When it comes to coparenting, settling into a consistent routine is usually in every family member's best interest. However, because of the novel coronavirus, many coparenting schedules are getting turned on their heads. Because we want our children to stay happy and healthy — and make sure we stay relatively sane while social distancing — we asked experts for tips on how to navigate coparenting and custody agreements amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Should parents be moving their kids between homes at all?
Like many facets of parenting, experts haven't quite settled on a workaround for shared custody during the COVID-19 outbreak. "Courts don't have the answer. Attorneys don't either. Medical professionals and therapists are also stumped," shared Michael Aurit, a lawyer and professional family and divorce mediator. "Parents are the only ones who can make this call. The truth is, it depends on the parents, the children, and the circumstances. When parents need help discussing these issues, they should seek the assistance of a professional family mediator."
"Parents are the only ones who can make this call. The truth is, it depends on the parents, the children, and the circumstances."
Kate Roush, clinical lead supervisor of the early childhood mental health program at Nationwide Children's Hospital, maintains that while coparents should try to stick to their traditional schedule as much as possible, families need to be flexible, especially if a parent has contracted COVID-19 or is considered high risk. "While in general, it's best for coparenting agreements to be consistent as possible, so that children can experience routine and structure, it's important to recognise that this is not a typical time and make your parenting arrangements accordingly," Roush told POPSUGAR. "This will be different for every family and their circumstances. To make the best decision for your family, consult the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Pediatric Association guidelines or consult with your child's trusted medical provider."
According to Aurit, a parent may receive temporary full custody if their coparent or child falls into one of the following categories:
- A parent travels on aeroplanes for work
- A parent will not comply with CDC social-distancing guidelines
- A parent is unable to care for their children during the day because they are working from home
- A parent is unwilling or unable to educate the children from home
- The child has an underlying condition that increases health risks
What are some strategies parents can use to be more flexible right now?
Although tensions and emotions may be running high for the adults, experts are urging parents to keep their children's best interests in mind, and sometimes that means being flexible with your coparenting schedule. Aurit suggests sitting down together and openly discussing the arrangements. "The crisis is temporary, and temporary changes may be necessary," he said, offering some pointers parents can use to navigate this uncertain time:
- Agree that everything they decide will put the needs of the children first.
- Recognise that they won't always agree on what is best — be prepared to compromise.
- Make constructive proposals to agreements that aren't perfect but they both can live with.
- Maintain a soft tone of voice and state support and appreciation for each other out loud.
- Practice mindfulness and listen to understand.
- Acknowledge they are both under immense strain and commit to helping reduce each other's stress by cooperating and collaborating.
Roush agrees, stating that if parents need to give up custody temporarily, they should find ways to stay connected with their kids virtually. "Any successful parenting arrangement needs to consider how to maintain a strong connection with both parents, even if a parent may not be able to be physically with the child on a day-to-day basis," she explained. "If children are primarily with one parent during this time, consider strategies for maintaining a connection with the other parent."
"The crisis is temporary, and temporary changes may be necessary."
Depending on your kids' ages, there are several options for keeping communication channels open. "Older children can email, write letters, talk on the phone, or use social media to interact with parents," suggested Roush. "Younger children can use the phone or audiovisual apps to communicate with the other parent with an adult's assistance. Remember to keep these sessions fun and focussed on the child's interests and daily activities. Try to be creative when engageing children on the phone or with apps, and have a plan for interesting activities to help keep children engaged. Families can read stories together, play games, and do all sorts of activities with the technology available today."
What are some tips for getting on the same page as your coparent in terms of social distancing?
Karen Aurit, the cofounder of The Aurit Centre for Divorce Mediation and Family Mediators, said that while this is certainly a sensitive issue, coparents need to discuss their concerns openly.
"Parents should be cautious when discussing social distancing and avoid personal attacks if their coparent doesn't share their views," she cautioned. "It is best to focus on the common goal — the safety of their children. If parents cannot agree to adhere to complete social distancing with anyone outside of the family, they might be able to find a compromise that limits their children's exposure to others."
At the end of the day, parents should model good behaviour for their kids, even when tensions are high. "Communication is key," stressed Karen Aurit. "Make any communication clear, to the point, and respectful. Remember that children will model their communication style and problem-solving based on how they see the adults in their life navigate this type of situation and try to demonstrate the skills you would want them to have as an adult."
If a parent has to have the kids for a few weeks during COVID-19, are there ways to make up time later?
If you find yourself social distancing without your kids around, there are definitely ways to make up for lost time. "To reduce conflict and provide peace of mind, parents can proactively agree that any parenting time missed during the crisis will be 'made-up' in the future," explained Michael Aurit. "Parents can informally agree to this or they can choose to have documents filed with the court to ensure the agreement is honoured."
Coparents should be aware that there isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy. "To make up lost parenting time, parents can agree to a wide range of scenarios; from extended weekends to altered holiday arrangements, to extra holiday time until a new norm is established," said Michael Aurit. "No matter what arrangements are made, it is important for parents to ensure the children have frequent and consistent communication with both parents."
Should coparents take extra safety precautions?
Of course, parents should be wearing masks and gloves whenever necessary. Michael Aurit encourages families to view the COVID-19 outbreak as a group effort. "We are all in this together," he said. "Everyone who must go out into a public setting needs to take precautions. The important thing is for parents to make the decision to work together to ensure the safety of their children."
He continued, noting that coparents should use their best judgement to deem what visits — and with whom — are actually essential. "During the current crisis, family mediators are helping many parents with the especially hot topic of their children visiting with their coparent's family and friends," he explained. "It is highly likely a parent does not feel that visits with their ex's significant other are essential. However, they must compromise and maintain the integrity of their coparenting relationship to ensure their children's well-being."
What is some language you can use to explain your potentially new coparenting schedule to your kids?
Before jumping into a frank conversation with your little ones, come up with a few talking points. "Parents know their children better than anyone else," explained Karen Aurit. "By taking some time to prepare, parents can positively impact how their children will respond to the news of temporary scheduling changes." With that being said, parents should consider their kids' ages, emotional maturity, intellectual development, and how adept they are at responding to life changes before sitting them down to talk.
"Parents should work together to address these items to ensure they are providing the children with consistent information," Karen Aurit recommended. "Depending upon the ages of the children, parents might start the conversation by asking how the children feel about the crisis. Providing reassurance and validation for the children will encourage an open and honest discussion."