Co-parenting is rarely easy but making joint custody work during a pandemic has been particularly challenging for parents around the world. With children home from school and daily routines disrupted, many families are facing changes and challenges to critical co-parenting issues including those related to their children’s health, medical needs, education and finances. While perhaps more challenging than ever, successfully allowing both parents to play an active role in their children’s daily lives provides essential stability and security.
1. Aim for Consistency
During COVID-19, as always, maintaining similar schedules, rules and rewards between households helps children know what to expect and what is expected of them. Choosing consistent mealtime, bedtime and homework and chore routines helps create a sense of predictability for children. During this time, co-parents should also aim for consistency on coronavirus-related issues including handwashing, facemask-wearing, social distancing and how they intend to speak about COVID-19 with their children.
Any conversations needed to decide on these, or other expectations should be between parents, and not conducted in front of children. One way many co-parents have successfully started conversations on their coronavirus co-parenting plan, is by having each parent submit a COVID-19 safety proposal to each other, without having seen the other’s first, to see if there are any areas of agreement. Then, they may choose to follow up with each other on a neutral date and through neutral method of communication, like e-mail or text, to discuss and compromise on other areas.
2. Express Forgiveness and Gratitude
Given the stress of recent events, granting your co-parent some additional forgiveness and gratitude can be mutually beneficial as you both navigate the changing COVID-19 landscape together. We are all experiencing heightened levels of uncertainty and facing unique disruptions to our daily lives. While stability and consistency are key for children, it is also important to demonstrate flexibility. When plans need to change, be gracious, understanding and mindful of how you would have liked to have been treated. While neither parent should take advantage of this time to modify issues that do not need to be modified, many co-parents whose work schedules have changed are temporarily renegotiating their parenting arrangements in ways that are better for their children. For those rearranging their co-parenting schedules in response to COVID-19, getting the new agreements in writing, with end dates or a set of ending terms, can be helpful.
If parenting responsibilities are more evenly split than they had been before the coronavirus, then the primary care provider may consider taking some time to teach their fellow co-parent any important routines that they may not be as familiar with, like their children’s preferred daily schedule, favorite snack foods, or the way they like to get dressed in the morning. Alternatively, if children are spending more time in one home due to COVID-19 than they had been before, the non-primary caregiver may consider expressing gratitude or even offering to do their co-parent a favor for taking on additional parenting responsibility. Children may also be encouraged to spend more time communicating with the lesser-seen parent via telephone or videoconferencing to share updates, maintain closeness and even show off any recent accomplishments, including school projects or artwork.
3. Consider Transitions
The movement from one home to another, whether families follow their same pre-COVID-19 routine or a modified version, can be a challenging process for children. While transitions are unavoidable, there are several ways to help make them easier for your family. One helpful strategy is to remind children in advance that they will be switching homes so that they can anticipate the change, pack ahead of time and avoid leaving anything behind. Dropping off instead of picking up children can also be helpful to avoid the sense of being “taken” from the other parent.
It is important to remember that this is a stressful time for everyone, including children, so increased communication between co-parents is key. Prompt, peaceful and purposeful communication should be used during transitions to help monitor child wellbeing. Some families have found it helpful to create a kid-focused form email with fixed categories or questions that co-parents are responsible for completing whenever their children switch houses. By doing so, co-parents can facilitate a smoother transition while monitoring any changes to sleeping patterns, eating habits or emotionality. To make transitions easier for children, co-parents may also consider designating a transitional object, like a pet, a toy or even a symbolic coronavirus shield, that may move back and forth across households with the children.
4. Foster Feelings of Togetherness
Often, co-parents have worked incredibly hard to become a collaborative team for the sake of their children. Now, more than ever, it is important to highlight that togetherness and foster a sense of security. To promote understanding and emotional connection, co-parents can commit to positive talk around their respective homes. By sharing positive thoughts and experiences as a family, it serves to elevate everyone’s mood and foster a sense of being on the same team.
Co-parents can also boost feelings of togetherness by encouraging their children to use platforms like FaceTime and Skype to stay in frequent contact with their other parent as well as extended family and friends. For children who switch homes, families could even consider starting a fun task, like an engineering or art project, that travels with the children between homes. When both co-parents are able to help and contribute to a traveling project, it makes everyone feel like you are part of one big team.
5. Brainstorm Ways to Break Routine
Families may be staying at home during COVID-19, but they do not have to be bored. Brainstorming ways for children to creatively celebrate holidays or participate in fun seasonal activities, even if they will be with the other parent, fights boredom and fosters feelings of togetherness. Consider remotely watching baby animals via the San Diego Zoo’s livestream, enjoying a picnic in your own backyard, cooking festive spring dishes, camping in your living room, chalking your driveway with positive messages, setting up a mini golf course at home or helping your children brainstorm ways to meaningfully and safely celebrate Mother’s or Father’s Day.
If your co-parenting arrangements have changed or you are unexpectedly spending more time at home without your children, consider using this additional time in a way that feels productive for you. There are limitless ways to engage in creative and wellness-promoting outlets from home. Some co-parents are even using this time to work with a telehealth therapist and focus on any inner work that may help them be the best co-parent they can be. Others are using this time to recharge, immerse themselves in new things, or simply enjoy spending some time alone.