How Does a Parallel Parenting Plan Help in High Conflict Child Custody Cases?

Parallel Parenting Plan in High Conflict Child Custody Cases

Sometimes, your way and the other’s parent’s way can work in the children’s best interest. Learn about parallel parenting and its use in high conflict child custody cases

Parallel parenting is a term used more and more in California divorce and child custody cases. It bridges the gap between the ideal low to no conflict cases and, in the other extreme, very high conflict ones. The latter leaves very little room for effective communication and co-parenting – enter the parallel parenting plan.

The high conflict cases of which we speak are not just those where the parents have trouble getting along. We are talking about one or both parent’s narcissistic or borderline personality or hostility that make co-parenting all but impossible. This includes situations where:

  • one or both parents still harbor resentment toward the another due to the breakup or separation and that affects communication and the willingness to co-parent;
  • one or both parents do not respect the other parent’s role and refuse to work with the other;
  • one or both parents have related emotional upheaval that doesn’t allow for effective communication.

In this article, we are going to look at parallel parenting. We will discuss how it may work in a child custody case as well special challenges. This article is written with California child custody cases in mind. Nothing contained in this article is legal advice. Your situation is unique. Please consult with an attorney in your state. 

Parallel parenting defined

Parallel parenting is parenting without traditional co-parenting and communication. It allows the parents to detach from each other and not engage in frequent discussions about day-to-day issues. Each parent is in charge of the custodial decisions while the children are under that parent’s care. Parallel parenting gives each parent control over their parenting responsibilities. It does so without the need for approval of the other parent or even communicate about anything other than an emergency or other serious issues.

Parallel parenting does not mean “no contact.”

Parallel parenting minimizes contact and the limits are on issues that are necessary to discuss.

In a parallel parenting plan, the communication is far more direct, with minimal emotion. For example, rather than telephone or face-to-face communication where “hearing the other parent’s voice” could cause high conflict parents to react, there is an alternative mode of communication. This alternative suppresses unnecessary opinions or editorial comments.

We are not a huge fan of email or text messages in high conflict cases. There is a program called “Our Family Wizard” which is found at

Assigning a parenting coordinator or special master as part of a parallel parenting plan

In the highest of conflict cases, the court may appoint a parenting coordinator or special master. This is something parents can either agree on (called a “stipulation”) and have a court order or the court can order it despite the parent’s agreement. Such parenting coordinators or special masters receive duties and privileges to oversee the parenting and help resolve conflicts.

Parenting coordinators are not the same as private California child custody evaluators. They are not doing a forensic psychological examination of the parents and are not making custodial recommendations to the court within that context. However, parenting coordinators or special masters can still report to the court. These reports often occur if one or both parents are being unreasonable or difficult and interfering with the other parent’s legal or physical custody rights. Reports are also common when the other parent’s conduct is harming the children.

What is the primary purpose of parallel parenting?

Some believe that parallel parenting avoids conflict altogether. While that is what may eventually occur, that is not the primary goal. The goal of parallel parenting is to avoid conflict in front of the children.

Studies have shown that children who witness high conflict between their parents can suffer from psychological and behavioral problems in their own life.

The focus of any child custody case in California is not the mother or father but what is in the best interests of the children. Any parenting plan that the family court puts together must have that as its foundation and core intent.

Is parallel parenting wise in domestic violence or child abuse cases?

The purpose of a parallel parenting plan is not to keep the parents away from the children but to keep the parents away from each other. In cases where physical abuse has occurred, keeping the parents away from each other may not protect the children from that abuse. In physical and serious emotional abuse cases the children being alone and in the care of the abusing parent could be very harmful to the children’s best interest.

We spoke with psychotherapist and distinguished author, Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC about this topic. We asked her if parallel parenting works in cases of domestic violence or child abuse. Ms. Ferber told us:

In order for parallel parenting to be successful, it requires adherence to fairly strict guidelines including no personal contact between the parties.

Domestic violence is often aggravated by the assailant’s inability to adhere to certain guidelines including non-compliance with court orders.

Furthermore, cases of domestic violence are often complicated by one or more of the following – impulse control, anger management, obsession, substance abuse and a disregard for both rules and authority.

