Larissa Brown, M.S., is an international relationship coach and founder of EmpowerME: Coaching & Workshops.
Co-Parenting During COVID-19
Even under “normal” circumstances co-parenting can be challenging but co-parenting in a pandemic is especially complicated. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on whether you have a cooperative relationship with your co-parent. Parents are doing their best to manage the fast-paced changes that have become the norm since the start of the pandemic. Difficulty can arise when co-parents don’t receive the same information, when they don’t interpret the information in the same way, or when they have differing perspectives on how to handle certain situations.
Some of the things we’ve been hearing from concerned parents:
- Our state has announced a shelter-in-place order, does that mean that the kids shouldn’t be going back and forth between the two households?
- My children’s dad is an essential worker, I’m concerned that there’s a risk he will bring the virus home with him and expose our children, what should I do?
- My ex-wife isn’t taking the pandemic as seriously as I think she should be and keeps taking our kids out unnecessarily, this isn’t okay with me, but I don’t know what I can do about it.
We always recommend consulting an attorney when it comes to confusion or disagreement on how to handle custody matters but of course this can quickly become expensive and can fuel animosity between co-parents. Going through family court each time a decision for or about your children is needed can be a painfully slow process that ultimately puts the fate of your family into a stranger’s hands. In especially hostile co-parent relationships this can be unavoidable, but often learning some strategies for productive communication and compromise can go a long way toward putting the decision-making power back into your hands, where it should be.
Separating “Partner Mind” from “Parent Mind”
Your “partner mind” is your thought-station where you play or replay all the hurtful thoughts about your ex-partner. It’s filled with a lot of difficult emotions, reminders of grief and loss, anger and disappointment. Your “parent mind” is the station where you hear thoughts about how important both parents are for a child. Where there are reminders or recognition of how excited your child(ren) are when they do something fun with their other parent. Where you are tuned into helpful tips on how to support your co-parent in being the most successful parent they can be for your child(ren).
Learning to discern between these two minds is imperative when it comes to developing a healthy and productive co-parenting relationship, and ultimately is what’s best for your kid(s). This means making efforts to reduce turmoil, settle conflicts, and separate adult matters from your child(ren)’s experience/relationships. As Karen Bonnell writes in The Co-Parents’ Handbook: “Even if you’re right about some aspect of what your former [partner] is or isn’t doing, negative thoughts, harsh judgments, and conflicting feelings don’t help kids.”
Try to be mindful of your “partner mind” vs. “parent mind,” and work on nurturing a positive “parent mind.” Practice acknowledging your co-parent’s strengths and appreciate his/her attempts, even if only in your own mind.
What is Healthy Communication?
Bonnell emphasizes that “all healthy communication originates from and is guided by respect and civility.” Let’s break down what that looks like:
- Keep your kid’s best interest at the forefront of your mind, always. Always remember that you’re writing/speaking to your child(ren)’s other parent, not your ex-partner.
- Pleasant tone (think about the tone you would use when speaking to your boss)
- Appropriate word choice – no name-calling or expletives
- Reserve using ALL CAPS for highlighting and ease of reading – not for shouting at the reader
- Be brief, informative, well-organized
- Ignore any unproductive emails, texts, or voice messages. Any response to this type of communication is just adding fuel to a fire that you are hoping will die-out.
Communication Guidelines that Work
When trying to come to a resolution for a situation that you both feel passionately about and yet view differently, there are some guidelines that can help you to be successful:
- LISTEN – I cannot stress this enough. Conversations can quickly go off the rails when those involved feel that they aren’t being heard. If your co-parent is expressing him or herself in a calm and respectful way, hear them out. If you need to, jot down thoughts or rebuttals you might have while you’re listening but wait until it’s your turn to share them.
- Make sure you understand – Another important step that we often miss, is getting confirmation that you’re understanding their position. Put into your own words what it is you’re hearing them say. What is their position? Why is it important to them? Can you understand why they feel the way they do, even if you don’t agree? It’s important that you do not miss this step before responding with your own perspective.
- Express your position – When it’s your turn to share your thoughts, make sure you do so respectfully. Explain why you feel the way you do, why it’s important to you, and why you feel like it is the right decision. Do this without judging or criticizing.
- Find common ground – Once you’ve both expressed your positions try to find areas where there is common ground. This is an easy way to lay a foundation that you can build from.
- Areas of rigidity/flexibility – What parts of your position do you feel more firmly about? What parts is there more flexibility? Once you know these answers you can focus on gently pushing for the parts you feel more strongly about and can give a little in other areas.
If you find yourself becoming angry or triggered, take a break. This is when your least productive interactions will happen, so excuse yourself, and focus on becoming grounded.
Keep in mind that compromise is only successful when everyone involved feels as though they were able to share their thoughts, that their perspective was respected, and that they had some input on the outcome.
Mediators vs. Co-Parenting Coach
When you’re not able to come to an agreement on your own you may need to hire someone to help you. But how do you decide between working with a mediator or a co-parenting coach?
A mediator is often a legal professional that can help advise you on how these matters are most often viewed in family court, which can be helpful when deciding on your areas of rigidity and flexibility. A mediator guides and facilitates the conversation, offering their legal expertise when appropriate.
A co-parenting coach can also help facilitate difficult conversations but will also teach you communication and compromise skills that will help you to navigate future co-parenting decisions. Working with a coach will also help you to navigate other child-centered social and emotional terrain that isn’t considered in custody arrangements.
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