For separated parents, the COVID-19 pandemic brings a special set of challenges. But parents can use the pandemic as an opportunity to re-set their co-parenting relationship. Here are some ways parents can establish a clear path through these uncertain times.
Focus on your shared goals.
We are all experiencing stress from the COVID-19 pandemic even if everyone has a different way of coping. Also, everyone’s challenges are different depending on their job, income, health, and the people in their household. It’s good to remember that the other parent is doing the best they can under their circumstances.
A silver lining is that the pandemic gives all of us the opportunity to focus on what’s most important. You and the other parent share the goal of protecting your child(ren)’s safety and well-being. You also share the goal of making sure both households are safe and protected (as that also helps protect your child). With this overarching goal in mind, you can work together to solve issues that arise.
Accept what you cannot control or change.
First, recognize that few parents—even married parents in the same household—will have the same approach to the outbreak. And differences may be more pronounced when parents live separately. Parents may define “social distancing” differently; for example, one parent may allow play dates for their child while the other parent does not. One parent may be able to work from home while the other parent may be around other people at their work. Additionally, with school closed for the time being, one parent may have the ability to be home with the child(ren) while the other parent cannot.
You cannot control what is happening in the other parent’s home, nor should you ask your child to try to control what happens in the other parent’s home. You can try to have an approach similar to the other parent. But if you can’t agree, recognizing that you cannot control the other parent’s actions may help you let go of unnecessary stress.
Maintain regular communication.
Circumstances are changing constantly, so maintaining communication with the other parent is important. Often, one parent would like more communication and the other parent would like less communication. See if you can arrive at a balance that works for both parents. Identify frequency, time of day, and method of communication (email, text, phone call) that works best. Ensure that your child(ren) will not be in earshot.
Agree on what information you will share with each other. For example, do you want parents to tell each other if someone in their house becomes ill or if someone in their house has been exposed to someone who is now ill? Do you need to share information from the school district or do you each receive it independently? Do you want to share recommendations you hear from government or health officials or will you each obtain your own information? Agreeing on what needs to be and does not need to be communicated will make communication more successful.
Seek consistency across households.
Children do well with routine and consistency. Especially while school is not in session, see if you can agree on similar routines across households.
See if you can agree on the following:
A daily schedule that includes structured and regular time for
Regular mealtimes and how to encourage healthy eating/snacking
Limits on screen time
Limits on media coverage of COVID-19
How to socialize with friends/family remotely through phone calls, emails, texts, and FaceTiming/Skype.
Evening routines that are similar, like calling the other parent, playing board games or card games, singing songs, or reading bedtime stories
Consider a temporary change in parenting time.
The schedule that works while kids are in school may not work when kids are home full-time, especially when parents’ work schedules are changing. For example, if both parents are working from home in M-F 9-5 jobs, they may want to split up the workday between them so that they can each have a time set aside to be productive.
In Iowa, even if parents have a court order (like a custody order, divorce decree, or temporary order in a custody or divorce case), parents can change the custodial schedule anytime they both agree. (NOTE: if the custodial schedule is part of a domestic abuse no contact order, parents may not have the ability to change the schedule without approval by the court.) Parents do not have to go back to lawyers to make a temporary change they agree on, but they may want to call their lawyer to make sure it’s a recommended change and to get specific advice on how a temporary change could affect them in the future. Be clear about whether you are agreeing to a temporary or permanent change; if temporary, how will you know when it’s time to return to the old schedule?
All custody orders remain in place. If you do not believe it’s safe to follow the current court order but the other parent does not agree, you should contact an attorney for advice on how to proceed.
Make a safety plan.
Having a plan helps parents be calm and confident. When parents are calm, children can cope better.
Decide together on a plan for if a parent or someone in a parent’s household becomes sick with COVID-19 symptoms or is placed under quarantine. Until testing is more widely available, you may not know with certainty whether someone who is sick has COVID-19 or another illness. Questions to consider are:
What will we do if someone in either house becomes ill? Will we immediately inform each other of symptoms?
Will we have the child go to the other parent’s house if anyone in either house becomes ill?
How long will a child stay away from a parent?
Does each parent have enough clothing and personal items for the child?
If we agree to send the child to the other parent’s home, how will we ensure contact with the other parent (what method of contact, how often, what time of day)?
It is easier to make this plan when everyone is healthy because you are making a plan that you agree with no matter which parent becomes sick.
Make sure both parents have the child’s doctor’s name, address and phone number as well as a copy of the child’s health insurance card.
Share the plan with your child.
Let kids know the plan to help your family stay healthy. If you and the other parent can have a peaceful conversation, have that conversation together (over Skype or Facetiming if need be) so that they can see their parents are on the same page, working as a team. If your child has ideas for how to keep the family healthy, listen to their ideas.
Invite your child to ask questions. If a child has a question about the plan and you don’t know the answer, just say, “We didn’t talk about that yet but we will.” If children have questions about the pandemic, answer the questions as directly as possible rather than giving more information than they need or can handle. If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so. No one has all the answers.
Be a good role model.
During a time of crisis, children will have heightened awareness, so they are more likely to remember what happens than in ordinary times. They are watching how you co-parent and how you communicate with their other parent.
During a crisis, all the reminders for separated parents become even more important:
Only speak positively about the other parent around the child(ren).
Do not criticize the other parent’s parenting style in front of the child(ren).
Do not interfere with the other parent’s parenting time.
Refrain from asking a child to report back with details on the other parent’s household.
Do not ask a child to be the messenger between parents.
Keep an eye on your child’s emotional health.
The major changes that have disrupted our society are stressful on children too. You may see signs of stress in your child(ren)’s behavior. Younger children may be more whiny or clingy, experience bad dreams, and have more temper tantrums. They may temporarily regress in development. Younger children may also engage in repetitive play where they act out their fears. Older children may be more angry, irritable, and have outbursts or defiance. They may isolate themselves from family life. Children of all ages may have sleep and appetite disturbances.
Parents can help by being patient, calm, and comforting. Establish routines and set clear boundaries. Limit media exposure. Validate your child’s emotions even if their fears are irrational. For example, if your child says, “I’m scared that ___ will happen,” you can tell your child “It’s normal to be scared or afraid, but that’s not likely to happen because…” or “It’s normal to be scared, and I’m worried about that too. That’s why we are ___ to keep that from happening.”
If you see changes in your child’s behavior, talk with the other parent. Ask if they are seeing the same concerns. If so, come up with a plan together for how to help your child. Seek the help of counselors if support is needed, either for you or for your child.
Note for parents who are divorcing:
The pandemic may be especially hard on children whose parents are in the midst of divorcing. Divorce is known to be a traumatic experience because it is the loss of a child’s family as they knew it. While children are out of school, they are also missing their normal routine and the oasis that school provides for them from the divorce. When we add in the stress that the pandemic creates and the disruption in everyday life, there is reason to be especially concerned for children of divorcing parents. Talk to your child about how they are doing and give whatever honest assurances you can. Let them know that things will get better.
Kids First staff are all still working remotely, so please call if you need support. Please call 319-739-5426 for Jenny or 319-739-5428 for Elizabeth. Leave a voice mail and we will return your call.
Schedule a session with Kids First if you need help making a plan.
Kids First joint parenting sessions are available for any separated or divorce parents who have a child age 0-17. Sessions are free, regardless of income. At this time, sessions are being conducted via Skype or telephone conference call. Our licensed therapist and mediator, Laura Martin, can help you and your ex come up with a plan that works for both of you. Call 319-739-5430 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.