1. Get accurate health and safety information.
Perhaps the single most important way to assist your families and children is to ensure that you have access to accurate information about how the virus spreads and effective health and safety protocols.
All parents should be on top of educating themselves as things develop in order to avoid being confused, misinformed, or dismissive of the seriousness of the virus.
All parents need to follow recommended guidelines and local restrictions to ensure their own, their children’s, and others’ safety. Armed with this information, most parents will navigate this difficult time without a great deal of conflict and may even cooperate in ways they never have before.
Check out reliable public health web sites, information sources, and local resources and get the most up-to-date information on the disease as well as appropriate responses from experts such as:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The PA Department of Health
- The City of Philadelphia
- Bucks County
- Chester and Delaware Counties
- Montgomery County
2. Families need to apply recommended or required safety protocols.
Discuss with the other parent how to specifically apply public health information to your particular family situation. Contact your attorney if you need help to translate general advice, such as “social distancing,” into behaviorally specific actions, such as no play dates, dining out, social gatherings, or unnecessary travel until restrictions are reduced or have ended.
I am reminding parents that what one parent does or doesn’t do in their household can endanger the members of the other household, as well as those outside of the household. That said, work to accept that the safety measures in your home may not be identical to the practices in the other home, and that does not necessarily mean that the other home is not safe.
Circumstances in the two homes may be different, and therefore safety measures may be different. Parents need to help their children understand and accept these differences and help one another to come up with creative solutions to emerging issues. Parents need to be unified now and make mutual plans for childcare, should one of them or their children become ill with the virus. Parents also need to follow whatever directives are being issued in the jurisdiction of the Family Court where they or the other parent are residing.
3. Foster good parenting.
I am reminding parents of the importance of maintaining high-quality parenting. Warmth and patience may run low as pressures mount, but children especially need their parents’ emotional understanding and support in these difficult and frightening times.
Parents need to monitor and regulate their own emotional states and avoid over-exposing their children to their fears and anxieties. Many children and teens are dealing with losses and disappointments related to cancellations of important events which may feel monumental to them.
Limitations on social interaction and changes in routines may also be challenging for children. They also may experience fear of the virus and uncertainty about the future. Check in with them about what they are hearing and feeling, and provide age-appropriate, accurate information. Validate their feelings, while helping them put their losses in perspective, and help them employ coping skills to foster resiliency.
I urge parents to limit their children’s exposure to news coverage of the pandemic and to develop some structure for daily life, including routine for schooling, exercise, chores, play time, safe socializing, outdoor time, and screen time.
Realize that with schools closing, weekday parenting time is now being utilized for continued education. Now is not the time to insist on extended custodial time for school closures as technically, although schools may be shut down, education is continuing with school personnel and teachers working together with the weekday custodial parent to continue education. However, the other parent should be ready, willing and able to pitch in and help in any way possible, especially when parents may still be trying to juggle working at their occupation and suddenly becoming an assisting teacher. Use common sense when it comes to changes in the regular custodial schedule and routines.
4. Stick to the parenting plan, if possible.
Parents should adhere to their parenting plans. Court orders stand unless they mutually agree to changes. Once a change is agreed, memorialize it in writing and implement it. It is too confusing for your children to make frequent and numerous changes to their custodial routines.
If parenting plan adjustments are necessary due to further specified restrictions in the transporting of children, such as video contact in lieu of in-person time, parents need to reach mutual agreements and put those agreements in writing.
If a parent’s parenting time is paused, specify for how long and the ways in which the children will keep in touch with that parent, such as calls, texts, video, online games, reading over video, and so forth.
Know there are no restrictions on parents continuing to exercise the parenting plans in their current court Orders and unless and until there are specific court ordered or governmental restrictions, children should be seeing both parents as court ordered.
Even if no court order exists, parents must recognize that the children need the love and support of BOTH parents at all times, but in particular in these trying and fearful times.
If a parent has safety concerns about the children spending time in the other home, it may help to specify safety measures that will be practiced in each home. If that is not workable, the parent who has the safety concerns needs to accept that the other parent is responsible for the children’s safety during their parenting time and trust that neither parent would ever put their children deliberately in danger.
If a parent’s safety concerns are serious enough, they may seek an emergency order and/or contact child protection agencies if there is reasonable suspicion of child abuse/neglect. However, such an action must be well founded and remember that your decisions and actions during this time may be judged later by a judicial officer or child custody evaluator. Even more profound is the fact that poor decision making may adversely affect your children for a lifetime.
5. In the event of parental conflict, consider Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Attorneys are often the first responders when conflicts arise between coparents and may be able to resolve the issues quickly and reach stipulations. So, that should be your first contact unless you have an Order for a Parenting Coordinator. Know that a Parenting Coordinator has no authority to change your custodial schedule or legal custodial requirements of your Order.
If more intervention is needed, parents should consider alternative dispute resolution processes. Many courts are not available, except for emergencies. Mediators, Collaborative Family Lawyers, family therapists, parenting coordinators, and out-of-court decision-makers can assist with resolving parental conflicts.
6. Make it a priority as Parents to take care of yourselves.
This is a time that I cannot emphasize enough the importance of maintaining not only your physical health, but your mental health.
Your children need you to be at the top of your game!
Things may get worse before they get better. Seek out mental health professionals or other support people who can help you learn skills and strategies to take care of yourselves and model resiliency for your children. You may even include your children in the healthy practices you learn. This is critically important for parents who may be prone to anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. There are also innovative resources available online.
Many divorced and separated parents are in extremely tough family situations and may need our support, empathy, and leadership as the professionals with whom you have worked. Try your best NOT to evolve into a non-cooperative, strained co-parent relationship that creates tremendous anxiety about your ability to protect your own health and that of your family members, and trickles down to your children. Work on building up your sense of self-determination and your ability to co-parent with unity and conviction. Listen, have patience, and empathize with the fears and risks this pandemic brings for the other parent and your children, as well as yourself.
Know that we are willing to assist you in reaching resolutions that are consistent with public health recommendations to protect the health of all family members. Do it sooner than later. During a pandemic there are things we all must do, sacrifices we all must make, for our own and others’ safety. The adjustments are temporary. The lessons will last a lifetime- for you and for your children.
About Maribeth Blessing
Maribeth Blessing is the owner and principal of Law Offices of Maribeth Blessing LLC and Maribeth Blessing, Mediation & Arbitration LLC. She concentrates her practices in Family Law, with some additional work in simple estate documents. Maribeth is a Peacemaker, trained extensively in mediation, arbitration, collaborative family law, and parenting coordination. She also offers unbundled services in addition to her peaceful practice and litigation practice. Maribeth is a member of numerous organizations and has presented many continuing mediation and legal education courses. Her vast achievements, awards and active memberships can be found on her web site at www.mbfamilylaw.com. Come peruse at your leisure.
Learn more about Maribeth Blessing.
Members of the Collaborative Law Professionals of Southeastern Pennsylvania serve individuals in Bucks County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia.