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Most people will not consider how they would raise their children following a divorce and separation until they find themselves facing the reality of doing just that. Terms such as ‘co-parenting’ or ‘parallel parenting’, which can be thrown about by family lawyers, mediators, therapists and the like, can therefore be fairly meaningless. In this article, Helen Clyne explains what these two approaches mean and how to decide which is most appropriate for you.

What is co-parenting?

Co-parenting involves you and your former spouse or partner working together in partnership so that your parenting styles and decisions are consistent with one another. You will discuss and agree on all parenting issues, such as routines and the timing of bedtimes, how and when to discipline, expectations over chores and homework etc. It can be difficult to establish following the breakdown of a relationship because emotions will be running high and differences in parenting that existed during a relationship can be accentuated following the breakdown of a relationship. It takes time to move on from the conflict with your former partner or spouse. Usually with the passing of time separated parents find it easier to parent as a team.

What is parallel parenting?

Parallel parenting involves you and your former spouse or partner having minimal contact. Rather than collaborating with one another about day-to-day decisions affecting your children, you will make decisions affecting your children when they are in your care alone, and your former spouse or partner will do the same. For example, you will decide when your children go to bed, and what television or films they are allowed to watch. You will acknowledge that your former spouse or partner will make their own decisions about such issues, and their approach may well differ.

There are some exceptions to the rule where decisions must be made jointly by all those with parental responsibility (such as which school the child should attend, whether they should undergo planned medical treatment or whether to change a child’s surname. Except for those decisions, separated parents will parent their children separately.

Co-parenting or parallel parenting – which approach is best?

Co-parenting is generally seen as the gold standard. Successful co-parenting will enable children to grow up with a greater sense of security and stability because of the consistency they enjoy across both homes. Despite the breakdown in their parents’ relationship, they will see their parents respecting each other, making compromises, and generally putting aside their own personal differences for the best interests of their children. Co-parenting also best promotes a relationship with both parents, and gives children the freedom to have a loving, close relationship with each parent.

While it may be the ideal approach, co-parenting is often not appropriate. In situations where there is a high level of conflict between parents and there is very poor, little or no communication, parallel parenting protects children from further conflict. It also enables each parent to focus on their own parenting approach so they can provide security and consistency for their children during the time they are in their care. This is particularly important if the other parent’s approach is chaotic and lacks boundaries, or where there is a history of abuse in the parents’ relationship. The challenge with parallel parenting is to identify what you have control over, and with that, what you have to let go because inevitably your former spouse or partner will make decisions with which you will not agree.

If separated parents can respect how parallel parenting works, and the role each other has in their children’s lives, this will help to rebuild trust and enable the parents to put aside their hostilities. In time it may be possible to shift to co-parenting.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.