By Rosemarie Ferrante with Tips by Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez
Nothing makes parents more anxious than threats of any kind to our children’s health and well-being. The Coronavirus pandemic has created a heightened level of concern, on so many different levels, for parents. Communities are closing schools. Daycares are shutting down. Extracurricular activities are canceled. Parent’s work schedules are in flux. Co-parenting through the Coronavirus pandemic, in such uncertain times, is not for the faint of heart.
Parenting plans that worked a few shorts weeks ago may need tweaking. If you mediated your parenting plan, your agreement likely contains language stating that “a reasonable and flexible access schedule between both parties and the child serve the child’s best interests, and as such the parties intend the plan to provide a flexible framework which may be adjusted, upon mutual agreement, to meet specific needs and circumstances.” Co-parents who have a healthy co-parenting relationship likely are able to agree upon changes that make sense for the family during this uncertain time.
But what if you can’t? What if the kids being home from school make it so the parenting plan you’ve had no longer works and you both have different ideas as to how it should change. For example,
- What if you don’t have child care and no ability to work from home?
- What if you both work from home and need uninterrupted time to complete your job assignments?
- What if you disagree as to how serious the situation is and one household follows one set of rules (social distancing, hand washing) and the other does not.
- What if the two households are in different communities with different responses to the pandemic or the households are at such a distance that the travel bans impact the parenting plan schedule?
- What happens if your child contracts the virus? What happens if you or your former spouse contact the virus? What is the plan?
Now, more than ever, parents need to have meaningful, respectful co-parenting communication focused solely on the best interests of their children. An evaluation of the potential issues this pandemic may raise for your family is necessary. Better to be proactive and have a discussion now so that your expectations and those of co-parent are aligned.
What steps should we take to properly co-parent during coronavirus?
Your parenting plan may have a built-in framework for working towards an amicable resolution of any modifications, such as an agreement that you will meet in person, and attempt to reach a decision that is in the best interests of the child or children. Some agreements further provide that you will consider the wishes of the child (taking into account the age and maturity of the child) and then, if still not in agreement, jointly consult with a professional in the area of disagreement and consider his or her recommendation. Usually, most agreements will provide that these steps will be taken prior to either party seeking judicial intervention.
Many parenting plans state that in the event the parties cannot agree on any parenting issue, even after face to face discussion for the purpose of trying to resolve it themselves, that upon either party’s request they shall meet with a neutral mediator, mental health professional or co-parenting counselor and attend at least one or two sessions before seeking judicial intervention. There is usually a provision regarding how such sessions shall be paid for. Make sure you go back to your agreement to see what you and your former spouse agreed upon and follow that framework.
Tips for Healthy Communication While Co-Parenting Through Coronavirus:
- Lessen your reactivity/triggering – although you may have tried this in the past and feel like you may have failed, there is no better time than now to re-commit to non-adversarial communication with your co-parent. Your immune system needs you to calm your central nervous system, as elevated stress levels cause inflammation, which lowers immunity.
- Consider sharing positive pics with your co-parent of your child out in nature, especially as we are getting new signs of spring every day. If this isn’t something that you can manage, encourage your child to share pics more regularly with their co-parent. Receiving pics when your child is with their co-parent can lessen feelings of isolation during this social distancing time.
- Don’t contact your co-parent when you are feeling overly stressed. Right now, most of us have stress, no one is immune to this not affecting them in some way. Make it a policy to try and communicate with your co-parent after you have used your self-calming tools. For a quick boost before contacting your co-parent, try CALM or Headspace Apps, these mindfulness Apps are a great way to lower heart rate and blood pressure which is essential in lowering stress. Examples of other mindfulness tools include getting out in nature, music, listening to comedy, journaling, etc. Don’t forget about food and alcohol choices during this time, lessening or skipping sugar and alcohol at this time is probably for the best, as our microbiome in our gut is considered our “second brain”.
