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Separated parenting: co-parenting and parallel parenting

Separated parenting: co-parenting and parallel parenting

Definitions of terms

The Australian family law system has the best interests of the child as the fundamental principal when working out what parenting arrangements should be put in place after parents have separated. [2]

In dealing with a former partner in the joint task of raising children after separation and/or divorce, it is very important, and clearly very challenging to SEPARATE THE PARENTING ISSUES FROM LEFTOVER PARTNERING ISSUES.

So how do former partners jointly parent their children? And what is co-parenting? Understanding the differing types of parenting orders available under the Family Law Act (Cth) 1975 assists with an understanding of a concept of co-parenting. It is also useful to understand the legal terminology used in Australia compared to the popular terminology often used incorrectly or inappropriately.

Parental responsibility (Guardianship)

Guardianship is a common expression designation of parental authority to make major decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of the child. Some examples of such issues that need decisions would be as follows: Does the child need braces? What school will the child attend? What religion will the child practice? The typical options for guardianship were either sole or joint guardianship. A parent with sole guardianship had authority to make all major decisions about the child. Parents with joint guardianship shared the authority to make major decisions about their child.

Under the FAMILY LAW ACT the proper terminology is SHARED PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY. This requires parents to make joint decisions about major long-term issues in relation to a child. [3] Major long-term decisions are defined in section 4 to include decisions about education, religious/cultural upbringing, health, names and living arrangements that would otherwise make it significantly difficult for a child to spend time with a parent.

Under the Family Law Act a Court may allocate parental responsibility for a child between the parents in different ways (i.e. one parent may be solely responsible for decisions concerning religious upbringing). The Court can also make orders about any aspect of the care, welfare or development of a child. These are often referred to as “specific issues” orders. [4]

Lives/ resides with (Custody)

The concept of physical custody designates the amount of time a child shares with each parent. The typical options are sole custody or joint custody. A parent with sole custody has responsibility for the child the significant majority of the time. Parents with joint custody share responsibility for the child’s time within a more equitable schedule.

In Australia the type of order the court makes is who “A CHILD IS TO LIVE” otherwise referred to as a “lives with” order. [5]

Any and all time-sharing plans should be based on the very broad standard of “the best interests of the child.” It should take into consideration the child’s developmental needs.

Spend Time With (Access/Contact/Visitation)

Another term to define is visitation. This is generally considered to be the time that the child shares with the non-custodial parent.

Under the Family Law Act, the parenting order a court makes is THE TIME A CHILD SPENDS WITH the other parent.[6]

Under this umbrella a court can also make COMMUNICATION orders. This can be made in favour of either the so-called live with (custodial) parent or the time with (contact) parent.

Notice these bracketed terms -custody, visitation. They sound like the child is a piece of property, or a prisoner. In 2006 the Commonwealth Government made sweeping changes to the Family Law Act particularly in the terminology used for parenting orders.

Rather than viewing the separated family arrangements in traditional legal terms, it was recognised that the focus be more from the psychological understanding of a child. We know that, with rare exceptions, it is in the child’s best interest to have regular and continuing contact with both parents. And, with very young children (under the age of 4 or 5), it is important if at all possible to have frequent contact with each parent. This is because of their very limited memory, which after only several days fades the image of the missing parent. This all is to say the child’s rights have to supersede the parent’s rights.

In the Australian family law system it is vital for parents to understand that nowhere is there any reference to any form of parental rights. PARENTS DO NOT HAVE ANY RIGHTS they have duties and obligations. The focus under the Family Law Act is upon THE CHILD’S RIGHTS. These rights are to have (a) the benefit of both their parents having a meaningful involvement in their lives, (b) protection from harm, (c) proper parenting and (d) their parents discharge their parental duties and obligations to them.

It is the child’s right to know and be cared for by both of their parents regardless of separation and to spend time on a regular basis with both parents.[7] It is the parent’s obligation and responsibility to be available and to care for the child.

It should be clearly understood that an order that a child lives with one parent has no additional role or obligation (other than for definition purposes) that one that specifies that a child spends time with the other parent. Indeed, there is no reason why an order cannot specify a child lives with one period for a period of each week/fortnight and lives with the other parent at all other times even if the living arrangement is not equal.

Parenting plan

Less competitive or “fighting words” and more collaborative terminology would be helpful in lowering the stress of an already difficult situation. For example, rather than using the terms “custody” and “visitation,” I suggest using the more emotionally neutral term, “parenting plan.” This term contains the more normalized concepts of a child sharing time with or living with each parent at different times. In a written parenting plan, sentences begin with, “The child will share time with (or, live with) each parent according to the following schedule:” rather than, “The Father has visitation on alternate weekends.” Even if the child sees one parent only once a year for a few days, the child is still sharing time and living with that parent during that time period.

PARENTING PLANS are the encouraged method of working out a child’s living arrangements after separation. The Family Law Act endorses as a child’s right that their parents should agree about future parenting arrangements (as opposed to litigating the arrangements in court). [8]

The parenting or time-sharing plan should take into consideration what that child has become accustomed to, regarding the parenting style and arrangement during the time of the intact relationship. This is critical for the adjustment and stability of the child during the often chaotic and stressful period following the break up. If, during the relationship, there had been a primary parent carrying out the major responsibility in time and effort, then such should remain the initial basis of a parenting plan. It need not remain as such forever, but it should begin with the settled arrangements from the child’s view, and be modified gradually over time. It is important to understand that no agreement is written in stone. All parenting plans are negotiable, as various needs arise that necessitate modification of the plan.

A parenting plan is an informal agreement between parents. Parents who seek enforceable arrangements – e.g. supervision requirements; are encouraged to obtain court orders. These can be obtained by consent however an application needs to be lodged with a court. That is not to say pursuing a parenting plan is not very useful particularly for documenting the parent’s intentions for arrangements or to establish a short term or interim arrangement pending further work with dispute resolution or family therapy.

If a child is to be with one parent significantly more of the time than with the other parent (for example, when the two parents live a considerable distance from one another), I suggest replacing the traditional term of “custodial parent” with the less emotionally charged concept of “the child’s primary residence” and “the child’s secondary residence.” Of course, if the child shares time fairly equitably between the parents, then there is no need to designate either parent’s residence with such title.


Technically, co-parenting exists with any parenting arrangement, regardless of its formal designation. In whatever way each parent is involved in raising the child, the parents co-parent. Most effective co-parenting arrangements contain the following characteristic dynamics between the parents: cooperation, communication, compromise, and consistency. These dynamics often grow over time and typically take a period of years to evolve effectively.


While meaningful co-parenting can only be carried out by parents in a working, functional, parental relationship, parallel parenting is more characteristic of parents in a dysfunctional relationship dynamic. Parallel parenting manifests when there is an insufficient degree of cooperation, communication, compromise, or consistency to carry out co-parenting. Frequently, in the beginning stages of a separation or divorce, parallel parenting may exist as a result of the lack of trust and sense of betrayal. While most parents are able to work through these dynamics to establish a more cooperative relationship, some parents are not and they remain in a power struggle that affects all negotiations between them. Certainly, when post-divorce parenting arrangements are Court-ordered in an adversarial court battle, such on-going patterns are common.

Children in parallel parenting arrangements often experience heightened anxiety during phone calls from the other parent and during transfers between parents. This anxiety results from the child’s awareness of the great potential for parental fights to ensue at these times. It is important to protect the children from this potential for parental conflict to erupt. Minimising verbal and physical contact between the parents can help. It is often useful to utilise written communication (letters, faxes, e-mail, etc.), or a third party, for communication purposes.


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