Parenting during a pandemic is difficult enough: You want to provide stability and consistency for your children, keep them responsibly informed without frightening them, encourage some semblance of education, and support their social connections. All of these aspirations fall on the backdrop of grown up jobs, and legitimate concerns about finances and health. What if this has to be coordinated between two homes? Even the healthiest of co-parenting relationships will likely be taxed by the level of stress the world is feeling as a whole. Though the basic rules and advice for healthy co-parenting remain the same during a global pandemic, raising children together and apart will require added effort and flexibility during the coming months:
Take Care of Yourself: Nobody is immune to the waves of anxiety and grief the pandemic is eliciting. There’s little “time off” to process all of the major life changes you are experiencing, and you have to keep working full speed at at least one important job (two for many): parenting. Your ability to parent well largely depends on your emotional well-being. Do all the things you know to keep yourself healthy. Sleep and eat well, exercise, and practice self-compassion. Also, stay in close touch with your support network (virtually, of course).
Children First! Yes, I know we just said to take care of yourself first. However, remember that the children come before any conflict between you and your co-parent. Research shows that some of the strongest predictors of how children are negatively affected by divorce are parental tension and hostility. Remember that when you are going the extra mile to accommodate your co-parent, you are going that mile for your kids. When you choose to avoid arguments, keep your anger in check, and offer flexibility and compassion, you are creating safe space for your children.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you are parents who can communicate respectfully and productively by text or phone call, continue to do so. Check in with yourself before each conversation. If you are feeling particularly anxious or irritable, ask to move the dialogue to a time when you feel you can be more collaborative. Set a time and date for this so that you don’t leave your co-parent hanging. If you are consistently having difficulty communicating, consider moving all conversation to email, or even to a platform like Our Family Wizard, designed exclusively for co-parenting communication. No matter the method, keep your co-parent updated on how the kids are doing. Let them know what activities they are engaging in, how any school work is coming along, and certainly if you see anything that concerns you about their physical or emotional health. This added sharing can go a long way to lessen anxiety for the parent who is not with the children.
Protect emotional health. Kids of all ages know that something is going on. They feel the tension and see the changes in their routines. Be honest with them about the virus in a developmentally appropriate way. Stick to basic facts and to how the virus affects them. Limit children’s exposure to media – social and otherwise. Too much information can be overwhelming, and networks and social media can trend toward sensationalism and alarm, neither of which are healthy for children of any age.
Protect physical health. Listen to evolving rules and regulations aimed at protecting public health and follow them. It’s tempting to take kids to the playground when you’ve been cooped up for days, but if officials are advising you to stay away from playground equipment, they are doing so for your safety. Likewise, follow the most conservative advice about social distancing, hand washing, and disinfecting material that comes into your home while the threat is high. If a child becomes sick, communicate immediately with the other parent about symptoms, and seek advice from their physician about what steps to take.
Be open. Let your co-parent know how you are protecting against infection, and be open to adopting the more protective practices of the two homes. You have the right to parent as you desire in your own home; however, in a time when tensions are high and threats are real, it can’t hurt to be a little more careful, and to provide your co-parent with reassurances that will help them maintain their own emotional well-being (and so be a more present and engaged parent with the children).
Be compliant with existing court orders and visitation arrangements. These formal arrangements exist to reduce conflict, and to provide children with consistency and stability. That said….
Be flexible. It’s highly likely that one or both parents will experience a change in work status or schedule, or that someone in the family could become ill. Understand that these are extraordinary times that may necessitate flexibility in time-sharing. Also consider more frequent video and phone check ins to support your child’s relationship with their other parent.
Be generous in allowing for made up time if a parent has to give up time with kids due to illness, exposure, or work demands. In doing so, you are not setting a precedent for future instability of scheduling. You are setting a precedent of practicing kindness and putting children first.
Bend the rules (but talk about it first): Have you held firm limits on screen time in the past? Agreed on the use of messenger apps? Enforced an 8:30 pm bedtime? Experts are weighing in that many of these long-held standards need to be reset during this time of isolation. Be open to talking with your co-parent about revising agreed upon rules and limits, and continuing to provide the children consistency between homes.
If you are having difficulty in your co-parenting during these unprecedented circumstances, and following this advice doesn’t elicit some needed changes, consider reaching out to a counselor who specializes in co-parenting, or to your attorney. Both should be available to you virtually so that you can get the help you need and stay safe.