Parenting and Co-Parenting in the time of COVID-19

From cancelled extra-curricular activities for kids to managing at-home learning (often while working from home), parents are facing new and unprecedented challenges during the time of COVID-19. Inspired by my recent appearances on BMORE Lifestyle (Fox 45 Baltimore), here are some tips for parenting during these challenging times. Part 2 of this article deals specifically with the additional challenges for parents of children who move between two households (where parents share custody).

Part One: How to make the most of parenting during COVID – this time has presented seemingly insurmountable challenges to many families including financial hardship, heightened anxiety and depression, hunger, illness and loss. Nothing I say here will diminish the seriousness of many of these realities and if you are experiencing challenges with mental illness, hunger, domestic violence or any other safety issue, you should seek assistance from police or other community resources right away. For those of us who are safe, but still struggling with new challenges posed by this time, here are some thoughts about how to thrive during this time of crisis.

  • Adjust Your Expectations – back in March, many of us believed we might be required to live differently for a matter of weeks – maybe a few months at most (like an extended hurricane or blizzard), then things would go back to “normal.” We have since recognized that we may never return to the pre-pandemic version of “normal” or if we do, that time may still be many months (or longer) away. Simply “holding your breath” and waiting to re-emerge is probably setting yourself up for failure. Assume we’re in this for the long haul, and plan accordingly. It’s a marathon not a sprint (as they say), so make sure you are managing your own expectations as well as those of your children.
  • Take Advantage of the Unique Benefits of COVID – While the pandemic presents many challenges, there are also opportunities: opportunities to spend more quality time together as a family, opportunities to work on time-consuming projects (building a tree house), opportunities for more down-time (reading books or doing puzzles with your child, cooking together) rather than racing from birthday parties to soccer practice. We may never again in life have such “forced togetherness” with our immediate family – make it special.
  • Break Up the Monotony by Thinking of Time in Units. In the coming months, we have Halloween, Thanksgiving, Winter Break (Christmas, Hanukkah), but “units” of time can be marked by other events: getting to see grandparents or cousins, a weekend camping trip, a day-trip to the pumpkin patch. Try to think and plan time in small units, so that your kids have something to focus on and look forward to. Even though we may not be able to celebrate holidays as we once did, make an alternative plan and get excited about it (we’re going to my parents’ house for a family-only “Halloween Party” with spooky-foods and candy, instead of trick-or-treating this year). Once the event is over, move onto the next theme/unit (in November, we’re trying to focus on “gratitude” in our house). This can help keep things fresh and exciting for everyone.
  • Encourage Kids to Find Creative Solutions (& Remember: they’re resilient). If your kids are focusing on what they can’t do (see friends, play flag-football, take that trip to Florida, Trick-or-Treat) encourage them to come up with their own ideas about what might make the day/event/month different, special, and memorable for them. Finding a way to accommodate their creative ideas (within reason) will foster a feeling of solidarity and enthusiasm. Remember that one of the most important lessons we can teach our children is resilience in the face of inevitable challenges: this time presents a great opportunity to practice those skills.
  • No Wrong Answers – often it feels like there are no “right” answers in this COVID world. Either I keep my children home (and they miss out on the benefits of in-person learning) or I send them to school and risk possible exposure/infection. The good news is, there are no “wrong” answers either. You need to make choices for your own family (in light of your unique circumstances) that make you feel comfortable – then own those choices and make the best of them.
  • Take a Break – when we are surrounded by overwhelming (and often depressing) news about the death-toll or the divisive political climate, it is tempting to bury our head beneath the pillow or burst into tears. When the news (or social media) gets overwhelming, turn it off and take a walk. Children’s worlds tend to be much “smaller” – less affected by news and politics – ask what your child is thinking about (in my case it’s often more about space or dinosaurs than COVID). Engaging with my son on this level often reminds me to put the news of the day into perspective
  • Keep Your Sense of Humor & Cut Yourself (and Your Kids) Some Slack – Despite difficult and concerning news (and a lot of heightened anxiety in both adults and children), it’s ok (and necessary) to laugh during this time too.
  • Seek Help When/if You Need It – The National Alliance on Mental Health has a 24-hour helpline (800)950-6264. The relapse and overdose rate has increased by 30% since March and there are increases in domestic violence and mental health challenges (depression, anxiety and other mental health issues) as well. National and Local resources are available and most providers are offering virtual or telephonic sessions. Please reach out if and when you (or your children) need assistance.