Simply put, regardless of what is mandated by a court order, some individuals will, regardless of consequences, feel compelled/entitled to repeatedly break those orders. There is no reason to believe that one would adhere to a parallel parenting plan, if, for example, they have violated a restraining order.

In terms of child abuse, counseling and supervised visitation may be better choices. A person who had abused their child needs more support and accountability to both the legal and psychological communities. In parallel parenting there is little accountability to the other parent: I can imagine the non-abusive parent’s anxiety would be sky high if they have no contact with their child during visitation.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, the parent with a history of either domestic violence or child abuse who can demonstrate change and have it documented by a mental health professional may be a candidate for parallel parenting. Supervised visits might be part of this model. We should always keep in mind the child’s safety and well-being are paramount.

Parallel parenting plans must be specific

Because parallel parenting, unlike a co-parenting situation, cannot rely on regular communication, the child custody order must cut out as much “need for communication” as reasonably possible.

A traditional child custody order may set holidays and vacation schedules for a certain duration and leave much of its details to the parties’ agreement. A parallel parenting plan and custody order should specifically state:

  • the start and end time of each custodial segment,
  • the specific exchange place, and
  • elimination of other issues that could cause conflict if there is miscommunication or the court order is vague.

Typically what we like to see in a parallel parenting plan order is the following:

    • the specific days of the visits,
    • the specific start times and end times,
    • the pick up and drop off location,
    • specific provisions about cancellation and make up time, if any,
    • responsibility for transportation, and
    • what happens after a dispute between the parents over the custody schedule.

Is parallel parenting the beginning or the end of the parenting plan?

A parallel parenting plan does not mean hope for co-parenting and communication is over. In fact, the exact opposite may occur.

Think about it logically for a moment – if the parents are not required to constantly communicate with each other and co-parent, they will stop getting on each other’s nerves. They will have some peace from each other while they continue to raise their children in a conflict-free environment.

Just as the expression goes, time heals all wounds. Parents are no exception and there is a chance, absent the extreme cases, two parents who had a lot of hostility toward each other and could not communicate and co-parent effectively during the divorce can get over that and do better after the divorce.

I do not base this on speculation. I have seen this happen.

We asked Ms. Ferber her opinion of whether parallel parenting can lead to co-parenting in situations when parents just need a cooling off period post-divorce. She stated:

 Absolutely! It is always easier to relax the rules than tighten them.

Initially co-parenting agreements should be very specific, leaving no room for different interpretations and therefore no room for additional conflict. A period of parallel parenting could give both parents a chance to recover from the loss/anger of the marital relationship that often gets acted out in a co-parenting venue. During this cooling off period when the parents are not in constant contact, each has a time to heal, gain perspective and deal with their resentments.

As they let go of the spousal role, they can begin to see each other predominately as co-parenting partners. With this change in perspective and their own issues mostly settled, they are more likely to be able to co-parent effectively and calmly, thus creating a better environment for all members of the family.

Parallel parenting plans and joint legal custody in California

Joint legal custody in California requires parents to share in the decision-making process about the children.

With high conflict parents, sharing anything is difficult. Sharing in important decisions that concern children can become an opportunity to create conflict by taking unreasonable positions or simply refusing to compromise.

A parallel parenting plan can delegate certain decision-making authority to each parent. This is as simple as activities that relate to sports being handled by one parent and other activities being handled by the other. This can work for a variety of issues although it’s not wise to do it for medical ones, especially for anything serious.

There are too many dynamics from one case to another to have a one-size-fits-all parallel parenting plan as it relates to joint legal custody. Custom plans toward parents’ needs make a lot more sense.

In the alternative, the parents can have a traditional joint legal custody order whereby all or the significant decisions are mutually made. Once again, unemotional and logical communication through electronic or other nonverbal means is best. A parenting coordinator, special master or other designated third-party can also help to become a tiebreaker or advisor on disagreements.

Parallel parenting plans and joint physical custody in California

Parallel parenting plans do not have much of an effect on the label of physical custody. If it is a joint physical custody situation or both parents have significant time with the children, it’s the time with the children that matters, not a label attached to it.

Arguments against a parallel parenting plan

The most compelling argument against parallel parenting is that it gives up on co-parenting. In extreme situations, that is actually a true statement. But, is that really a bad thing for the children if the children are the focus?

