What is a Parallel Parenting Plan? Does it Help in Nasty Divorce Cases?

By | March 31, 2017

We’ve all seen them. Nasty divorces. They happen all the time. In these cases communication between two spouses is next to impossible. They hate each other. In many cases, feuding couples communicate with one another through their respective lawyers and court filings. But when children are involved, the situation can become even more damaging. Poor communication between warring spouses presents incredible challenges when child custody, visitation, and decisions about a child’s well being need to be considered. Thankfully, there is a strategy that could reduce the suffering experienced by the children in these situations; its called parallel parenting.


Since at least the 1990s, courts have increasingly relied on parallel parenting plans — a strategy typically reserved for “high conflict” divorce situations involving former spouses who just can’t get along. A parallel parenting plan can prove particularly helpful in extreme cases in which one of the parents exhibits symptoms of narcissism or similar personality disorder.

Spouses who show symptoms of a personality disorder often exhibit a level of hostility that leads to a breakdown in communication and makes co-parenting impossible. Such parents are also not above using their children as pawns to manipulate the fears and emotions of the other parent.

Cases in which parallel parenting might be suitable include situations where:

  • Both parents are resentful toward one another following the break-up or separation — particularly if communication is impossible.
  • One parent is experiencing emotional issues that make communication difficult or impossible. This could range from manic depression to narcissism, and everything in between.
  • One parent harbors a lack of respect for the other and refuses to communicate accordingly.

In any of these cases, parallel parenting might be the solution to the problem. If you are going through a divorce or custody battle, and conflict with your ex continues unabated, it’s important you discuss various strategies with your attorney that could calm the situation. While divorces can be draining financially and emotionally for two parents that don’t get along, the experience can be especially brutal for children. The resulting trauma can lead to lasting emotional and behavioral issues. Continue reading to learn more about the reasons for and benefits of parallel parenting.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel parenting provides a non-traditional approach to implementing and managing a parenting plan. It differs from co-parenting in that it largely allows parents to avoid engaging with one another in day-to-day parenting discussions.

Simply put, in a parallel parenting situation, each parent has control over their own parenting responsibilities.

A 2005 article in the New York Times exploring new trends in divorce law featured an interview with Psychologist Dr. Peter Favaro, who discussed the reasons why parents might seek to implement a parallel parenting strategy. He explained the common assumption that divorced parents should try to get along was increasingly being set aside.

“Many of us are coming to the conclusion that that might be an impossible task for people.”

Rather, he said, for some high conflict situations, it could be better for the parents to operate in “separate universes.” In a parallel situation, one parent doesn’t need approval from the other to make a parenting decision and doesn’t need to communicate with the other parent at all unless an emergency or other serious issue arises.

Accordingly, a previously agreed upon schedule will be in place to reduce the need for communication. Instead of phone calls, alternate forms of communication are utilized. You might wonder how a couple who doesn’t communicate through conventional methods will coordinate things like school pick ups and drop offs, as well as coordinating transportation to other events. So often, these things require at least a minimum amount of communication in order to avoid a chaotic situation.

Not surprisingly, in this modern age, there are apps that can actually help two parents who can’t communicate with one another to coordinate childcare. Two such apps include Our Family Wizard and 2Houses.com. These applications allow parents to digitally schedule visitation, track their children, and message the former spouse. In addition, children can be given special access to the account so they won’t be ill informed when it comes to any schedule changes.

A Parallel Parenting Plan for High Conflict Divorces | JS Family Law

What Type of Situations Call For a Parallel Parenting Plan?

Many folks wonder just exactly what constitutes a “high conflict” divorce case. While every divorce case is different, and there is no hard and fast definition, there are certain common traits that Orange County divorce attorneys and judges recognize as high conflict.

Some legal professionals refer to these cases as “fat files,” where case files physically swell with pleadings filed between the parties. Orange County, CA, is full of fat file divorce cases. High conflict cases tend to involve parents who litigate over minor issues, often times in an attempt to punish one another.

While many divorces are bitterly fought, the angry emotions between the two parties tend to calm with time. High conflict cases on the other hand are intractable, ongoing and often intensify over time.

In California, one guiding principle of family law is to do what is in the best interest of the children. As such, parallel parenting has been developed with child well being in mind. According to a 2014 article written by Jerrod Brown in the academic journal Behavioral Health, high conflict divorces can have grave consequences for the children caught in the middle.

“Children in families with high-conflict can develop separation and cognitive difficulties. The risk for academic problems increases, along with the chance of developing spiritual confusion, trust issues, behavioral problems, anger or emotional problems, diminished self concept, decreased self-esteem, and an inability to cope with personal conflict.”

As such, a parallel parenting plan is typically recommended for couples that experience significant recurring issues that could significantly impact the mental well being of the children. The primary goal of this type of parenting is to limit the parents’ contact with each other, thereby reducing the fights that occur in front of the kids.

Parallel Plans Limit Contact Between Ex-Spouses

Unlike a co-parenting situation or other types of child custody, in which the divorced parents continue to communicate and make decisions together to raise their children post-separation, parallel parenting limits contact between the exes. This means a schedule and contingencies have to be in place prior to the implementation of the plan, and followed closely.

While a traditional custody order will set the general schedule for custody and visitation, it will often leave the specific details up to the parents. Parallel parenting however requires a more rigid plan that must be followed strictly. A typical parallel parenting plan might state the following:

  • The specific location where the children will be exchanged
  • Specific days of visits
  • The length of each custodial segment, including start and end times
  • Responsibility for transportation
  • Contingencies in the case of cancellations

In some cases, additional outside help will be necessary to assist the parents in implementing their parallel parenting plan.