Part Two: Challenges and Solutions for Co-parenting during the time of COVID – as challenging as this year has been for ALL parents, it has been especially hard for those parents who are co-parenting a child between two households (namely divorced or separated parents who share custody of their children). Separation is often predated by deep philosophical disagreements and sometimes an already contentious relationship. Now is the time to set those animosities aside to reach certain agreements on behalf of your child. Because of Court Delays and the quickly-evolving nature of the science and medicine related to COVID (as well as local and state policies) it will be difficult to have any Court timely resolve disagreements between co-parents on these issues, so it is important to try to work with the other co-parent to determine a unified approach. If you are unable to resolve issues between the two of you, you may want to consider mediation or seeking advice of a family law attorney to consider your options. Here are a few suggestions for reaching agreement:

Be Open to Compromise – You and your child’s other parent may have fundamental disagreements on parenting issues or with respect to COVID, but it is important to reach a compromise so you can adopt a consistent approach on behalf of your children. Each household will have its own risk factors. Generally, you will need to adopt guidelines or agreements that address the risk factors of the more sensitive household, in order to keep both households safe. Remember that your behavior both when you have your child and when you do not will affect the health and safety of your child and the other household, so it is important to be respectful and empathetic. Lives may depend on it.
Reach Agreement – You do not need to “reinvent the wheel” in order to reach important agreements with your co-parent. Often I have recommended clients adopt language stating that both parents will follow CDC and Maryland Department of Health guidelines as well as orders by the MD Governor’s office (and any orders specific to the County where they reside) regarding COVID safety, travel, testing, etc. Make sure you address travelling with the child, testing when parents return from travel (even without the child), participation in extra-curricular activities (worship services, sports, dance, etc.) and schooling (virtual, hybrid, etc.) and work-related childcare.
Provide Consistency – it is widely accepted among child psychologists as well as Courts that a consistent approach between households is best for children. It provides them with some level of comfort and security, and lessens confusion and anxiety. If you recognize an inconsistency, speak to the other co-parent about it and try to reach a compromise.
Be Transparent – If and when problems or complications arise (exposure to COVID in one household, etc.) it is important to be transparent with the other parent, and for the other parent to be flexible in making the necessary changes – for example, keeping the child for extra time while someone in the other household is sick, perhaps offering “make up” time once the illness passes, etc. This time will require honesty, openness and working together. If/when the other co-parent tells you he/she has exposure or illness in their household – RESIST THE URGE to express frustration or judgment (“well, if you hadn’t been so careless…”). Even if you are right, it won’t help. You will be serving your child better by showing empathy, flexibility and support.
Remain Flexible and Adapt When Necessary – No choice during this time is static. Circumstances change in schools and in communities on a daily basis and therefore, your COVID plan may need to change as well. Adopting the general language (to follow CDC, Maryland Department of Health, State and County guidelines) will help both households to adapt when appropriate – as these are updated regularly, but also make sure to keep the conversation going. Once there has been any significant change that requires discussion, consider forwarding the alert/e-mail to the other co-parent and asking them to set aside a time to talk (away from the children) during the upcoming days (once everyone has had some time to digest the information).
Make sure Health Insurance is Covered – as many families are experiencing layoffs or furloughs from employment and other economic changes, it is important to discuss whether your child’s health insurance remains covered during this time. This was likely part of your initial custody or child support agreement, but make updates and changes as necessary in light of any employment changes. If you’re not sure how changes may impact health insurance (if it’s covered by the other co-parent for example) – make sure to ask!

These are incredibly difficult times where many families face very real and serious challenges. Nothing here is meant to undermine or ignore this reality or paint an overly-rosy view of our ability to change some negative external forces (that are likely to be with us for quite some time). Many find it helpful to focus on the things we can control such as some of the suggestions here. When and if you feel like you are in over your head, seek professional help (mental health professional, social worker, attorney) as needed. Hang in there!