Family Therapy: Coparenting During the Coronavirus
It’s stressful enough when the governor declares a stay-at-home order. It causes exponentially more stress when your first question regarding the kids is, “Which home?”
Coparenting is already complicated, but factoring viruses into every parenting decision makes it even trickier. I’m not an attorney: I’m an independently licensed social worker with 13 years of experience working with children, families and coparents often at odds with each other, so these tips don’t overrule your negotiated or court-ordered parenting agreements. But they might make things easier on the kids, on your ex and on you.
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First, it helps to think of your ex as a parenting partner. It seems like a small thing, but labels color the way we see someone. An “ex” is someone you might be happy never to see again; a “parenting partner” is someone who also loves your children and wants them to be as healthy and happy as you do.
Which house? Where will the kids ride out the crisis? Will they keep going back and forth as usual, or do you need to adjust the schedule? Your parenting agreement spells out who has the kids on Tuesdays, alternate weekends and holidays, but no parenting agreement has a pandemic clause. Use the schedule as a guide—predictability and routine are still important for children—but you also need flexibility. For example, if one of you still works with the public and the other is working from home, you might factor that into the parenting schedule.
If a parent loses time with the children during this crisis, offer it back when things return to normal. Don’t punish a parent who’s an essential worker by making them lose time with the kids that they’ll never recoup.
Let the kids communicate with your parenting partner whenever they like. Yes, this will feel like an invasion of your parenting time, but kids need both parents and they worry about both of you. It’s not a slight against you when they want to check in with the other parent. In fact, having access to each of you makes them feel more secure in a stressful time.
Now more than ever, don’t put children in the middle. Don’t say negative things about your parenting partner to the kids or in front of them, and don’t send messages through them to each other no matter how often they Zoom. The kids are already stressed by the threat of getting sick or possibly losing someone they care about (not to mention being upset because they can’t go to practice or hang out with their friends). Putting them in the middle of an argument just adds extra stress when they’re trying to make sense of the new world around them.
Recognize that the kids aren’t the only ones thrown off. You’re likely carrying more stress, too, which means you might not be your best self when dealing with your parenting partner. Slow down, take deep breaths and don’t say (or text, email or send smoke signals) about anything when you’re worked up.
Take care of yourself. This sounds simple, but we often forget this while focused on taking care of everyone else. Make sure you still have some time for yourself. Get outside every day if you can. Exercise. Keep a steady sleep schedule. Eat healthy (with an occasional splurge for fun). It’s easier to be patient with someone else when you’re taking care of yourself.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or isolated, reach out to others. Video-chat with your friends and family (and maybe buy stock in Zoom). Check in with your co-workers. If that’s not enough, find an online parenting support group to share frustrations and successes. And if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, reach out to an online therapist. (Most of my practice has been online since last year, but right now, most therapists have an online presence.)
Recognize that your parenting partner is under extra pressure, too. They’ll be better parents and caregivers (and easier to work with as a coparent) when they’re not overwhelmed, so try not to add to their stress. That pays off in less stress for you and the kids in the long run.
If you need help with the kids, ask each other first (assuming there’s no health reason why your parenting partner can’t help). Bonus time with either of you will help them deal with the disruption in their daily lives.
Finally, these are tough times for everyone. Be gentle with your parenting partner; they’re trying to do the best they can. Be gentle with your kids; they’re doing the best they can. And be gentle with yourself when you feel inadequate or angry or simply not up to the task. You’re doing the best you can, too.
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.