Parenting Coordinator

Extremely high conflict cases require extreme solutions. In some of these cases, the court might assign a parenting coordinator to assist with the implementation of a parenting plan. This is specialized position is typically filled by a psychologist.

An article published on the American Psychological Association’s website describes attorneys that are inundated with midnight phone calls, exasperated judges, and dockets flooded with repeat appearances from warring parents. The goal of the coordinator is to help parents to develop or follow custody agreements and attempt to reduce these types of conflict.

The parenting coordinator in effect teaches parents to run totally separate households. Per the article on the APA website, psychologist Matthew Sullivan, himself a parenting coordinator, explained that he tries to help parents develop detailed schedules.

“We make the parenting plan extraordinarily detailed and eliminate these conflict areas by having protocols and default decisions built in,” he explained. “Even though they want to conflict, there’s no place to do it.”

A two-year study conducted in Ohio, and published in 2016 by the Institute for Court Management examined the effectiveness of parenting coordinators. The study found that two years following the appointment of a parenting coordinator, there was a significant decrease in the number of motions filed.

 “Motions decreased 56 percent. Court events decreased 58 percent. Trials decreased 32 percent,” the report’s author stated. “The average number of motions per case declined from 22.87 percent to 10.06 percent.”

While the study noted a strong association between parenting coordination and a reduction in litigation, it also noted that such a strategy wasn’t appropriate for every high-conflict couple.

“Parenting coordination does not seem to work in reducing litigation for everyone,” the report stated. “Court usage did not decline in every case with a coordinator.”

If you are involved in a high conflict divorce or custody battle, you’ll definitely want to discuss the option of a parenting coordinator with your attorney. Along with input from the judge, opposing counsel and other professionals, it might be decided that parallel parenting and coordinator would be the right fit. It’s worth mentioning that in California, a coordinator can only be appointed by the court if both parties formally agree.

Is a Parenting Plan Like This Always the Best Strategy?

Whether or not parallel parenting is the right fit in your situation is a question that will require input from several people (lawyers, judges, psychologists, spouses). It may also require some trial and error. Ultimately, it’s something a client must consider carefully with his or her attorney. Not every situation calls for a parallel strategy. Just because a couple fights a lot during a divorce doesn’t necessarily mean the situation qualifies as high conflict.

In many cases, even the most acrimonious of relationships will mend with a little time. This is where high conflict differs from other types of divorces. For whatever reason, perhaps one spouse suffers from a personality or emotional disorder, high conflict situations don’t seem to get better over time. As a result, cessation of communication can sometimes be the best strategy.

One of the primary criticisms of this type of parenting strategy however is that it makes less likely the possibility of co-parenting, in which the two former spouses work together for the benefit of the children. In the interest of practicality, parallel parenting may be the only workable plan.

In some cases, following a prolonged cessation of communication, co-parenting might become a possibility down the road. If the separation can enable healing, the separated couple might eventually learn to communicate again.

Bear in mind that a parallel parenting plan is probably not the first strategy a couple will attempt when it comes to joint custody. Co-parenting should typically be tried initially, with a parallel plan viewed as a last resort. The goal of the parenting plan should be to provide maximum focus on the well being of the children.

How Does this Work with Joint Legal Custody

When the court orders joint legal custody, this means that the parents must share in the decision making process regarding their children. These decisions typically revolve around the child’s health, education, sports activities, etc. When it comes to parents who have extreme difficulty communicating, cooperation over the smallest things can be a challenge.

In such cases, a parallel parenting plan can prove beneficial. This type of post divorce parenting strategy requires parents to come up with a plan and potentially delegate the handling of certain aspects of the child’s life to one parent or the other, thereby reducing the need for communication over certain things (such as sports events, etc.). If a plan cannot be hammered out in advance, limited communication through electronic means, such as the previously mentioned apps, could make this process easier to manage.

What If Domestic Violence or Child Abuse is a Factor?

In cases where the safety of the child is clearly a factor, a parallel plan is not recommended. The purpose of parallel parenting is to limit contact between parents. However, if a parent has a history of domestic abuse, either toward the former spouse or the children, leaving the children alone in the care of that parent might not be a good idea.

In addition to possibly presenting a danger to the children, such a person might be inclined to disregard the court’s orders to follow the established plan. This could lead to chaos and confusion and would defeat the purpose of establishing a parenting plan in the first place.

If domestic violence is an issue in your divorce, it is recommended that this be straightened out before a custody order is issued.

In some cases, a restraining order or limited contact between the abusive parent and child might be necessary. While there are steps that a parent with a history of domestic violence can take to improve their standing with the court, it is important that these steps be addressed before deciding that parallel parenting is the best post-separation option.

A questions like this highlights the importance of hiring a qualified attorney when going through the divorce and custody process.

Consulting A Divorce Lawyer

Whether a parent is considering a parallel custody arrangement, or dealing with some other type of child custody issue, a level-headed family law attorney is highly recommended. Divorces can be emotionally draining experiences, and when children are added to the equation, the situation takes on a new level of intensity.

A skilled lawyer will have a rational, objective mind and can help you remain above the fray in order to find out the clearest, quickest solutions. If you are involved in a divorce with a person who refuses to be reasonable, and has proven incapable of normal communication, contact one of our qualified family attorneys to see how we can help. There’s more hope than you think.

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