Co-parenting in a Pandemic: 10 Things That Could Change
We can all agree that it’s time to listen and follow the advice being given by the CDC and other medical experts on how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. But not all the questions that arise can be answered by medical professionals. Issues affecting families and their legal obligations during this crisis must be answered by legal experts in family law. The family law section of the Washington State Bar Association held a videoconferencing this week to discuss common concerns being raised by their divorce clients and agreed on some best practices to handling family law disputes during this unprecedented time. Here’s a summary of their conclusions:
1. Transporting kids around during the crisis: Kids can still be safely transported from one household to another during the crisis, and it is allowed under the governor’s stay at home order. To reduce anxiety, stick to a routine as much as possible and recognize that staying connected is a child’s first line of defense in any trauma and is therefore an essential key to your child’s mental health. Remember from the kid’s point of view, both households are “home” and both parents and stepparents are “family.” Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Washington state’s Governor Inslee, said the governor's order should not impact parenting plans at all. Parents should continue to drop off and pick up their children as usual. "People are allowed to leave their homes but are encouraged to limit travel," he said. Any disputes between parents over legally-binding parenting agreements should be handled in the usual way, in accordance with existing state laws (see article here).
2. Changes to the regular parenting plan: There are legitimate reasons to change the parenting plan, so keep an open mind, be willing to discuss options and be flexible. For example, if one or more of the child’s regular caregivers have been exposed to the virus, or work in a profession that is at high risk for exposure, then social distancing is a must and contact may be handled by Zoom, Skype, Facetime or whatever digital connection works for you.
3. Create and facilitate a “Parenting Coalition”: Set up a conference call with all the caregivers (parents, step-parents, grandparents, etc.) and discuss what has changed in each household and what is being done to protect every person in that household, then allow everyone (yes, even step-parents) to voice their concerns and offer suggestions to prioritize the health and safety of the kids. For example, if a caregiver’s work schedule has increased or decreased, or if working from home requires isolation, they may have more or less open time to assume caretaking responsibilities. Keep in mind that empathy and teamwork are keys to success, and that it presents a teachable moment for modeling how a family comes together to tackle a crisis.
4. If school is out for the rest of the school year, when does the parenting plan switch to its summer schedule? The parenting plan does not automatically change, but parents can agree on temporary changes to accommodate new work schedules, to avoid health risks and to promote continued learning opportunities. At this time, most schools do expect learning to continue and the schools are providing numerous online resources. If one parent tells kids they don’t have to do any homework and the other has them on an all-day schedule, either parent can be directed to the school’s website for expert direction on what is required.
5. Handling conflict: First, remember that parenting is not a competitive sport. Second, recognize that conflict is toxic and reduces the immune system. Third, find agreement. Refocus to fighting for keeping our kids safe, not fighting about parent’s rights. Fourth, keep in mind that this crisis is time limited so some issues can be postponed such as lost residential time that can be made up later. Fifth, use your medical provider when necessary to obtain and share expert medical advice to follow proper health protocols during the crisis. Expert opinions may be more persuasive to the other parent than your demands or arguments.
6. Focus on the Future: Don’t turn this pandemic into a traumatic childhood experience. Think about how you want your children to remember this crisis and act in a way that teaches them healthy lifestyle choices, empathy for others at risk or suffering, what governments do to help their citizens, what they can do to help their families, neighbors or communities, how creative and productive they can be to fill up free time, how and how everyone can work together and be supportive. Think about how action you take during this crisis will impact their future. Remember that sometimes a crisis can be the opportunity to make needed changes and can shift conflicting ex-spouses into productive co-parents. If you do end up in court later, think about how your actions could be viewed later by a Judge.
7. How to tell kids what is going on. To reduce anxiety, parents need to discuss the crisis with their kids, and allow them to react; express their feelings and get answers to their questions. Start by asking what they already know, then correct any misconceptions. Give as many facts as you have, but don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know”, especially when the experts agree that precise predictions are unknown. Explain why things have changed, like cancellation of events or closing of favorite parks. Empathize when they are having feelings about not being able to visit their friends or go to school or to a sports practice or their favorite activity. Be prepared that they won’t like your explanations and recognize that it will take time for them to process such huge life changes. Emphasize that the crisis is time limited and things will return to normal. Speak calmly (channel your best Mr. Rogers), and talk about all the people helping to address the crisis in your community.
8. Pay attention to the mental wellness of your kids: Get them engaged by brainstorming ideas for helping neighbors by putting together a care package for elderly neighbors, or offering to pick up their groceries, or creating thank you notes for first responders. Understand the age of your child makes a difference in how they will perceive and weather this crisis. For the youngest children, it may be about games and activities to occupy them and seeking fun ways to reinforce good habits like this fun handwashing video by a teacher that went viral.
For older children and teens who are more connected to their peers, try to keep them in a learning mindset, have them help with family chores. With so much time on their hands you may see an increase in screen time, but many mental health experts are advising not overly limit social media as they need those connections for their mental well-being, just keep an eye on whether their screen time is having a positive influence. Read the guidance put out for parents, teachers, and children here
9. Survival tips for working from home and keeping your kids under control: First, don’t forget to take care of yourself; get a good night’s sleep, get exercise using YouTube yoga classes, practice mindfulness by meditating and/or listening to calming music. Recognize that your kid’s misbehavior may be related to grieving the loss of their routine and sorting out conflicting feelings (such as I hate school, but I miss school). Check out pyschologist Dr. Lisa Damour's article on Strategies for Parenting in Close Quarters.
Be flexible, have reasonable expectations, don’t struggle to stick to an exact schedule, give up striving for perfection and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Practice good nutrition and limit time watching the news about the crisis. Create opportunities to laugh by playing games, watching funny movies or TV shows together, and finding funny videos to share. If you are working from home, make sure to communicate your boundaries but build in family break time where you can all enjoy making a snack or playing with the family dog together.
10. Prioritize: First, be good parents. Second, follow the parenting plan. Third, reach out, ask what they need and how you can help. Fourth, address what you need and take care of yourself.
The family law lawyers at Molly B. Kenny, LLC, hope that all families are focused on keeping safe and healthy during this crisis. We know that this crisis is time limited and we look forward to being fully available to you to address your legal needs in the near future. Contact us if you have any questions or require immediate assistance call (425) 460-0550 or reach out to us online.