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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Coparenting During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

How can separated parents address the parenting challenges of COVID-19?

During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many separated and divorced families are reporting that even previously stable co-parenting arrangements may not withstand the stresses created by fears of illness and mandates to shelter in place. And for families whose co-parenting and custody arrangements were already contentious, COVID-19 may be amplifying old conflicts and creating new ones.

During the crisis of a pandemic, the safety of children and parents alike, as well that of extended family members, is a primary issue of concern, and family members struggle with finding the right balance between children’s needs for the meaningful involvement of each of their parents in their lives, and the safety concerns that may arise from living in and alternating between two separate households. So how can divorced, separated, and separating parents address the unique parenting challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic creates?

The adaptability of families is a critical factor in this regard. Children of divorce do best when parents are flexible with each other under changing circumstances, communicate well with each other, and work together to solve novel challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic creates not only such special challenges but provides a unique opportunity for divorced parents to set aside old grudges and dysfunctional patterns when they realize they have to cooperate to overcome a severe external threat to their children’s and their own physical and emotional health and well-being.

With the shelter-in-place orders that have become a fact of life for families around the globe, it may be more difficult or impossible to adhere to previously negotiated co-parenting schedules. For some families, one parent’s residence may be more suitable for the unique challenges of home confinement—better internet connection for online learning, more outdoor space, or a private bedroom—or one parent may be more able to provide the daily supervision that is now required since school and other activities are canceled. In some families, one parent may be an essential worker and, therefore, more at risk of getting sick or exposing their children to COVID-19. Some children may be forced to rely on public transportation to get from home to home. These are all potential reasons to revisit and renegotiate co-parenting schedules, with the understanding that parenting will again be readjusted after the pandemic, once the crisis has passed.

A major challenge that parents must overcome is disagreements over social distancing and other safety measures necessary during the pandemic. It is common for couples to disagree about the severity of the pandemic, the precautions that should be taken, and the impact it has or will have on our lives. But although we are in somewhat uncharted territory, and there is much about the virus that is still unknown, what is unique about the COVID-19 crisis is that there is clear guidance, from medical experts and authorities, to limit social contact to immediate family, to avoid unnecessary excursions, and when outside, to maintain a safe six-foot distancing from others. Putting aside past disagreements and focusing on working together to do what we are all being asked to do are vital for parents to get on the same page in regard to the protection of family members during the pandemic.

In addition to physical health measures, the mental health of children and families is a vital concern during periods of prolonged isolation. Children in separated families may be particularly vulnerable to emotional and mental health problems, as attending school, playing with friends, and leaving the house mean risking contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to family members—as these children have to cope with two homes, co-parenting, and two-family settings. Anything that parents can do to eliminate the stress on their children under the unique circumstances of COVID-19 is vital to their children’s emotional well-being.

In sum, co-parenting during and after the COVID-19 pandemic is essentially a matter of parents establishing their children’s safety and best interests as their primary consideration. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the denial of parenting time by one parent toward another is not consistent with children’s best interests, even in the context of the pandemic. As long as parents are healthy and fit to care for their children, COVID-19 is not a valid excuse to deny co-parenting time. By putting a child’s relationship with the other parent on hold, a parent risks causing serious emotional distress to that child. Particularly during such times of crisis, children need the love, guidance, and emotional support of both parents.

However, if a parent has legitimate concerns about a child’s potential exposure to the virus in the other parent’s household, that parent should not hesitate to raise that concern. There may be situations where a parent may have to make the difficult decision to forgo their parenting time with their child in order to avoid exposing that child to the virus. In certain situations, a parent’s unique employment circumstances may put them at higher risk of contracting the virus, thereby resulting in further precautionary measures that need to be taken. Whatever the situation, now more than ever, parents need to work together to find flexible and safe parenting solutions that adhere to COVID-19 protocols.

How have co-parents fared during the pandemic? Research on co-parents’ responses to the pandemic has produced mixed findings. Some parents have expressed overwhelming fear of the coronavirus and how it has led to stress, tensions, and disputes within the family circle; they have struggled with the difficult dilemma of whether to prioritize children’s health by isolating at home and limiting children’s movements between their two parental homes.

Research has also reported, however, large numbers of parents whose reaction was the opposite: The COVID-19 lockdown had enabled them to downshift and enjoy quality time at home. These parents reported a high degree of cooperation in their co-parental relationships and the benefits of additional spatial resources afforded by their dual residence arrangements.

It seems that most parents are, in fact, standing up to the challenge. The COVID-19 crisis has provided an incentive for co-parents to communicate with each other in a way they have not had to before and to cooperate for the benefit of their children. And in regard to readjusting their co-parenting schedules after the crisis has passed, they have learned an important lesson. If they can cooperate with each other and make healthy decisions in the best interest of their children during a time of crisis, then they will do even better when the crisis has passed. And that is an important lesson for their children as well.

More from Edward Kruk Ph.D.
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