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Co-Parenting keys to surviving a pandemic: Flexibility, self-reflection, and good communications

By Annie Deming PhD

Dec 22, 2020

Co-parenting during a pandemic

Divorce and co-parenting are difficult under the best of circumstances. Add in a global pandemic, and stress levels are soaring for many families.

Co-parenting suddenly includes a host of new negotiations, complications, and plans to work out. If a parent or child gets sick, where should the kids go? Is there one set of rules for seeing friends or two? What if one parent is reliable about wearing a mask but the other isn’t? Questions like these can be extremely difficult, even for couples whose marriages ended amicably.

“When parents are good co-parents after separation or divorce, everyone wins. Good co-parenting is the factor that helps kids get through that family transition. And during COVID, that’s really ideal,” said child psychologist Annie Deming, PhD, clinical supervisor at Primary Children’s Center for Counseling. But when families are in a high-conflict situation and the relationship is damaged beyond repair, reaching an agreement may be almost impossible.

Here are some suggestions for surviving the pandemic as a co-parenting family:

Stay flexible

With court orders, custody schedules, and drop-off agreements, co-parenting is often a very rigid situation. But the virus requires flexibility, says Dr. Deming. Job loss or changes at work for one parent may require the other parent to take (or give up) the kids when they normally wouldn’t. One parent may be set up better to accommodate online learning. Another parent may work in a high-risk situation or live with a high-risk individual and want to minimize the chance of passing on the infection. “It’s not about making sure that each person gets an equal amount of time. It’s about making things work for everyone,” she said.

Dr. Deming also urges families to remember that each situation is unique, and what works for one family might not work for your family.

Rely on an impartial third-party

When parents can’t agree how to move forward, Dr. Deming suggests bringing in an impartial outsider to offer advice. This could be a pediatrician, family member, psychologist, or other trusted individual who both parents perceive as unbiased. In her own family, she and her ex-husband were trying to decide how to set boundaries for their kids’ playdates. At a routine visit, their pediatrician recommended some simple rules that each could follow: short playdates, outdoors, masks on.

Let it go

Despite their best efforts, sometimes co-parents will not be able to come to an agreement. In those cases, co-parents can agree to disagree civilly. “You might have to say, ‘My practice at my house is this way, and their practice at their house is that way. I can express my concerns and wish they were different, but at the end of the day I can only control the things I have control over,’” said Dr. Deming. She suggests expressing your feelings, more than once if necessary, but then letting things go if you aren’t getting anywhere. “You can’t … get to a place where you’re feeling so emotional that you get in an escalated argument in public, or send a million emails that aren’t going to go anywhere.”

"It's not about me"

Dr. Deming urges parents to be reflective as they work through these challenges. Co-parents need to have a heightened focus on what the kids’ needs are and try to make the best decisions with that in mind. “What people need to do personally is understand, ‘It isn’t about me,’” she said. You may not want to give up one minute of your time with the kids, but that decision may not be in the children’s best interest. Set aside emotions and personal needs and focus on what is best for the kids. Generally, both parents want what’s best for their kids, even though they may have different ideas of what that means.

Mistakes were made

A parent might follow all the recommendations above and do their best to make good decisions for the family - and still make a mistake, said Dr. Deming. “If we goof up, just say sorry. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t handle that situation well and I hope the next time something like that happens, I’ll do a better job.’ That can go a long way.”

Consider writing a contract

Co-parents may want to write an informal contract that sets some ground rules during the pandemic, said Jann Blackstone, PhD, a retired California child custody mediator and co-author of "Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First.” In an interview with the radio program Here & Now, she suggested beginning with a line that says the agreement will be in effect for the duration of the pandemic and revert to pre-COVID practices when it’s over. She recommends starting with simple things like agreeing to call one another if there’s a problem or concern, then agreeing to talk. Other elements of the contract would be unique to each family.

Keep communication open

The Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of good communication between co-parents during the pandemic and offers these tips:

  • Answer all forms of communication (phone calls, texts, emails, etc.) with your co-parent in a timely manner.
  • Enter each conversation with finding a solution together as your goal.
  • Stay socially connected while physically distanced. Schedule virtual visits between your co-parent and your child. Set a time and make the child available for video calls.