While we would all like parents to co-parent and communicate as well as be reasonable, it simply will not happen in some situations. Just as we would like spouses not to physically abuse each other, physically or sexually abuse children or not place their children in danger, when the problems are self-evident and there is no other way to protect the children, we must explore alternatives.

Another argument against co-parenting is that it is inconsistent with the California Family Code’s preference of joint legal and physical custody, sharing of information and co-parenting. That however is a bit of a straw-man argument. Parallel parenting can involve joint legal and joint physical custody. Parallel parenting works when parents have frequent and regular time with the kids. This includes 50/50 parenting time cases.

Parallel parenting doesn’t so much deprive a parent of frequent and continuous contact nor take away any rights as it does change the way parents communicate with one another about those rights. In that respect, parallel parenting is not inconsistent with California child custody laws.

The best and worst of parallel parenting

At its most efficient, the children avoid seeing conflict between their parents. At its most idealistic, the parents cool down the hostilities and work toward a co-parenting arrangement.

At its worst, it doesn’t work and the court makes other orders depending on which of the parents is causing the parallel parenting to fail.

Giving co-parenting and communication a chance

Should parallel parenting be the first parenting plan? Especially when there has not been a history of unresolvable conflict?

The short answer in our opinion is no. If there is a history of conflict that validates the plan or co-parenting and communication has clearly failed in the child custody proceeding, parallel parenting makes more sense. However, even in that situation, a wild swing from one parenting plan to another is unnecessary.

Elements such as limiting communication, except through specific means, are a starting point. We can add other elements of parallel parenting when necessary, including something as extreme as dividing joint legal custodial decisions.

The future of parallel parenting plans

The future of parallel parenting is now. Family law attorneys may not know it but they have implemented portions of parallel parenting within their agreements and requests for years.

Where the evolution must take place is the family court becoming more willing to adopt a parallel parenting plan in high conflict cases, especially where cramming co-parenting related orders down each parent’s throat is completely inconsistent with the children’s best interest.

Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC was kind enough to provide us her insight. She graciously did this without charge to us. Nothing contained therein should be construed as advice of any kind. Ms. Ferber is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award-winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback. For more about her work, or to read her weekly blogs please visit

For more reading on the pages of our site, check out these cool articles on court ordered counseling in a California divorce and when is the best time to divorce when you have children.

To contact our family law firm in Orange County, California, call us toll-free at 877 857 6500 or email us through the contact us form on the right side of the page.


  1. Danica Gale says

    Parallel parenting can be a godsend for some. Great article! Unfortunately for many, including myself, relationships with narcissists/psycho-/sociopaths do not work well with ANY situation. However, parallel parenting works as well as can be expected, short of supervised visits for the narcissistic/sociopathic parent. For instance, in my situation, we had planned to home-school prior to separation. However, on the 4 texts over the past 2 years about homeschooling plans/curriculum, my texts are ignored. We live in different states, an hour apart, so choosing a public school would necessitate a change in the parenting plan. Homeschooling (obviously) needs parents to be in agreement on a curriculum, following through with education, etc. I have serious doubts that home-schooling will work with my N-ex. As we know, narcissists don’t put the child’s needs first. Narcissists put their need for “power” first, and that is what my ex is most likely doing by ignoring my texts. If only we could find a way to deal with narcissists! Lol. Thanks for the wonderful article! Any advice would be appreciated! Also, how to get him to stop saying emotionally damaging things to our daughter such as “Mommy doesn’t love you”, “Don’t eat anything Mommy feeds you”, “Daddy gives you plenty of money to buy a house” ($112 a month for child support), “Daddy says he’s going to get me all the time”, “Daddy says we’re going to run off together and never see you again” and on and on. ANY advice please! Thanks so much!

    • says

      You didn’t tell me if you are in CA or not. If you are, the situation you described and what he is telling the children may be considered emotional abuse by a CA judge. I cannot access your case in a comment but you may want to speak with an experienced family law attorney local to you.

    • onedad says

      allow me to comment.
      A court is never a solution. You have to find other ways of handling issues.
      Parallel parenting is a good thing. I now know from experience, and even called it parallel parenting, before i discovered its a real topic on the web.

