In an all-right divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance.  Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are controlled and pushed aside, making space for post-divorce life:  effective co-parenting.  Co-parenting is possible only when both parents support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to the point of acceptance.  They become, essentially, addicted to anger.  They convince themselves that the other parent is useless, mentally ill, or treacherous. They convey this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, sports coaches, other parents, counselors and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to overthrow the other parent.  No therapist, mediator, lawyer, parenting class, or well- intending family member can make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you are wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last ounce of your sanity, there is one counter intuitive suggestion:  stop trying to co-parent with your ex!  Try “Parallel Parenting” instead.


What is Parallel Parenting?

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.

Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least not with you?  Stop expecting reciprocity or clarification.  Stop needing the other person to see you as right.  You are not ever going to get these things from your angry ex, and you can make yourself feel crazy trying.


How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see all sides working together and getting along and to make them feel safe.  That didn’t work.  Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce conflict in order to make your kids feel safe — and to keep yourself from going nuts.  So how do you do this?


  1. Keep Communication to a Minimum
    Stop talking on the phone.  When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into their drama of unresolved issues and nothing will get accomplished.  Limit communication to texting and e-mail, keeping everything in writing, so there is a factual reference.  By using e-mail and text, you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete hasty retorts that you may have made on the phone.


  1. Make Boundaries for Communication
    Hostile exes tend to ignore any kind of boundaries.  You will have to be very clear about the terms for communication.  E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics:  travel plans, a schedule change, doctor appointments.  If your ex tends to use e-mails to harass and intimidate you, tell him or her you will not respond, and, if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.


  1. Do Not Respond to Threats of “Taking You Back to Court”
    Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or parenting plans.  Do not respond!  Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney.  This will require money on your ex’s part:  phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc.  It is quite possible that your ex does not intend on spending the money, but is using this as a scare tactic to get what they want at that moment.


  1. Avoid Being Together at Your Children’s Functions
    It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together — but only if they see you getting along.  So attend events separately as much as possible.  If you must attend the same event, do not try to sit with each other; find separate corners.  Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences.  Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.


  1. Be Proactive with School Staff and Mental Health Professionals
    School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true — for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill.  So be proactive.  Always provide a copy of the parenting agreement, so everyone has the facts at hand.  Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible; don’t wait on the sidelines for someone to ask you for information.  Do not be defensive, but explain the situation, with minimal bashing.  When they see you, they will realize that you are a reasonable person who is trying to do the right thing for your child.


  1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
    Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home.  You may not agree with the rules at the other parent’s home, rules involving bedtime, electronics, homework strategies, etc., but there is really not much you can do about it.  Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house.  If your child complains about something that goes on at Mom’s or Dad’s, instruct your child to speak to the other parent directly.  Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only agitate the conflict and teach your child to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your children, not teach them that they need to be saved.

Parallel Parenting is the last technique to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed.  If Parallel Parenting is your only option, it doesn’t mean you have failed.  Just the opposite is true.  This type of parenting will enhance the quality of your life and take your children out of the middle.

  • Do you find that your child’s schoolwork is becoming more of your responsibility than his?
  • Do you find yourself being defensive when your child’s teacher is giving you constructive feedback about your child?
  • Do you blame others for your child’s misbehavior?  Is the problem always the fault of some other child or teenager?
  • Do you eventually give in to your child’s demands rather than be consistent in saying “no?”
  • Do you allow your child to set her own bedtime or curfew rather than engage in a nightly argument?
  • Does your child have regular chores?  Do you find it easier to do the chores yourself rather than argue with your child?
  • Do you give her “one more chance” – and then another and another?
  • Do you avoid talking about negative issues because you’re afraid of his response?
  • Does your child show a sense of appreciation for what she is given? Does she have as strong a sense of “giving” as of “receiving?”
  • Do you ever call in sick at school for your child because he wants an “out of school” day?
  • Do you feel guilty when you have to say “no” to your child?
  • Do you find yourself assuming that he’ll one day outgrow his bad behavior?
  • Do you find yourself wondering whether she will ever assume adult responsibility?
  • Do you notice a growing resentment in other family members regarding the way you handle this child?

If you have answered yes to several of these questions, there is reason to be concerned that your decisions and behaviors may not be in your child’s best interests.  When we don’t allow our children the consequences of their behavior we literally rob them of the opportunity to grow into productive human beings.

However, think of the joy parents feel when we put our efforts into helping our children experience consequences; when we resist the urge to help them when they can and should do for themselves; when we allow them the struggle and then watch them succeed; when we let go and allow our grown children to be adults.  What greater happiness can parents experience than when they see their young adult children assume adult responsibilities and know that this sense of independence will be a lifelong part of who they are?  This is really our goal in parenting – strengthening our children to become self-reliant and autonomous human beings.  This does not occur by happenstance.  It happens because we have been able to set limits, even when we found it very difficult, because we know it is best for our children.

About the Author

What to Do When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work

Jennifer Webbe-Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CDM

Jennifer received her Master of Social Work degree from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues.

Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. Jennifer is also a Certified Divorce Mediator, Parent Coordinator and Co-Parent Counselor. She assists couples and families in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides a variety of presentations for parents and educators.

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