Parallel parenting: How to start with a narcissist ex

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We talk a lot about how to successfully co-parent with an ex-partner. But what happens when exes simply can’t play nice? That’s when experts recommend a parallel parenting plan.

“Parallel parenting is the last resort for joint custody,” says Jann Blackstone, the founder of Bonus Families, a nonprofit organization dedicated to peaceful coexistence between divorced or separated parents and their combined families. Blackstone authors the weekly Ex-etiquette syndicated column that appears in hundreds of newspapers  and news sites around the world and has written six books on divorce and parenting. 

“Parallel parenting is for parents who absolutely can't get along, can't make decisions together for their children,” says Blackstone, who has made appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, PBS and Good Morning America. “So parallel parenting ceases the conflict.”

Here's what you should know before you decide if parallel parenting is right for your family:

What is the difference between parallel parenting and co-parenting?

A co-parenting agreement typically involves raising children with open lines of communication and maintaining a cordial relationship, at least as far as the kids are concerned. Co-parents consult with one another to make the best decisions for their children. 

In a parallel parenting agreement, each parent has control over their own parenting responsibilities without the need to collaborate or obtain consent from the other parent. Parallel parenting is often considered in high-conflict separation cases to avoid exposing children to more tension. 

“Parallel parenting differs from traditional co-parenting because the parents detach from each other on parenting decisions,” says California family law attorney B. Robert Farzad, whose writing on divorce has been featured in The Huffington Post, Yahoo! Parenting and the Los Angeles Times.

“In parallel parenting situations, contact is minimized to only serious situations, or even if there is regular contact, the contact is short and to the point,” Farzad says. “It is not a collaborative process where there is an exchange of ideas, except in serious situations.

“Parallel parenting removes the pressure to be on the same page about all parenting tactics and attitudes, and you don't have to communicate as often. Essentially, both of you have to let go of a lot of control and respect that the other parent is competent — which is a great foundation for successful co-parenting.”

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How do you start parallel parenting? 

In a parallel parenting agreement, important details must be legally documented by court order to avoid unnecessary discussions down the road, Farzad says.

“Parallel parenting does not work well if it requires regular communication between the parents to work out issues such as the start and end of parenting time, custodial exchange locations, responsibility for travel, rules regarding cancellations of parenting time and what happens if disputes occur between the parents.”

Farzad says the key to a successful parallel parenting plan is specificity. Every detail must be documented so the parents can rely on their court order to determine responsibilities.

For parents who want to work out the details of a parallel parenting plan without involving the courts, Rocket Lawyer provides a free, customizable Parenting Plan template. To avoid conflict in the planning process, parents may want to consider drafting the document with the help of a neutral third party. 

The main benefit of a parallel parenting agreement is that children are not constantly exposed to parental conflict. 

“Separated or divorced parents who often voice conflict about issues in front of the children expose the children to unhealthy emotions and confusion,” Farzad says. “When this is a constant in the children’s life, the children can suffer from anxiety, depression or potentially worse mental health ailments.”

Numerous studies have shown how parental conflict can negatively impact a child’s emotional wellbeing. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that the rate of clinically significant mental health problems was 300% higher in children from divorced families than in children from intact families. However, another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found no difference between children from divorced and intact families when post-divorce parental conflict was reduced. 

Blackstone does caution that the lack of communication between parents can also be damaging for children, which is why she only recommends pursuing a parallel parenting plan in the most irreconcilable cases.

“Your children are witness to this, and everything you do sets the stage for a child and how they learn to problem solve, how they learn to discuss,” Blackstone says. 

“I spend a lot of time interviewing the children, and they don't like when their parents can't just say hi without arguing. Kids go back and forth, and they know.”

Best free and online co-parenting classes

What is parallel parent with a narcissist?

When your ex-partner has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder or even if they don’t have a formal diagnosis, parallel parenting can be a healthier alternative to collaborative co-parenting.

“There's nothing you can do about certain things,” Blackstone says. “And you have to parallel parent if you have narcissistic issues or things like that where there's no reasoning with somebody.” 

Although a parallel parenting plan can greatly reduce the need for communication between exes, some interaction is unavoidable. When you’re dealing with a narcissistic parent, it’s important to ensure all interactions are logged in case they need to be referenced in court. 

Blackstone says her clients often communicate via email or text when necessary, though there are numerous free and low-cost co-parenting apps available. 

OurFamilyWizard.com is an app used by tens of thousands of parents to share calendars, schedules, documents and information. We ranked Our Family Wizard No. 1 on our list of best co-parenting apps.

How to establish parallel parenting boundaries

While parallel parenting may be necessary in the long term, it can also be used occasionally to let the dust settle from a high-conflict separation. 

“Time does heal wounds, and when the wounds of the heart and mind heal, parents can calm down and learn to communicate productively for their kids,” Farzad says. 

Farzad advises:

First, speak with the other parent to make sure they are ready. 

Decide what issues you and the other parent are ready to transition to co-parenting. It need not be all or nothing. Parents do not have to go from a full parallel parenting plan to a full co-parenting plan. Perhaps initially, they try co-parenting more on one or a few issues and see how that works out.

Blackstone recommends parents seek counseling to resolve any lingering issues and move forward with their children’s best interests in mind. 

BetterHelp is an online counseling company with hundreds of licensed therapists that can provide online counseling to you and your family, all from the comfort of your home. Rated A+ by the BBB. Read our Top Online Therapy Sites for 2021.

“Really do some serious soul searching about what your words and deeds are doing to your children,” Blackstone says. “What I would do is get some therapy and be honest with yourself. I'm not saying you have to be all ‘Kumbaya,’ but emails back and forth — that's co-parenting as long as you aren't insulting.”

What is the difference between parallel parenting and co-parenting?

A co-parenting agreement typically involves raising children with open lines of communication and maintaining a cordial relationship, at least as far as the kids are concerned. In a parallel parenting agreement, each parent has control over their own parenting responsibilities without the need to collaborate or obtain consent from the other parent.

How do you start parallel parenting?

In a parallel parenting agreement, important details must be legally documented by court order to avoid unnecessary discussions down the road.

Leighann Bacher is a writer/editor based in Pittsburgh, Pa. She received her degree in journalism from Kent State University and has since worked for major metropolitan newspapers, marketing firms and city magazines. Leighann was named one of Pittsburgh Magazine's '40 Under 40 Honorees' for spearheading a social media campaign to connect people with COVID-19 vaccines and resources. Her greatest joy is spending time with her two kids and dabbling in her creative passions of photography, dance and art.

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