The coronavirus pandemic has turned lives upside down in ways that we are still trying to figure out. And for all of the family strain that has come from living under quarantine, it is perhaps divorced parents are feeling it the most keenly. With schools closed and kids home, co-parents are adjusting to a new routine, trying to adhere to social distancing practices while also honoring custody agreements that are already in place.
“From the cases that we are seeing and hearing about, the biggest issue is about whether the parties are on the same page with social distancing,” says Sheryl Seiden, a founding partner at Seiden Family Law. “It is important for parents to remember that children need the love and affection of both of their parents in difficult and upsetting times like these, so parents need to put aside their differences and try to agree to a schedule or a system that protects the children physically and emotionally.”
For divorced or separated parents, co-parenting in general can be stressful, what with juggling schedules, calendars, commitments and new lifestyles. But in an era where just leaving the house could put you and your loved ones at risk, the stress is amplified even more.
“A lot of things have been stirred up,” says Rosalind Sedacca, CDC, a divorce and co-parenting coach, mentor, and the founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network. “One of which is the equation of custody even when the children just live a few blocks apart. Work schedules are different, people may have financial problems, parenting plans are unable to be followed. We need parents to be extremely flexible and cooperative in making changes that really work for these times and for the children.”
But, even the most well-intentioned co-parents can come up against unexpected challenges or situations, especially while navigating the COVID-19 crisis. We ran a few scenarios past the experts to gauge how co-parenting couples can best respond.
The Problem: One parent is taking social distancing less seriously than the other. They’re bringing the child or children to parks, religious services, or other gatherings that have been deemed unsafe.
The Solution: Communication is key, but, even in such dire circumstances, so is compromise. As much as we might like to draw a line in the sand, experts say that could actually create more problems. “There can be ways of compromising,” says Sedacca. “Saying, ‘If we do this or that your way, then let’s do two things my way.’ This way, everyone feels that their values are being validated while others are being compromised.”
Of course, when a child’s health and safety is at risk, then it becomes imperative for the other parent to speak up. However, they must do so in a way that does not sound like they’re simply enforcing their own opinions on the other parent. “There are a lot of articles online being written by mental health professionals,” says Sedacca. “You could show one to your partner and say, ‘Well, you may feel this way, but look at all of these articles that are saying you shouldn’t do this or you should do that.’ And that’s a way of validating their opinion.”
The Problem: One parent doesn’t trust the other and tries to bar that parent from visitation.
The Solution: Unfortunately, this is a common situation in divorce cases, even without the added strain of coronavirus. One parent may feel that the other is not responsible enough or too lax with the rules and use that as an excuse to keep the kids home. Seiden suggests that parents try and come to an agreement ahead of time about how they will have quality time with their kids while keeping social distancing protocols in place.
“One approach that often works is to have both parents submit their proposals to ensure parenting time continues and social distancing is maintained,” says Seiden. “If they both submit their proposals without one party seeing the other party’s proposal first, chances are there will be some common themes that can be expanded upon.”
Sedacca agrees that putting your thoughts in writing is a good way to illustrate your concerns without the other partner feeling attacked. “It may be easier to send an email with some points,” she says. “Say, ‘The reason I’m so upset about this is one, two, and three,’ and try to create a valid argument that’s not emotionally crazy but that just addresses the points. Staying calm and not pointing the finger or demeaning the other parent is important.”
The Problem: One parent is very worried and telling the kids coronavirus horror stories.
The Solution: It’s a scary time for everyone, and uncertainty abounds. But giving into fear, and especially bringing kids into it, can only be counterproductive. “You will need to work to neutralize this for your child, again without throwing the other parent under the bus,” says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a psychologist and Family Expert for Life360. She recommends saying something along the lines of ‘Sometimes when our brains get very worried, we look around and all we can see are the scary things. It doesn’t mean those things are true – it is just what happens when brains are in a scared state.’ Then, highlight the inherent positive in this, saying “And even though we don’t need to be concerned about that kind of stuff, do you know what I really love? I love that [the other parent] loves you so much that you are the number one thing their worried brain thinks about.”
The Problem: One parent is very rigid and insists that schedules, appointed times, and dates have to be adhered to, despite whatever changes might come up.
The Solution: Generally speaking, structure is important in a co-parenting arrangement, as it creates stability and order in kids’ lives. However, times are different now and, more than ever, it’s important to be flexible. “Flexibility is critical,” says psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman. “This is an extraordinarily stressful situation and can be an opportunity to model flexibility, prioritization, and values to children.”
“This is not a time to be rigid,” says Seiden. “For example, the parents need to have flexibility to adjust schedules to minimize exchanges, increase telephone or video contact between one parent and the children, to adjust schedules so that both parties can work from home, and to modify communication methods.” However, Seiden stresses that neither parent should be taken advantage of the flexibility to modify custody or parenting issues that do not need to be modified.
The Problem: One parent loses their job and cannot pay child support.
The Solution: There is no roadmap for the situation we’re living in, and, as a result, it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality. To that end, experts agree that, should one parent find themselves out of work, understanding should be the first response.
“In most cases, compassion breeds compassion,” says Dorfman. “This sentiment goes a long way, though it may be difficult to muster during trying times. Minimize hostility and suspending resentments amidst a crisis is advised.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the unemployed parent is off the hook for payments. Even in the wake of a lost job, support arrangements must be made. “Instead of demanding a modification of child support the day that he or she loses his or her job it is likely a better strategy to let the other parent know what happened and to start doing his or her best to tap into resources available and to look for other employment opportunities,” says Seiden.
The Problem: Tension threatens to spill over into an argument or bitter dispute.
The Solution: Everyone’s nerves are frayed beyond their limits these days, and, when it comes to divorce, COVID-19 is adding stress to an already stressed situation. Experts say to be mindful of every word you say right now, because you don’t want it to come back to haunt you, with Sedacca even suggesting to have more conversations in writing than in person. “Don’t talk on the phone,” she says. “Put it all in writing. Send each other [texts or emails] that are fact-based. Don’t get into a lot of exposition and, and talking about other things. Stay very focused on the arrangements and the reality of what has to happen to take care of the children.”
However, it’s not realistic to assume that all communication will be done via text, and couples should have some arrangement in place. Ben Heldfond, who, along with his ex-wife, Nikki DeBartolo, is the author of Our Happy Divorce says he and his ex have a plan that they adhere to avoid communication breakdowns: the four texts/email rule. “It is simple and easy,” he says. “After the fourth text/email goes back and forth, it is time to get on the phone. Email and text is an easy way to communicate, but sometimes people hear what they want and tones are never accurately portrayed.”
The Problem: Work schedules are different now, and families with healthcare workers/first responders may need extra latitude.
The Solution: Sedacca recommends parents whose work schedules have changed as a result of COVID-19 should meet with a mediator to see about renegotiating the parenting arrangement. Conversations can be had about allowing the children to spend more time with one parent or another as their work schedule dictates.
“A parent who was working a 40-hour week and is suddenly working a 60-hour week has different responsibilities,” she says. “If they’re a health worker, there may be health risks that they’re dealing with, and we don’t want the kids to be affected. So it’s a good idea to have a counselor or mediator talk with both of you and find some way of remediating the agreement.”
This is also where flexibility comes in. Your scheduled time with your kids might now conflict with the only time that your ex has off. Take into account the circumstances and work together to find a solution. “If co-parents are amicable, they should exchange their schedule in advance if possible so that they can help each other,” says Seiden. “It is imperative that both parents remember that it is in the best interest of the children for the other parent to have a job at the end of this – which means they have to support each other as best they can.”