By Ron Deal, Contributor
Here are 10 ways to pursue greater cooperation in ensuring the health of children – and parents – during the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Don’t make unilateral decisions. Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures, but if you make unilateral decisions, the other parent may use it against you once the crisis passes. Co-parenting, by definition, is a two-person process.
2. Be flexible with visitation. Cooperate. Set aside the pain and resentment you carry from the past and find a way to do what’s best for your kids. Ask yourself, what would I recommend to two friends who were trying to work this out?
3. Make physical safety for everyone the prevailing principle.
- If still switching homes, manage exposure for everyone’s sake. Remember, everyone’s connected. If you’re not comfortable with decisions the other home is making, you may not want part-time kids coming to your house exposing you and other children.
- Explain such difficult decisions by leading with your heart. “Because I love and care for you and everyone here, I’m asking you to stay at your dad’s house for now. You’re too important for me to risk you getting sick.”
- Let the experts define what safe is. Agree to follow the CDC guidelines and to err on the side of caution. Be conservative. It's better to be safe than sorry.
4. Remember these negotiation tips. And use them during what is bound to be multiple conversations over time about how to manage The crisis.
- Open with an invitation, not a demand. As I say in my book “The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning” (with Greg Pettys and David Edwards), demands create control issues, while invitations foster collaborative conversations. Instead of saying, “I’ve decided the kids are not coming back to your house,” open with, “I’m growing increasingly concerned about the health of the kids and everyone in both our homes. I’d like us to talk about this today.”
- Open with a question. “I’m wondering if you’ve thought about how to best apply the CDC guidelines to our situation?” Let them share first, then outline how you feel. Work toward common ground, and build on that.
- Assuming you can come to an agreement, communicate with your children. If what you’re sharing will be tough to hear, talk to your kids together (perhaps via video conferencing) because children are more apt to go along with it if they see parental unity.
- If you reach a rough spot, recalibrate your attitude. Remember this is not about you but the well-being of your children. Then brainstorm new alternatives. If that doesn’t work, bring in a third party. Video conference with a mediator, family therapist, pastor, or parenting coordinator.
- Don’t put your child into the middle of negotiations. And don’t use your child as a messenger or spy. This is parent business.
5. If you make a temporary change, document, document, document. Even mutual decisions need documentation in case questions arise later. One of you should send an email or text to the other with the agreed upon adjustments and the other should reply, “Agreed.” It may not be a legal document, but it shows mutual consent. Also, document attempts to contact the other or why you weren’t available to discuss something.
6. Don’t complicate the process by trying to change other things. One mother’s former husband said, “You don’t need as much child support right now because you’re not getting out of the house.” Bad idea. This, or the opposite, “We need more,” add antagonism and distrust to the co-parenting climate. By the way, financial realities – like one parent losing their job – will require sacrifice by both households. Sharing resources – and the burden of loss – brings resilience to children’s lives.
7. Use technology to stay connected. Make the best of it. Your attitude helps reassure kids and lead them through not being together. For biological parents who aren’t getting any time with their children or are missing special days or developmental moments with children:
•Recognize that you are grieving, but don’t let that turn into resentment or anger. That will sabotage cooperation.
• Communicate to children a plan to have a “delayed celebration” when social distancing guidelines are lifted.
8. Seek an emergency order if needed. This may be done if serious safety concerns exist and you believe the other home is being negligent. Just know that most courts are currently closed (court should be a last resort anyway), and choose your battles carefully and count the cost first. This could lead to financially expensive court battles and co-parenting conflicts for years to come. A child’s well-being is absolutely worth it. Just be sure you’re prepared for what might follow.
9. Don’t use the pandemic as legal leverage. Don’t take advantage of COVID-19 to make a legal power move on the other home that you’ve been planning to pursue. That’s a low-blow during a time of crisis and may cause legal blowback for you later. In the past, military servicemen and women have been ambushed while on deployment by a former spouse who sued for a custody change when the other parent was not available to present their side. Rule changes have made that unlikely now in the military, but the same thing is happening to medical personnel on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.
10.Know that, legally, lost time may be made up after COVID-19. So if you are getting extra time with the kids now, remember the Golden Rule: Have the gracious attitude you want the other parent to have with you later. Lockdown may not be absolute when kids move between homes, but for the sake of everyone involved, safe exchanges between homes can be negotiated and honored. Co- parents have a strange opportunity here: having a common enemy makes for interesting alliances. Given that both households –not to mention the entire world – are in the same COVID-19 foxhole together, strive to rise above the co-parenting patterns of the past and let this crisis transform your relationship. During this season, new relational patterns will be established. Kind attitudes will not be forgotten. And gracious actions may renovate bitter hearts.