Parenting in The Time of Corona Between Two Homes.

My long-time (18 years) assistant, Shirley, and I vacated my family law and mediation offices in Chicago’s Loop the week Illinois Governor Pritzker issued his Executive Order in response to COVID-19 (Executive Order No. 8, March 20, 2020, https://www2.illinois.gov/IISNews/21288-Gov._Pritzker_Stay_at_Home_Order.pdf) – commonly referred to as the “shelter in place order.”   Laptops and smart devices in hand, we started our new daily “normal” of serving clients and interacting with other professionals via Zoom and telephone from our respective homes.  Immediately we started to receive emails and calls from former and existing divorce clients and separated parents with questions about parenting their children between two homes during this unprecedented health crisis, lock down and quarantine.  

It became evident that there was much confusion and concern around the various new laws (COVID-19 Executive Orders and Court Orders) rapidly being issued which impact children whose parents do not reside in the same home – due to divorce, separation or their never-married status.  Orders such as, Paragraph 14(e) of Executive Order 8, which says: “Travel required by law enforcement or court order, including to transport children pursuant to a custody agreement” is permissible travel. Cook County (which covers downtown and metropolitan Chicago) General Order 2020 D 8, says:  parents “shall continue to follow their respective parenting time schedules” and that COVID-19 school closures “shall not be considered a ‘day off from school’” However, this Order also says parents are “strongly encouraged to act in the best interest of their children and are strongly admonished from taking acts that would imperil the physical health of any child, including unnecessary or discretionary travel.”

It may go without saying, but I will say it anyway – parenting is hard work at any time!  Parenting from two locations when divorced or never married has added layers of challenges and opportunities for conflict.  And, parenting from different homes in a time of national crisis can be an utter nightmare.  For a bird’s eye view from a child’s perspective on living in two homes and parental conflict, I strongly suggest adding the documentary Split A Film For Kids of Divorce (and Their Parents) https://www.splitfilm.org/watch_trailer.html to your binge viewing list this “flu season”.  We could sit and admire the problem of divorce and the impact on children and on deficiencies in the modern family structures for years and years without coming to a consensus[1].  However, in those years the children will not stop growing.  They will become adults and parents themselves and will most likely be without adequate skills to manage crisis and resolve conflicts. In turn this could end up with the next generation of parents being impaired and experiencing significant dysfunction, and so on and so on. 

There is now evidence-based research about parental conflict and its impact on children.  The conclusions drawn from this research is “divorce does not have to be harmful“.  Parental conflict is a more potent predictor of child adjustment than is divorce – making the need for more effective conflict resolution an essential to aid children with the ability to cope with divorce and separation.   Faced with the typical concerns for my divorce and never-married clients, who are parents, now layered with the heightened fear around travel and “social distancing”, I Zoomed with my mentor, mental health professional and peacemaking colleague, Margaret S. Powers, LCSW[2].  I talked to Margaret to get some insight on how to redirect clients in conflict around how to keep their children healthy and sane during this “time of Corona.”    Here are some of her expert thoughts and perspectives gleaned from over 4 decades of working with children and families in crisis and conflict.

Children’s Health – physical, emotional and spiritual (musings of a Child Specialist and Mediator):
A fact of parenting is that the children rely on their parents to guide them, especially in times of crisis.  The parents have to be able to provide support and guidance to the children, as that is what the children look to their parents to do.  We have been provided a lot of information over the past month regarding how to attend to the physical aspects of this virus.  However, not so much guidance on how to attend to emotional and spiritual health of children during this time. The guidelines for physical health are set out by the CDC in terms of washing hands, staying at a distance, wearing masks and gloves, and limiting contact with the outside world.  See, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html. The guidelines for keeping children emotionally and spiritually healthy are a little less well known.                                                                                                                                    

Children rely on their parents (divorced or not) to provide structure, safety and consistency that creates and builds self-esteem.  The obligation of parents is to nourish their children to survive this crisis and build resilience and knowledge to be used in future life crises.   Effective communication between parents is critical, especially for parents who do not live in the same home.  The guidelines for communication with children of all ages is to be direct, age appropriate with information, express emotions without drama, and give frequent reassurances that the family (each parent, the child, his/her siblings and the extended family) will get through this together. Remember, as a parent your emotional well being is contagious.  This is where it helps for divorced and separated parents to each be giving similar messages in their respective homes to their children.  The more the parents are able to show a unified front in this time of crisis, the more the children will feel secure and will have a higher probability of participating in the new structures around daily living – home schooling, virtual learning, virtually visiting grandparents and friends.  It is critical that the parents work as a team to coordinate and convey love and leadership. Role modeling healthy coping skills will help your children now and in the future.  Virtual resources for divorced and separated parents include meeting with therapists, family counselors and mediators online.  A great resource for information on the emotional health of children and families is The Family Institute at Northwestern University[3]. See, https://www.family-institute.org/.

The spiritual aspect of parenting includes instilling in children hopefulness and a belief that the crisis will subside. Another aspect of productive parenting is to instill a mindset of perseverance and endurance.  Parents do this by role-modeling cooperation through good communication, sensitivity, reliability and consistency.   If parents are able to demonstrate these various aspects of parenting, this wisdom will create the blueprint for children growing to be healthy adults. Specific ways to attend to your children are soothing by reading books, playing music, gentle back rubs.  Having sit-down planned meal times together is helpful.  Also, encourage your children to write and draw about their experiences.  Reassurance comes with words and hugs.  

[1] For an interesting read on how “the family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many” I suggest The Atlantic Magazine article by David Brooks, from the March 2020 edition, entitled:  “The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake,”  pp 55 – 69.

[2]  Margaret S. Powers LCSW, MA is a leader in the field of mediation. She has extensive experience in crisis intervention and family therapy.  She has many decades of experience and working with children and families in conflict and distress.

[3] Margaret Powers and Sandra Crawford are adjunct professors at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies, teaching the 40-hour Divorce Mediation Program –   https://sps.northwestern.edu/professional-development/divorce-mediation/.  Our May, 2020, 40-hour course has been postponed to August, 2020.  Please look for us online.