- For co-parents who attend individual therapy, take advantage of your sessions during the Coronavirus pandemic as many therapists are switching to a video format for a few weeks. If it’s tricky to find a quiet place in the house to talk, you can do it in your car in the driveway, and sessions can also be shorter to accommodate. If you don’t have a therapist, this is a perfect time to find one and get started.
- Talk to your support system – explain to your friend and family that you are putting your best foot forward with your co-parent and that you will do your part to keep things positive. Committing in this way gives them the cue not to bring up negative things about your co-parent which can re-trigger you.
- “Fake it till you make it”– we all know this saying, let’s adjust it to, “keep trying as an act of self-compassion”. Self-compassion is reducing your own suffering. Some of you may have a co-parent that at every turn is adversarial with you, listen to the following video as often as you need to in order to prepare yourself to deal with something you can’t change, you can only change how you react to it.
- BIFF: Remember to keep communication BIFF, Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. Respond, don’t react.
- Co-parenting apps: particularly in situations where communication is difficult, apps such as FAYR will help you create a better co-parenting experience by providing tools for: constructive communication, argument diffusion, and emotional support.
- Keep re-centering. Ask yourself, what are you grateful for during this time? This is a question that we would like you to answer throughout each day because it will bring you a measure of peace and flood your body with positive and stabilizing hormones.
If you are still unable to come to an agreement together, what are your options?
Given the Coronavirus pandemic, you will likely not have access to the Court system. In Connecticut, the courts will schedule and hear only those matters identified as “Priority 1 Business Functions.” Very few matters fall into this category, and mostly all have to do with emergency matters.
Private Mediation. If you cannot come to an agreement, consider mediating your dispute with a private mediator. In mediation, the mediator facilitates the negotiations of the disputing parties and tries to help them settle their dispute. The responsibility is on the parties, and not the mediator, to make the decisions. Often in parenting situations, co-parenting counselors can help enhance your co-parenting relationship to reduce the stress for both you and your children.
Private Arbitration. You can also explore private arbitration in which you and your former spouse appoint an unbiased arbitrator to make a binding decision after hearing from both sides. Proceedings can range from paper submissions to a full trial. Parties should consider the extent to which the rules of evidence will apply, the type and extent of witness testimony, upper limits on the length of the hearings, whether hearings will be in person or over electronic means, and more.
Your children need to see parents working together, having respectful communication and ensuring they are safe. You can do this because you have to do this.
Rosemarie Ferrante is a divorce attorney focusing on non-adversarial divorce through mediation and collaborative divorce. Rosemarie’s goal is to make a positive impact on the divorce process for her clients by giving them the resources and tools they need to help their family transition smoothly through the process of restructuring their family. Her practice helps couples who wish to separate or divorce in reaching agreements that foster goodwill and trust, while meeting each spouse’s individual goals and needs and supports an ongoing positive relationship with their children and with each other as co-parents.
Rosemarie founded Divorce Resource CT to help spread awareness about one’s options when contemplating divorce and offers education, support and wellness workshop for individuals contemplating divorce (affiliated with the National Second Saturday program) throughout the state.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1993 and her law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1996, where she was Primary Notes & Comments Editor of the Brooklyn Law Review. She was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 1996 and the New York Bar in 1997.
Rosemarie is a member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM), the Connecticut Council for Nonadversarial Divorce (CCND), the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), the American bar Association (Family Law section), the Connecticut Bar Association (CBA), including the Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Family Law sections, the Danbury Bar Association and the Fairfield County Bar Association. She is also a member of the National Association of Divorce Professionals (NADP), the first national organization that unites professionals who serve clients going through all stages of the divorce process.
Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor, who provides individual and couples psychotherapy in her private practice in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she specializes in relationships. Kelley has a calling to help those going through difficult times, especially those considering, going through or dealing with post-divorce recovery. Everything Kelley does reflects a positive psychology mindset, where the belief is that you can change thinking and behaviors through mindfulness, compassion, nutrition and wellness, movement and perseverance. She has trained in the following models: AASECT Sex Therapy advanced training, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and Gottman Couples Therapy Models, and was the first therapist in CT to incorporate Discernment Counseling in her practice. She is also a Board Certified Coach.
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