Parents are presented with many challenging situations as they raise their children. As a result, it is not unusual for parents who are still married to have different views. For parents who are in the process of separation, it is likely to be even more challenging.
Frequently, parents separate due to poor communication, differing views, and unsuccessful problem solving. When an emergency arises, it is common for a parent to experience fear, anxiety, situational depression, etc.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a situation when parents may experience a feeling of loss of control and boundaries for how to parent their children. As many areas work through phases of re-opening, places such as recreational facilities, beaches, as well as summer gatherings can present exposure to the virus. Even now, plans for fall schooling are in-flux.
In working with separated parents during this time, and reading materials provided by legal and mental health professionals, I have pulled together suggestions that may be helpful to clients during this pandemic, and other emergency situations that arise in the future.
Schedule times to talk with your co-parent. Plan an agenda for the discussion. Have the discussion without the children in earshot.
Listen for understanding. Hear what the other person has to say. Do not interrupt. Actively listen and avoid the temptation to nitpick what you may think is wrong, or you disagree with. Reframe what you heard them say in a supportive manner (even if you do not agree) and check in to be sure you captured the essence of their message. Avoid a response with “but” or a response that skips reframing and checking in. Avoid being defensive.
Agree on common goals. Examples could be: Physical and mental safety of the children (and parents, grandparents and extended family/friends); Importance of education; Priority for the child to have meaningful time with each parent; Avoiding cost (time, financial, and emotional) of an adversarial court process; and Maintaining the ability to work and earn income as much as possible.
Keep children calm. Convey information about the seriousness of the situation to your children and reassure them that the situation is unusual and temporary. Do not expose children to watching/overhearing news and other messages/conversation that can make them fearful. Encourage them to ask questions and respond with age-appropriate information.
Identify reliable sources of information. There are some reliable websites regarding safety and the pandemic. Outline things parents can do to keep everyone healthy and teach your children safety guidelines (cleaning, handwashing, masks, social distancing).
Be transparent about possible exposure, symptoms, and testing. Identify actions you will take as a family if a parent, caretaker, friend and/or neighbor has been exposed/becomes ill.
There may be some financial impact. A parent may be experiencing a partial or total loss of income. Acknowledge that the income reduction may be temporary and agree there will be a mutual exchange of information. Take it a week or month at a time.
Where at all possible, comply with prior agreements and court orders. Some courts have remained open for emergency matters such as domestic violence and child custody emergencies yet, at least for the foreseeable future, family law orders may be difficult to obtain. As courts start returning to the normal range of court hearings, there will likely be a backlog. I encourage clients to consider Mediation or Collaborative Divorce to try to resolve differences out of court.
The legal problem may be temporary. Hopefully, issues relating to custody and support may be temporary and it is possible they may need to be revisited by parents as the situation progresses. It is not effective nor cost-efficient to resort to court each time the situation changes.
Be creative! Consider each other’s interests and develop options that may work in the meantime. Some ideas are: Providing more care for the children so the other parent can keep work going; Looking for volunteers to assist with online education or outdoor recreation time; and Helping with food shopping and preparation, yard care, etc.
Importance of having children feel loved and supported. For children who are old enough to remember this emergency, they may have lasting memories of what happens. Children need to see that both parents will communicate with each other and with them while taking reasonable actions to keep the children safe.
Most importantly, take care of yourself. With the additional stressors that families are facing due to this challenging time, it is imperative to make time for self-care. This will help parents find the clarity they need to help them navigate during this transition.