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Tools for Parallel Parenting in a High-Conflict Situation


While looking for information on co-parenting you will find loads of data telling you that working together with your ex-spouse is the healthiest outcome for everyone. You will read bullet points of how to improve communication, you will hear tips on healthy boundaries and moving past immature arguments, and you will get advice on organizing schedules.

But what if that isn’t enough? What if, even after following all of the advice and all of the pointers, you are still struggling?

All of the advice and quick tips are wonderful, they truly are. There are many people who have been through a divorce, managed the post-separation chaos and made it to the other side in one happy and healthy piece. There are the couples that do truthful fall into the category of: “we grew apart and do better alone”. Much of that advice is aimed towards these couples. The tips assume lower levels of conflict and two adults that are continually working towards what is best for the children without their own agendas or emotions getting in the way.

When your situation is high-conflict, the typical tips and tricks don’t work. You cannot merely put a smile on your face, follow a few pointers on moving ahead and have everything turn out well. For those in a high level of conflict without the ability to cooperatively co-parent with their ex, the path of parallel parenting is often the best choice.

If you’ve been trying to co-parent and for whatever reason it is not working, parallel parenting can be an appropriate next steps for yourself and your children. This method of parenting involves: minimizing contact with your ex to the most basic and necessary level; keeping all emotion out of your interactions and striving for a business-like approach; letting go of control and input into the other home’s rules and standards; and focusing solely on your parenting with a complete disengagement from the other parent.

The goal of this approach is to remove as much conflict as possible for the health of your children and yourself. Making the decision to parallel parenting while in a high-conflict situation will not be an immediate fix. It takes time for everyone to get used to new norms and it can be difficult to follow a new path. Sometimes the other parent will act out against this disengagement and an initial increase in anger or personal attacks can occur. Understanding the full implications of a change in parenting approach and preparing for this type of switch is necessary in order to be successful and to ensure this approach is the right choice.

Here are some tools and resources that can help you along the way…

Communication Method. Reduced communication is necessary but you cannot cut all ties when you have children. The best approach is one that allows for reduced face time and increased efficiency. An on-line journal is a good choice for many. Our Family Wizard is a popular choice for many people to organize schedules and notes. Another approach is creating a parent communication notebook. This will be a notebook that goes back and forth with your children and gives updates and information as necessary. For example, “Molly has a science project due on Thursday that she needs to work on. This past weekend she was feeling sick with a sore throat but she is now feeling better”. Those who choose the notebook often do so because of the time delay. Text messages and emails open the door for real-time back and forth communication which can quickly escalate in high-conflict relationships. The notebook provides the necessary information without the possibility for the immediate back and forth communication.

Education. With more families sharing custody and choosing the path of parallel parenting, opportunities for further education have grown. Many communicates now have parallel parenting classes that you can attend in order to gain more information. There are also a number of on-line courses available if you cannot find an in-person session in your area. Several books on this subject are available that can give tips on how to successfully implement a parallel parenting plan. Parenting After Divorce: Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children’s Needs by Philip Stahl is a great reference for insight and gaining a deeper understanding on how conflict can affect your children.

Support. Finding support from those around you is an important step in your own self-care. You need to take care of yourself when in a high-conflict and high-stress situation. Local support groups may be available, your church can be an excellent resource, or finding a professional counselor can help you to move past the anxiety and stress you are currently facing.

Plan. Disengaging, reducing communications and no longer trying to co-parent requires a written plan to be in place. The court order should be extremely detailed in these situations to remove the need for collaboration. Outside of the court order, a personal plan for yourself is also useful. You know the patterns of your relationship with your ex-spouse better than anyone else and this allows for you to plan for the next cycle. Writing down or talking through how you will respond to the next issue, argument or situation will help to reduce your anxiety and stress. It also allows you to focus on the present without worry for what is ahead – once you have a plan that you can follow, peace often follows.

While no one initially sets out to have a conflicted post-divorce relationship with their ex-spouse, many individuals find themselves in the midst of arguments, attacks and vicious cycles. Breaking these unhealthy patterns and getting yourself off of this roller coaster is necessary to have a healthier life and relationship with your children. Parallel parenting can be the best choice for many families in this situation.

Tools for Parallel Parenting in a High-Conflict Situation

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2015). Tools for Parallel Parenting in a High-Conflict Situation. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Nov 2015
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