      For starters aim to get out of the 112 child support by getting in control of your finances. Secondly all those plans you had of home schooling, and things that require mandatory contact should be dispensed with.

      Its not home school or public school that should matter…. its which creates less contact. Either way the child will still get education.

      It has taken me long to understand parallel parenting and the mother of my child got me involved into doing a joint activity- repairing child bike.
      If it could be today i would just buy a new bike for my child to use in my home, and let the mother repair the one in her house at her own expense.

      All this will work only if on your part you truly are not having personality disorders like your ex-husband. My view is that parallel parenting protects the sane parent from the insane one.

      • Danica says

        Now my ex is trying to say that our divorce (final almost 2 years ago) was no good because it should have been in a different state. I’m paying thousands of dollars to defend myself of this ridiculousness. Ugh! SOOOOO tired of this! I’ve moved on. He never will. :(

  2. onedad says

    Its never easy no matter what.
    Knowing your parents hate each other and can only talk through a computer wizard program is enough to jumpstart a psychiatric episode.

    But sometimes there are no solutions. And as a father i have to do what is best for my child. My child, now 5, has never seen me touch her mother or had even one day of seeing her parents talk in a civil respectful way.

    Always end in a conflict. But now i know the mother is sick! Granted one minute of audience, she would rather use the one minute to cause mental and psychological havoc.

    So i have to do what is best for the child. Buying different clothes for child with her mothers house and at my house, picking the child from school as opposed from her mothers house and the like.

    All these things must be hard on a small child.
    But its that there simply is no other choice. And a father has got to be
    a father.

    • B. Robert Farzad says

      Thank you so much for commenting here. I can tell your perspective has matured with time and experience. Parents spend so much of their hard energy trying to control the other parent. Those that learn the other parent doesn’t come with a steering wheel that is in your hands make the quickest progress to govern their own words and actions.

    • NM says

      OneDad: This comment nails it:
      “Its never easy no matter what.
      Knowing your parents hate each other and can only talk through a computer wizard program is enough to jumpstart a psychiatric episode.”

      A big part of the conflict is that both parents push the other’s buttons. It’s easy to think – oh, he’s being difficult, or she’s crazy, but in reality, this is one of the most emotional events in a person’s life (divorce – for those involved, including of course, the kids) and it brings up ALL of our past pain and trauma.

      So, it’s best to give the benefit of the doubt. Steer clear and eventually do what you can to build bridges and repair the damage. Obviously, the two parties who divorced had love between them at one point, yet reconciliation to a great degree probably won’t happen.

      However, perhaps acknowledging that the other person is hurt, not heard, feels cheated, or has residual anger to work out can help.

      I wonder if it would be healing to let each parent write a full-on letter to the other outlining all of their disappointments, feelings and perceptions.

      Then the letters are exchanged and the parties have to wait a week before responding. During that week, each person is tasked with “hearing” the other, and addressing everything as objectively and without defense as possible.
      This could be very healing, I think, in time, if possible.

      It would take two willing, mature people, and would only work after a year or two post-divorce, and only if no other major conflict has occurred.

      Understanding why a person is enraged (which is really fear/sadness) helps to process what happened and why. Just my two cents..

  3. Vera says

    NM: You’re quite right – writing such letters could go a long way to healing if both parties were willing and mature. That’s simply not possible if you’re dealing with an ex with a mental illness of any kind. Your suggestion is quite likely to trigger a great deal more intensity and rage in such cases. I am getting ready to suggest Onedad’s computer wizard program, as my ex has for nine years been resistant to anything resembling moving on. Our daughter, now almost 10, knows no other way than chaos. In fact, temporary peacefulness is enough to trigger a great deal of anxiety for her. She knows little else, and she deserves so much better than that.

    I am in NM, and my ex has the funds to be extremely litigious. I have largely represented myself. I feel fortunate to have hung on to joint custody for this long, Right now, we have a 50/50 custody arrangement, but he continues to violate the legal agreements (parenting plan). He refuses to participate in therapy of any kind, and he refuses to take our daughter to therapy. He wants coercive resolutions to even the most minor of disagreements (binding legal rulings only). I have two open motions for contempt pending hearing dates.

