For separated or divorced families, co-parenting can be stressful even in good times. During the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, families are discovering that previously stable 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 conflicts and creating new ones.
“In a crisis, children and parents alike need a place where they feel safe,” says Anthony Charuvastra, MD, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone and member of its Child Study Center. “For many of us, that place is the family, in all its various configurations. How can divorced, separated, or separating parents address the unique parenting challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic creates?”
In partnership with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s WonderLab, Dr. Charuvastra offers advice for co-parenting during this challenging time.
Working on Your Relationship, Even After You’re Divorced
“Post-divorce parenting falls into three categories: conflicted, parallel, or cooperative,” says Dr. Charuvastra. The majority of divorced parents start out either in a conflicted or parallel mode. Conflicted parenting is where the parents frequently argue with each other, often about parenting or money. Parallel parenting is where parents don’t communicate much, and children live in two disconnected spheres. Cooperative parenting is where parents are flexible, communicate, compromise, and try to create a single parenting world for their kids, even though there are two households.
“Children of divorce do best when parents are flexible with each other under changing circumstances, communicate well with each other about how they are adapting, and work together to solve new, specific challenges,” Dr. Charuvastra says.
This may seem like a tall order for people who are divorced. However, Dr. Charuvastra says that divorced parents often learn how to parent cooperatively during times of crisis. “In the largest study of divorced families, we learned that many parents become cooperative during an emergency. In ‘normal’ times, a crisis like a broken leg or a new diagnosis of a learning disorder would force parents into a cooperative pattern—but the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that all divorced families are now facing together.”
When it comes to parenting, emergencies force us to adjust to an unexpected and sometimes upsetting new set of facts. “Parents often have an easier time setting aside old grudges and patterns when they realize they have to adapt together to some external threat to their child’s wellbeing,” Dr. Charuvastra adds.
Coping with Anxiety When Your Child Isn’t with You
“Shared custody means your child is outside your sphere of influence some of the time, and this is a source of anxiety for many divorced parents,” Dr. Charuvastra says. Concerns about contagion and illness in the COVID-19 pandemic can amplify this anxiety enormously. Increasing communication with your ex-partner can be an antidote to this anxiety.
“It can be helpful to make a list of all things you are worried about for your child, and share this list with your ex, either in an email or over the phone,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “Can you imagine listening to or reading your ex’s list of worries? Now is a good time to try to see your ex in a new light, as someone you need to collaborate with in order to get through this crisis, at least for the sake of your child.”
The goal isn’t to become emotionally close to your ex again, he says, but to understand each other in order to make needed adjustments to how you are co-parenting and organizing joint custody or visitation.
Managing Disruptions to Visitation Schedules
With the shelter-in-place orders that many of us are living with, it may be harder or impossible to adhere to usual visitation 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, a bigger yard, or a private room—or one parent may be more able to provide the daily supervision that is now required since school and other activities are cancelled.
In other families, one parent may be an essential worker and therefore more at risk of getting sick or exposing their children to COVID-19. Some kids may also rely on public transportation to get from home to home.
“These are all potential reasons to renegotiate custody and visitation schedules,” Dr. Charuvastra says. At the same time, parents feel even more protective of their kids during times of crisis, and thus the idea of seeing your child less may seem particularly upsetting. “We encourage parents to try their best to ask ‘what is best for my child in this particular situation,’ and if your child is old enough, it may be good to actually ask them what they think,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “Remember that if you can adjust visitation to adapt to the current crisis, you can adjust it again when the crisis passes.”
Agreeing on What Counts as Risky Behavior
Parents, whether they are divorced or still married, often disagree about what counts as risky behavior on issues ranging from bike helmets to screen time to curfews to diets to dating.
“The difference in the COVID-19 pandemic is that there is very clear guidance, from both experts and the authorities,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “This is a time to put aside past disagreements and try to agree to work together to do what we are all being asked to do: limit social contact to immediate family, avoid unnecessary excursions, and when you are outside, maintain a 6-foot distance from others.”
It can be helpful to remind yourself, or your ex, that in an emergency, the best thing is to follow the emergency directions from the people we trust to guide us to safety—in this case, doctors, scientists, and our elected leaders.
Managing Your Child’s Screen Time
Experts have long debated what constitutes a “healthy” amount of screen time for kids, but there is no scientific consensus. “During this pandemic, our screens can be lifesaving, both literally and figuratively,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “Most of us now use our screens to avoid exposure to COVID-19, whether it is visiting your doctor virtually, or working or learning remotely.”
And for parents now working at home with kids who are cut off from all their usual social activities, screens offer kids “a vital way to stay in touch with the non-resident parent,” Dr. Charuvastra adds. “Letting your child know that they can always reach out to your ex through a phone call or FaceTime is an important way to provide a sense of safety and stability.”
Advice for Parents on the Verge of Divorce
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents may have been on the verge of separation and divorce, but either haven’t told their kids or were getting ready to move out. These parents are now in the unique situation of being confined with a person they were actively trying to separate from.
There are three things parents can to do in this situation, Dr. Charuvastra says.
Create Routine in Your Home, with an Emphasis on Staying Out of Each Other’s Way
Try your best to have clear expectations of the who, what, when, and how all daily tasks are taken care of. Having a routine that minimizes miscommunication and gives you each enough space will also help you with the most important thing: keeping your children from seeing you argue.
Shield Your Kids from Conflict
“Parents in the midst of separation and divorce, but who are still cohabiting, often have intense anger and resentment,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “It’s hard to avoid arguing—if you do argue, try your best to do it in a way where you kids can’t see it, and can’t hear it. If you’re in a house, have your arguments in the basement, or the garage, or the back yard.”
If you’re in an apartment, this might be where you let your kids watch TV with headphones on, or if your kids are old enough, you can leave them home while you walk around the block to hash things out. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Many arguments can probably be avoided by paying attention to routines and expectations during domestic confinement,” Dr. Charuvastra adds.
For many people getting divorced, there is an intense urgency to get on with life. Like teenagers leaving for college, there is tremendous hope about getting to make a fresh start at living your best life.
“In this situation, the great interruption in life caused by the pandemic is particularly hard to accept,” Dr. Charuvastra says. “Try to remind yourself that as bad as this crisis is, regular life will resume at some point, and you will get back on track with making necessary and important life changes.”
Additional Resources for Parents
The Child Study Center hosts educational webinars throughout the year. In its recent webinar, Divorce, Co-Parenting, and COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities, Dr. Charuvastra offers advice for divorced or separated parents who are facing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch here.
Additional resources on co-parenting after divorce and improving communication in crisis include the following:
- Divorce Magazine: Successful Co-Parenting Communication After Divorce
- HelpGuide: Co-Parenting Tips for Divorced Parents
- The Washington Post: In Lockdown with Your Partner? Here’s How Healthy Couples Survive
- University of Florida: Healthy Co-Parenting After Divorce