about appointments, schedules, or school concerns (which you should do through text or a parenting app), stick to the facts and make conversations business-like instead of emotional.

2. Accept that the two houses will have different rules.

A primary difference between parallel parenting and co-parenting is that with parallel parenting, the two homes likely have different rules or schedules. Bedtimes might not be the same, your child might not attend church every weekend, and you might have different policies for things like sleepovers or screen time.

It’s hard to loosen up on the things that are important to you, but your new focus needs to be on your children having two loving parents who want to be with them. In parallel parenting, you have to put aside your desires for what happens when your kids are with Mom and focus on what you can control.

3. Turn conflicts into teaching moments.

In a good scenario, you’d be the best dad you can be, your ex would be the best mom she could be, and the kids would adjust from house to house. But life is complicated. My friend said his daughter said that “Mom said we shouldn’t have to go to church when we’re with you if we don’t want to.” My friend said his immediate reaction was to feel enraged and call her to tell her, “This is my time. Back off.”

Instead, because her daughter was old enough, he talked to her about why faith is important and explained that he loves spending time as a family at church. Our kids are always watching and listening, and when we’re in conflict—whether we’re married or divorced—their attention perks up even more. Using conflict to start a conversation about character, morals, and healthy and unhealthy habits can improve a bad situation.

Sound off: What kind of parallel parenting have you tried? Has it worked?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What are some good ways to handle conflict? What are some bad ways?”