10 Tips for Coparenting in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Note: Information about the current coronavirus pandemic is evolving rapidly. Please refer to your attorney or other legal practitioners in your area to answer your specific questions related to family law and the COVID-19 crisis.
With the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, separated and divorced coparents are dealing with unprecedented and frightening circumstances. To help your family avoid becoming infected and spreading the virus while striving to adhere to your court ordered parenting plan, here are 10 tips.
Rely on accurate health and safety information
The single most important way to protect your family and children is to rely on accurate information about how the virus spreads and follow CDC health and safety protocols in your home. Do not dismiss or minimize the seriousness of the virus. By following public health recommendations and government directives you not only ensure your own, your children’s, and others’ safety, but you reduce the potential for parental conflict.
Define what public health recommendations and restrictions mean in your household
Translate general advice, such as “social distancing,” into behaviorally specific actions for your household, such as no play dates, dining out, social gatherings or unnecessary travel until restrictions are reduced or end. Clarify the rules about handwashing, sanitation, not sharing utensils, and so forth in your home. Calmly explain to your children, in age appropriate ways, the reasons for the rules.
Remember, your households are connected
What you do or don’t do in your household can endanger the members of the other household, as well as those outside both households. That said, accept that the safety measures in your home may not be identical to the practices in the other home, and that does not necessarily mean that the other home is not safe; circumstances in the two homes may be different, and therefore, safety measures may be different. For example, in one home there may be a stay-at-home parent with no need to leave the home and in the other household there may be a working parent, coming and going from the home, providing frontline healthcare services. The safety measures in each home will differ, with the working parent’s household likely having more stringent protocols about handwashing and sanitation. Help yourself and your children to understand and accept these differences. Safety measures differ depending on circumstances. Avoid sending messages that one household is “safer” than the other and support your coparent.
Plan and problem-solve your way through uncertainty
Brainstorm solutions to emerging issues and choose the best course of action for your situation. Communicate with your coparent, as necessary, about significant changes of circumstances in your home so your children aren’t relaying information to the other parent. Plan for childcare, should you or your children become ill with the virus. During emergencies and crises, many parents find they are able to cooperate in ways they never have before. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt when anxieties are high can go a long way in keeping tensions and conflicts in check.
Be a good parent
Warmth and patience may run low as pressures mount, but children especially need their parents’ emotional understanding and support in difficult and frightening times. Remember to monitor and regulate your own emotional states and avoid over-exposing your children to your fears and anxieties. Many children and teens are dealing with losses and disappointments related to cancellations of important events that may feel monumental to them. Limitations on social interaction and changes in routines may also be very challenging for children. They also may experience fear of the virus and uncertainty about the future. Check in with them about what they are hearing and feeling, and provide age-appropriate, accurate information. Validate their feelings, while helping them put their losses, fears and boredom in perspective. Help them employ coping skills to foster resiliency. Limit children’s exposure to news coverage of the pandemic and strive to develop reasonable structure to daily life, including routines for schooling, exercise, chores, play time, safe socializing, outdoor time, and screen time.
Stick to your parenting plan, if possible
Court orders stand unless you and the other parent mutually agree to make changes, or it is impossible to adhere to it (such as a flight cancellation). Even “stay-at-home” government orders allow for parents to travel for exchanges of their children. If you and your coparent reach a mutual agreement about an adjustment to your parenting plan, put it in writing. If a parent’s parenting time is paused, specify for how long and the ways in which the children will keep in touch with that parent, such as calls, texts, video, online games, reading over video, and so forth.
Manage safety concerns wisely
If you have a safety concern about the children spending time in the other home, or your ex has concerns about the children being with you, it may help to exchange information about the safety measures being practiced in each home. If communication issues prevent an exchange of this information, accept that the other parent is responsible for the children’s safety during their parenting time. If your safety concerns are very serious, seek an emergency order. If there is reasonable suspicion of child abuse/neglect, contact child protection agencies. Remember, your decisions and actions during this time may be judged later by a judicial officer or child custody evaluator.
Call a professional if a significant parental conflict arises
If a significant dilemma or conflict arises, your attorney may be able to resolve the issue quickly and reach a stipulation. If you do not have an attorney, or more intervention is needed, consider alternative dispute resolution processes. Many courts are not available, except for emergencies. Mediators, family therapists, parenting coordinators, and out-of-court decision-makers can assist parents in resolving conflicts. Many are offering services via videoconferences and conference calls.
Take care of yourself
While you may be focusing on protecting your and your family’s physical health, don’t forget to take care of your mental health needs. Seek services from mental health professionals or other support people who can help you learn skills and strategies to take care of yourself and model resiliency for your children. This is especially important if you are prone to anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. If you need medical support, seek it; many healthcare professionals are able to help you via teletherapy. Attend necessary in-person healthcare appointments. There are also innovative resources available online.
Remember, this is temporary
During a pandemic there are things we all must do and sacrifices we all must make for our own, our children and others’ safety. Remember, these adjustments are temporary. Life will normalize. This is an opportunity for you to model healthy coping skills, resourcefulness, and resiliency for your children.
Kathleen McNamara is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado. She has worked extensively with separated and divorced families for over 30 years as an evaluator, parenting coordinator, decision-maker, mediator, family therapist, and consultant. She serves on the Board of the Directors for AFCC and is on the Editorial Board of the Family Court Review. She is a member of the Colorado Psychological Association Ethics Committee and is on the Colorado Supreme Court Standing Committee on Family Issues.
Lisa Hall is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Boulder, Colorado, and has been practicing for almost 25 years. She is currently in private practice and works with children, adults and families with various issues, however, her life work has been advocating for children. She has been working with divorced families, assisting co-parents and their children, for the bulk of her career. She has specialized training in working with high-conflict divorce. Lisa is married with two teenage sons.
NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.
Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.