Stay at Home orders present unique stressors and challenges for divorced and divorcing parents. For example, the closure of schools has left many co-parents uncertain as to how to best educate their children. Additionally, many parents are concerned about how to keep their children safe, while also sharing parenting time during the pandemic.
Co-parents have different views and opinions on how to handle child custody arrangements during the pandemic. These differing views are leading to conflict.
Differences in Opinion
Whether we are talking about former spouses, current spouses, family members, or friends, each individual has a unique opinion about the issues related to coronavirus and quarantine. Co-parents face a unique challenge in finding ways to communicate with each other while keeping conflict low. Even if they both agree to focus on their children’s health, they may have very different thoughts about how best to ensure their health.
One former spouse may believe that the current CDC guidelines go too far, while the other may be overwhelmed by statistics of the virus and very cautious about how they take care of themselves and their family. Regardless of which side you are on, it is important to remain respectful and understanding. To best support calm, respectful communication with your co-parent, consider these recommendations:
- Focus on your co-parenting strengths. Think about what has worked well, and not so well, in the past. Use this information as a guide to help you communicate your concerns and opinions.
- Listen to understand. Put genuine effort into understanding your spouse or former spouse’s point-of-view. Often, what at first may sound like a bad idea, may become acceptable when you understand the reasoning behind the idea. Your co-parent may have thought of a concern you aren’t aware of or may have learned new information that you do not yet have. If you do disagree with your spouse, before you state your disagreement, ask a few polite questions about how they came to their opinion.
- Give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt and be patient. No one has been through this exact situation before and your co-parent may not be at their best. Ask about how they are managing before getting into parenting time logistics.
- Be an example for your kids / Be your best self. Give thought to how you will feel when you look back on the way you managed yourself through this challenge. This is a great opportunity to show your children how to remain calm, stay safe, and make a thoughtful plan as to how to manage a crisis.
- Be prepared to compromise. Keep in mind that even experts disagree about the best practices in this situation. If you must compromise about letting your children go into a new environment, educate them about social distancing, and make a fun game of wearing face masks in public places. A simple mustache drawn on the mask can do the trick.
- Stay on Task / Don’t dig up the past. Now is not the time to address old disputes. Write down the items that need to be decided and stick to these points. Agree to focus only on the items written down. Then work together to find a solution that works for both of you.
It is possible to identify the issues and work together to come up with mutually beneficial agreements.
Plan Next Steps
Depending on your and your ex-spouse’s living situations, there may need to be changes made to current parenting time agreements. Depending on the circumstances, it might be safer for your child to remain with one parent rather than going back and forth—at least temporarily during this time.
If it is best for your child(ren) to remain with one parent for a longer period of time, it is important for both parents to be flexible in establishing a new, temporary plan for the next few weeks, or maybe even months. A parent who temporarily has less time with their children may be distressed about this arrangement, but still recognize that this is in the best interest of their children or that it is the only safe option. Coming up with a schedule will help both parents have piece-of-mind knowing that their child is not only safe but that this change is only temporary. It is crucial to leave the differences between you and your former spouse behind, and focus on what is best for your children.
If you and your spouse are doing your best to communicate and are still unable to reach agreements, consider working with a professional family mediator. Mediation provides assistance to parents to reach agreements, during, and even after the divorce process.
Make-up Time and Increased Online Time with the Other Parent
Co-parents can develop solutions to address parenting time missed due to COVID -19. Parents should consider rescheduling vacations and consider adjusting the parenting plan to make up for lost parenting time.
Co-parents should also discuss and decide when video or telephonic parenting time is necessary and in the best interest of the children. Be respectful of the parenting time of the parent who is unable to see the children in person. This may include either staying with young children to facilitate a Facetime call or leaving the room while older children are on the phone or video with the other parent. You may also want to consider coordinating with your co-parent so your children have supplies to do an art project simultaneously with the other parent via video. Now is a great time to be creative as studies have shown that creativity can relieve stress. Try to stay positive and encourage open communication.
Give Your Children a Voice
Children are going through extreme changes and they might not know how to deal with them. It is beneficial to talk with your children about what is happening. You can begin by letting them know it is okay to ask questions and discuss any concerns. Let them talk about how they are feeling. You do not necessarily need to provide solutions to each of their concerns. Let them explain how they feel and express understanding.
You can reassure them that you and your co-parent are available to talk with them and that their anxieties are normal. Both you and your co-parent can maintain a healthy relationship with your children. Don’t promise things like “everything will be back to normal in a week” but rather provide reassurance that what they are feeling is normal and that you will let them know when you learn new information.
Most importantly, present a united front to your children. This will reassure them that “you’ve got this” and show them that both of you are here for them—no matter what.