Separated and divorced co-parents are finding themselves in unchartered territory during this pandemic. Due to the Coronavirus and quarantines, many find it challenging (or impossible) to follow the agreed-upon or ordered visitation schedule. Safer at Home – but whose home? What do you mean the courts are closed? Nary a family lawyer has not faced hotbed custody issues and panicked clients struggling with custodial transitions in the age of CoVid-19. My hope is that parents will emerge after the precautions have been lifted with a more fortified and resillient co-parenting relationship. To get through the rough patches, I hope my suggestions will generate solutions during this unprecedented time.
We all know that communication is KEY in any relationship. The first thing to do is communicate with the other parent to discuss possible strategies and adjustments. Online teleconferencing options are a good way for you to talk “face to face” – and be open about your fears and concerns. Coping with changes to the weekly schedule or adapting to homeschooling will proceed much more smoothly if you both feel supported by each other. I have seen recent trends where parents who could not see “eye to eye” when it comes to the children, band together and face this crisis as a reinforced family unit. For the higher conflict parents among us, separate or joint consultation with the children’s pediatrician or a co-parent therapist can be extremely helpful. Share that information with the other parent as you work toward developing acceptable strategies to problem-solve. I predict that “sweating the small stuff” is for the bygone pre-CoVid era!
Communicate honestly with your child about why the visitation schedule is changing. Kids have a lot of questions and anxiety about what is happening right now. Explain honestly and factually why it may not be safe to travel right now, as well as what changes are to be made for the time being. The changes are temporary. Children process the concept of time much differently than adults. Reassure your children that their co-parent is a phone or Zoom call away and that things will return to “normal” one day.
Both parents will need to be flexible with visits during this time. If required travel is impossible, agree upon adding “make-up” time later this year, perhaps around the holidays, so the other parent can still have their custodial time and will have something to look forward to, which we all desperately need right now. Look at virtual opportunities for the non-custodial parent and child to play games together, chat, video conference, and spend time together while being apart. Maintaining the connection and parent-child bond in innovative ways is your homework.
If travel is permissible, you may want to have fewer visits, but extend the length. Cutting down on transitions could minimize germ transmission. Rather than spending every weekend with a parent, consider a 1 or 2 week “on” and week “off” approach. Put all temporary changes in writing to ward off miscommunications and an “expiration date” in case the schedule changes need to be revisited. Geography will largely dictate whether visitation is possible or not. Be flexible as you work with the home sheltering guidelines issued by your city or state. Update your co-parent as new directives are issued on a week by week basis.
Put Your Child First
Let your child share his/her questions and fears as you communicate with the other parent. Does the idea of travel or switching homes make the child anxious? Will the child struggle with keeping up with online classes or schoolwork when they switch homes? If so, what built in safety nets can you and your co-parent implement to curtail academic drift and reassure your child? Is your child concerned about an elderly grandparent that shares the home? Perhaps your child is looking forward to a change of scenery, and visiting the other parent will provide a needed distraction or sense of fun and spontaneity. Proactively take your child’s emotional needs into consideration as you discuss how to handle custody and visitation during quarantine. Having an age-appropriate “say” is very empowering for children.
How to Resolve Disagreements
If you have a written parenting plan or agreement, try your best to stick with it. If you have a court order, know that court orders are fully operational during the quarantine. Document when and why you feel you cannot follow the plan, and conversely, document why you believe the plan can and should be followed and what accommodations or concessions you are willing to make or “trade.” If you need to amend the agreement for the time being and cannot agree to a solution, know that the courts are open for “emergency” proceedings only; therefore – consider bringing the impasse to a third party mediator or private judge who can be empowered to legally modify the parenting plan. A trusted coach, family member, or spiritual leader may also be successful in mediating differences. For legal advice, consult your family law attorney for guidance and direction.
These are uncertain times. You cannot control how the other parent will respond to a crisis. You can control yourself and your own reaction to others. Understand that this creates a domino effect; therefore, carefully and with compassion manage your own stress. Do your best to confront issues of custody with a calm and level-headed approach. No two ways about it, your co-parenting skills are being put to the test these days. In retrospect, we will all be regarded as the person we showed up as during this pandemic. And that is even more true in the context of the co-parent we chose to be.