    I am learning about parallel parenting as a possible alternative resolution to propose in Court, and I found this article very helpful in that regard. Thank you! Also the parenting wizard software sounds like it could be really helpful in our situation. I’ve read several books published by the High Conflict Institute out of San Diego, which I found very helpful. I am finding on-line parenting courses such as I would love it if anyone can comment on these particular resources, or offer suggestions in this vein.

    Thanks for this information, and the comments. Validating, and helpful.

    • Christopher says

      I would like to add to your first two sentences. Seeing that we live in a new era of relationships, thanks to high speed travel and communications, there are the multi-faceted differences of culture (language, values or lack thereof, etc) and intelligence and education, etc. which complicate a parent’s abilities to communicate and understand ‘what is in the best interest of the child’. The courts do seem to default to value the mother when it comes to a flip of the coin decision regarding who is the custodial parent. Using my case as an example, however, such presumptuous decision making never understands that my childrens mother came from a third world remote island of poverty, she was a cast-off kid herself with a father who was a mere visitor when he came around, and her unique perspective on life certainly shapes her rearing of our children as the primary custodial parent in a major city (San Diego). Just one example to add to an infinite number of personality complications if only a parents background profile was a valued consideration within the custody process.

  4. Georgie says

    I suppose our parenting is somewhere between coparenting and parallel parenting. The ex is passive aggressive, so every time I send him emails about our son, he doesn’t acknowledge any of them, whether it’s about making travel arrangements for our son’s next visit to him, him needing braces, or even when I send pictures of his activities and discussions about grades.

    I sometimes text him about available dates to make travel arrangements. It generally takes anywhere from 1-3 weeks to get a reply, If I get one. He’s more friendly talking on the phone though, but he hems and haws around everything, like he doesn’t have the capacity to make any decisions about our kid, or he just doesn’t care to.

    When he retired from the Army, as planned over 2 years before that, he was all over texts and emails when he wanted me to call child support and stop auto garnishment. Within minutes, he responded to everything. I was very polite in stating that wasn’t going to happen and in very few words, he was going to his lawyer about it. Twice he failed to provide proper documents to the courts, so they cancelled the child support review. I was ready though, since I do 85-90% of the parenting and pay right about 45% of the costs of raising him, not including extra curricular activities like robotics club or boy scouts, gifts, or extra education costs. If that was the case, I pay 60% of all costs and do almost all of the parenting, and all decisions.

    In an entire decade, I’ve never modified for more support. I once asked him to help pay 50% of swimming lessons and he started he won’t pay anything but child support. I haven’t asked for anything since. I don’t even have to talk to my son about his dad’s behavior. My son is conscious enough to see it. Once he said he loved his dad, but more like loving a friend. Ouch, that has to hurt.

    My ex and I use to fight on the phone all of the time, but it was always about him not putting enough effort into being a father, “you should call your son every couple of weeks, even if it’s just to say hi, show you care”. He only calls him every 3-6 months. We use to do all the calling. I now only force my son to call his dad on holidays and his birthday. As it soon us now a teen, he wants to be a little more involved, but puts very little effort in it. It’ll be too late by the time he catches on that teenagers want to do their own thing and no longer want to hang out with parents or spend entire summers always from their friends. It’s already starting to happen.

    I’m very fortunate my son is very flexible and laid back. He takes everything at face value and doesn’t sweat much. He doesn’t have a problem with me dating. He doesn’t have a problem with his new step mom and step siblings. I’ve made it a point for him to understand his dad loves him, he just doesn’t do things like I do. If he wants more from his dad, he will need to talk to him about it and then decide what kind of relationship he wants from his dad. He’s not ready to do that, but one day…..

    It is the parents responsibility to be a parent and maintain a relationship with the child. Neither the mother or father of the child should play these games. In the end, the parent who plays games, tries to turn the kid on the parent, or didn’t make the effort, almost always loses…..a future adult relationship with their child. From my angle, the signs are plain a day.

  5. onemom says

    I wanted joint physical and legal but got only joint legal custody because the judge didn’t believe me. I miss my daughter and I wish I get more time with her. I do my best to negotiate with the father with a parenting agreement but he doesn’t want to. I don’t know what to do.

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