Parenting is challenging enough when both parents live in the same home. When they live apart, as after a separation or divorce, things can get even harder. Parents may disagree on such basic issues as sleep, nutrition, and discipline with added layers of negative emotions like anger, frustration, and sadness. All of these can interfere with effective communication and problem-solving.
While a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can add to the stress of co-parenting, it can also help parents overcome their issues and work together to safeguard the children they both love.
Ideally, co-parents should have a plan in place to help them problem-solve in time of crisis. If they do not, they may have no idea how to talk calmly or make decisions together under stressful conditions. Many problem-solve the same way they did when they were together. They may argue, withhold, and possibly bully, when what they need to do is stand back and unselfishly ask themselves, “How can we work together to keep our child safe?"
Here are some questions that can help co-parents talk through the possible need to adjust their child's visitation schedule:
Is it truly in the child's best interest to continue to follow the parenting plan that is in place, sending the child back and forth between homes? Is one parent better able to support home schooling than the other? For example, is internet service equally available at both homes? Does one parent have a job that involves more contact with the public and therefore more risk for household members? Who else lives in the home, and how much contact do they have with the public? Is a household member in a high-risk group: over the age of 60, suffering from underlying medical conditions, or immunocompromised? Does one home have more space or better access to safe outdoor spaces where children can play and get exercise while keeping the recommended physical distance?
Notice that these questions do not take previous parenting plans into consideration. Instead, they ask parents to honestly consider what changes must be made now to keep their children and others in the home safe.
This becomes especially difficult when parents worry about giving up any time with their child for fear it means their son or daughter may prefer the other parent, or that the other parent is manipulating the situation. Another sticky question can be whether more child support must be paid if the parenting plan changes. Also, many parents worry that if they allow the parenting plan to be adjusted, they will never get the time back.
Everyone is having to adapt to some uncomfortable changes during this pandemic. It has disrupted childcare, school and work, shifting the patterns of our lives. Reassure your child that we will get through this, that some changes are only temporary, and most importantly, they are loved.
David L. Hill, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician and the remarried father of 3 children and 2 bonus-children and the co-author of Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First.
Jann Blackstone, PsyD, is a retired child custody mediator for the California Superior Court and the co-author of Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First.