In a perfect world, all co-parenting relationships would be amicable, productive, respectful, and supportive. Having a positive co-parenting relationship obviously makes parenting from two households much simpler; however, it also has a positive effect on the children involved. Unfortunately, things don’t always pan out this way. Nasty divorces often lead to unpleasant, and in some cases, downright tumultuous co-parenting relationships, which in many cases, leave lasting scars on the children involved.
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationship found that high-conflict parental relationships can negatively impact the emotional processing of children, making them anxious, hypervigilant, and more likely to distort neutral human interactions. This can follow the children into adulthood, making it difficult for them to sustain interpersonal relationships.
“The message is clear: even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids,” said the study’s lead author, Alice Schermerhorn, an assistant professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychological Sciences. “One the one hand, being over-vigilant and anxious can be destabilizing in many different ways.”
While no parent wants to permanently scar their children, it can be difficult to shield them from particularly toxic, high-conflict co-parenting relationships. For this reason, some family court systems recommend divorcees follow a parallel parenting model as opposed to traditional co-parenting.
According to Psychology Today, parallel parenting “is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited direct contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”
While parallel parenting, parents minimize the need for collaboration as much as possible. They don’t attend extracurricular activities together. They don’t co-host birthday parties and they definitely don’t spend the holidays together or coordinate Christmas lists. Everything is done separately. Additionally, there is no shared decision making. Each parent is responsible for the decision-making in their assigned domains, such as schooling, healthcare, etc. They create separate parenting plans that they will each adhere to when the child is in their care, greatly reducing the need for interactions between parents, and also reduces the likelihood of conflict when they’re required to be in one another’s presence. In some states, these plans require approval from a family court
“For this arrangement to be successful, each parent must be equally competent and their lack of cooperation must not affect their child’s best interest,” explained Daphna Schwartz in a video blog for Feldstein Family Law Group.
Of course, children will always benefit from witnessing positive interactions between their parents, which parallel parenting doesn’t leave much room for, but it is beneficial because it helps to shield children when one or both parents struggle to put their differences aside.
“While parents can worry about the inconsistencies between homes, children are able to quickly learn the differences in one house from another and it is typically easier for them compared to having parents in high levels of conflict,” reasoned Dr. Amy Bellows in an op-ed for Psych Central. “While it is generally better for children if their parents can have a respectful relationship and work together on parenting decisions when the relationship is high-conflict, parallel parenting can be best for all involved.”
Parallel parenting isn’t an ideal setup but it can be the less of two evils when you and your co-parent struggle to keep the peace.