While the pandemic might have helped a number of couples across the country get their grooves back, it also made some couples realize that their trips to Splitsville were inevitable.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Ending a relationship can be an emotionally gutting experience. Factor in children, and it can be even more heartbreaking. But splitting up during a global pandemic folds in a totally new set of challenges that none of us have faced before.
If you’ve decided to go your separate ways and are worried about how you’ll raise your children together but apart, know that co-parenting doesn’t have to be filled with reality television-style drama and fights. It actually can go quite smoothly when both parents communicate and are committed to working together to ensure that their children are safe, happy and healthy — especially during a time when things are already so uncertain and chaotic.
Whether you’re new to co-parenting or could use some help in tightening up your co-parenting plan, keep reading to get some helpful advice from pediatric psychologist Kathryn Jones, PhD. Her tips could be instrumental in keeping things peaceful for everyone.
Children aren’t messengers
When relationships end on a sour note, some might feel like arguing or being a little bit petty is totally justified. However, Dr. Jones says all of the back and forth and squabbling can be extremely stressful for children.
“When parents are separating, divorcing or establishing two-family homes, children can definitely be stressed out as they witness arguments or are put in a place where they feel like they have to facilitate communication between their parents. In situations like these, I definitely advise parents to talk to each other about the way that they’re raising their kids because it’s important that they work as a team,” says Dr. Jones.
She stresses not having difficult conversations in front of your children, and whatever you do, keep in mind that your children aren’t messengers. Instead of relaying information through them, contact your former partner directly to address any concerns.
How to keep things civil
Dr. Jones says it’s natural for disagreements to come up as you’re co-parenting. Some can be ironed out with a simple conversation while more complex issues might require the help of a mediator or the court system. She recommends keeping the lines of communication open to help prevent trips to family court since they can be pretty invasive and even costly.
“There are going to be things that parents disagree about. Sometimes it’s going to be something small like bedtimes or how much soda kids can drink. On the other hand, parents might encounter much bigger issues that will require them to get outside assistance. But when people are willing to hear each other out, they’re able to work most things out without having to take the additional step of going through the court system. Many families really don’t want to get the courts involved more than they need to since the expense of doing that can be a lot,” says Dr. Jones.
Dr. Jones says that a psychologist can help if you find yourself having disagreements regularly. She also advises that parents come up with a compromise plan for the sake of the kids.
How to be consistent between households
A co-parenting plan won’t work if one parent enforces the rules while the other parent acts as if they have no clue what a rule is. Dr. Jones says that both parents need to be on the same page for the most part. When it comes to the rules, of course, it will be easier for a teen to understand how things work from house to house than it might be for a small child. So with small children, both parents will need to explain the rules in a way that is easy to understand.
“It can be stressful for kids if the rules are really different between houses because they’re not really sure what to follow. It gets easier for them to make mistakes and the differences can set up situations where kids are having more trouble following the rules again once they’re back at a parent’s house. They also might get into more and more trouble or start displaying more disruptive behaviors for the first couple days while they’re back. And depending on how much they’re going back and forth, this could all be something that can cause a lot of stress for the kids ⚊ and for the parents as well.”
What about “the fun parent?”
We’ve all seen movies, TV shows or even real-life situations where it seems like one parent is trying to be the cool mom or dad and it creates a lot of frustration for the other parent. Dr. Jones says in most cases, the more lax parent isn’t trying to make the other parent look bad or score cool points. She says sometimes, it might just be their personality coming through. Or, if they don’t get to see their kids that often, they might feel like they need to cram in all of the fun when they’re together.
“Of course, there can be cases where parents are deliberately trying to be the cool parent, but most times, they might just be the parent who isn’t with the kids as much. And because they have less time with their kids, they want to make sure that they’re serving up enjoyable experiences when they do see them. So, what is perceived to be laxness can actually be coming from a really positive place.”
But again, if all the fun is creating a rift somewhere, definitely work together to find a better balance.
Ways to make co-parenting easier during the pandemic
Like Dr. Jones mentioned before, things are much easier when parents work together. Things are stressful enough between daily obligations and pandemic restrictions. If the current arrangements are a little overwhelming, figure out how you both can make things easier.
For instance, if one parent has the kids most of the week, this can now be a huge undertaking if virtual learning has been added to the itinerary. You both might want to consider who can handle the demands of virtual learning based on work schedules or who might have a quieter space for learning.
Or maybe there are more people in one home as compared to the other. If you’re concerned about the risks of exposure to COVID-19, you might want to consider a schedule where the kids won’t be around a bunch of people.
If you find that your ex doesn’t insist that your kids social distance, wear masks, sanitize their hands or avoid large crowds, Dr. Jones suggests talking to them first and if they don’t change their tune, you might want to have them talk to your pediatrician or get a family law professional or mediator involved. She adds that this should all be a last resort though.
Signs that a child is having a rough time
If splitting up is stressful on your kids, that stress can manifest in a variety of ways. Dr. Jones says that some children might mention having stomach aches or headaches more often. They also might have trouble sleeping. Smaller kids could throw more tantrums or display increased behavioral difficulties.
Irritability might be noticeable with kids of all ages. Some other signs might fall more on the emotional side.
“Kids might start to talk more about worries or bring up concerns about health or separation. During the pandemic, they’ve spent a lot more time with their caregivers than they usually do and it might be harder for them at some points to separate because they haven’t needed to as much for a long period of time. Children may also show symptoms of depression like withdrawal or they might seem more down. This can be hard to pick out sometimes because being in your room by yourself is definitely part of the normal teenage experience. So, it can be hard for parents to figure out if things are going too far.”
By encouraging your children to talk to you, you can let them know that you care about how they are feeling. Don’t force the conversation. Instead, let them do so in their own way and time. Dr. Jones says you can creatively encourage conversations by asking your children about things they’ve enjoyed doing since they’ve been spending time at home. You can also talk about all the things you miss so they know they’re not alone.
“Try to keep that open line of communication with your kids. You can say something like, ‘Yes, this has been hard and it’s okay for you to talk to me about those things.’ You can’t force them to talk to you but making sure you leave space open for them to do so is great.”