How to Co-parent During the Coronavirus Pandemic Without Losing Your Mind

But if you lose it here and there, we aren’t going to judge (we’ve all been there!)

5 months and counting. Ahhh, life during a pandemic. The coronavirus has really shaken up the way we live, work, travel, shop, socialize, and educate. Just when we thought we had started to adjust to this new “normal,” something else comes up — like the decision made by many school districts across the country to not open schools for in-person classes this fall.  In late July, for instance, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported that more than half of the state’s counties have infection and hospitalization rates that are too high to be safe for kids to return to school. So, many school districts will offer distance learning instead. Some cities are offering flexible models while others are 100% remote. And some… just can’t make a decision at all. 

Let’s face it. This isn’t an ideal situation for anyone — kids, teachers, or parents. We all know school is critical to children’s mental, physical, and emotional development. Parents are worried — and rightly so — that their kids aren’t going to get the full educational experience in an online environment. They’re also anxious and uncertain about their role in their child’s education. Are they supposed to take on the role of teacher? How are they going to do that while doing their own jobs if they’re also working from home? And what about people who rely on school for their childcare? How are they supposed to provide for their families if they can no longer go out and work?

It’s no wonder parents are freaking out a bit (justifiably so!). And for parents who are co-parenting their children with former partners, distance learning adds another layer of complexity. How do they create a consistent schooling experience for their kids as they alternate between households?

Renegotiating Your Parenting Plan

Co-parenting can be tricky — pandemic or not. It requires patience, clear communication, and realistic expectations. It also involves a whole lot of compromise and sometimes not getting your way. While your ex may not always be your favorite person in the world, co-parenting the best you can is really for the well-being and healthy development of your children.

You and your ex may have had a solid co-parenting plan in place prior to the pandemic. But because you may deal with the coronavirus crisis differently or have different ideas about education, the two of you may have to revise your current custody or parenting plan. It’s okay if that happens. This is a crazy time for everyone. The key is to create a plan that still allows both parents to have time with the kids but is structured in the best interest of the kids.

 Related: Worksheet – Create a Thoughtful Co-Parenting Plan 

The Online Counseling Program, a platform that partners with universities to offer online counseling programs, put together a resource called Crisis Planning and Counseling for Parents with Shared Custody to help parents come up with a crisis parenting plan. It includes really good questions geared toward helping parents figure out where the kids will stay, childcare, creating support and stability during a crisis, education, and summer plans. Some of the questions they suggest you discuss with your former partner are:

  • How will exchanges continue safely during a crisis? What are potential contingency plans?
  • During a disease outbreak, what is the plan if one parent or a child gets sick and needs to quarantine?
  • Which parent has the most availability to care for and support the children?
  • How do parents’ work schedules affect their availability?
  • How will parents provide support and stability in the children’s education?
  • How will parents handle extended school closings—two weeks, one month, three months?

Working together with your co-parent to answer these questions now could save you from potential disagreements in the future. Plus, it helps you get on the same page, which promotes a sense of stability and balance that your kids desperately need in this wonky world.

Communication Is King

While revising your parenting plan is the goal, sometimes you just might not see eye to eye with your ex. You may have totally different parenting styles, especially when it comes to education and the risks associated with transmission of the virus. For example, you might feel strongly about keeping close to home, wearing masks in all public situations, and restricting your children’s interactions with other kids but your ex is socializing with several different families without taking any precautions. What do you do?

According to Maria Natapov, a certified parent and caregiver coach, the first step is to engage your ex in a conversation (if possible) and walk through the pros and cons of each approach. But you also need to recognize when you’re at an impasse and accept that you might not be able to come to an agreement. Maria says, “It’s best to realize what we have control over and let go of what we do not. We cannot control the actions of other people, so no need to add to our suffering by trying to do that. Never speak ill of the other parent or their choices (even if your kids do it). This will just upset your children and make them resentful of you and make the whole situation more difficult and painful for them. It’s best to just create open communication with your children and explain your position and your perspective on why you are making the choices you are making and let that information speak for itself.”

If your conversations feel unproductive, it might be worth it to share your thoughts via email or an (old-fashioned!) letter. It not only helps you get clear on what’s important to you but also allows you to get out everything you want to say without possibly being interrupted or triggered. It also allows your ex-partner some time and space to digest it without having to respond immediately. But don’t necessarily expect your co-parent to change their mind. Nikki Bruno, a professional coach and founder of The Epic Comeback, says, “All you can do is advocate for your own health and needs and ask for and provide grace. No one is at their best at this time, including your ex.”

And if that doesn’t work? You might consider working with an outside person like a family therapist or coach who can help the two of you understand what might be getting in the way of an agreement.

  Related: How to Keep Your Divorce Conversations Productive

“Practice Radical Acceptance”

For those co-parents who share equal time with the kids, it would be ideal if both parents shared the responsibility of helping kids with school. While splitting the task between two households may seem inconsistent, it can actually benefit kids to experience homework guidance in two different styles. However, schedules vary from family to family and the kids may be spending more time with one parent, due to travel schedules, work obligations, or visitation structure. More of the schooling “burden” may fall on one parent. That can be especially grueling if that parent is also managing their own work schedule. It may simply feel impossible to get done what you need to get done and feel good about the quality. But don’t be so hard on yourself about trying to replicate school at home. Nikki says, “Practice radical acceptance of this messed-up school year. Expect it to be weird, and if things open up again and improve, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Use this time to serve as a role model to your kids of how to make the best of a difficult situation. Encourage your co-parent to do the same.”

It also just might not be working to share this responsibility at all, especially if you have a high-conflict relationship with your ex. In those situations, it’s probably best to avoid forcing a united front because “it requires too much collaboration and subjectivity.” Nikki says. “If you can’t collaborate with your co-parent about most things, day-to-day schooling will NOT be an exception.” It may make more sense to come up with another plan. Maria says, “If sharing the responsibility of distance learning would be detrimental to the child, where the child isn’t getting their needs met or a safe and nurturing learning environment cannot be maintained by one of the parents, then potentially working out another arrangement might be necessary. The right answer is the one that is most beneficial to the child and the one that supports the child’s development and success.”

Creative Structure

It’s widely known that kids (even teenagers) tend to do better with a schedule and a routine. With so much transition and changes in day-to-day life already happening, it’s important for kids to have a reliable schedule. This is especially true for the kids of divorced parents — who may be doing multiple transitions between houses a month. Consistency fosters a sense of security, which in turn leads to feelings of calm — and that is critical during intense periods of change and uncertainty.

Kids will never admit that they need structure (or may not even be aware of the concept) so it’s up to you and your ex to create that for them. Work together to identify the priorities and the “nice to haves” to help you build your daily schedule. Maria says, “The more consistency the kids can be provided with at each parent’s home, the more likely the transitions will be smoother and that children will naturally be able to stick to the established routine.”

Make a schedule but also give yourself a little freedom to be creative. Try and incorporate different activities throughout the day, like pursuing an interest or passion, creative tasks, and physical activity (which kids need in greater degree than adults). Talk to your kids about what they might want to learn and let them be part of the process. Mixing up the day not only increases your chances of keeping them engaged but it supports their overall well-being. While all of this helps to keep your kids’ education on track, you are also creating opportunities for really meaningful connections.

Recognizing what your kids need can alleviate some of the stress of distance learning and social distancing. If you have an extremely extroverted kid who might be struggling with no social outlets, give him or her as much socializing as you can. It’s a tricky environment but know your comfort level. “Find other parents who have a risk tolerance that’s similar to yours,” Nikki says.

And, if things don’t go according to plan? Take charge and go with it. Make the most of the experience and focus on connecting with your kid. Maria actually considers one of these moments a big win: “What it teaches the child is that, yes, sometimes life throws curveballs, and during those times, self-nurturing and letting go, is okay. This is also an important life skill for them to learn and develops great resiliency by reframing the event as an opportunity rather than something negative. This is not to say abandon the initial intention or the thing that you were trying to accomplish that needs attention or resolution, but it does mean that if things aren’t working out: let it go, change direction, get to a better place, and then come back to it and deal with it.”

Ultimately, you may need to also change your definition of what a successful school year looks like. Nikki says, “Rather than trying to re-create a normal school situation, as we are all dying to do, come up with one to three educational goals for your kid and focus on making those happen. For my kindergartener, I want her to learn how to read, so I’m going to make that my goal for the year and consider the year successful if that happens.”

Taking Good Care of You

While you’re focusing most of your time and attention on your kids’ needs, don’t forget to practice a little self-care. It is exhausting to always be the rock for your children. Even though you may feel depleted and like you have zero room for anything else on your plate, it is crucial to your mental and emotional well-being to carve out a little time for yourself each day. It’ll probably make you a better parent (and co-parent). You might also consider getting help from an external resource if you need support.

The Online Counseling Program’s Crisis Planning Guide offers some good advice for parents who are struggling to navigate their own thoughts and emotions around co-parenting and distance learning during this pandemic:

  • Consider individual counseling or marriage and family therapy. Support from a mental health professional can help with managing anxiety or overwhelming emotions. Working these out as an individual can set parents up to better care for their families.
  • Acknowledge the uncertainty. A crisis can throw plans into confusion, and this can be frustrating and discouraging for parents. Simply recognizing this reality can offer some relief.
  • Be graceful with yourself and your kids. Times of crisis are challenging for everyone. Practice having compassion for the varied, sometimes unexpected ways these emotions affect each member of the family.
  • Try not to compare your family to others. Remember that each household’s plan will look different depending on schedules, parental availability, and the kids.
  • Look at small chunks of time. Instead of wondering how to handle the entire school year, try asking: “How do I want this month to look?”

Now is not the time to be self-critical. “Be compassionate with yourself and your children,” Nikki says. “This IS a nightmare with no precedent in this country. Remind yourself that you’re a human going through something hard and complex. I cannot stress this enough.”

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