Written by Deborah Mecklinger, LL.B, M.S.W, A.T.C
While the creators of the 2011 thriller Contagion may have shed some light on what the world might look like in the wake of a pandemic, no one has envisioned the experience of co-parenting amid one.
While many separated and divorced parents are able to successfully maintain their established parenting plans in these difficult times, others are challenged with quarantines, the demands of working from home, job and income loss, and adverse physical and mental health.
As daunting as it may seem, it is imperative now, more than ever, that coparents work together in overcoming the challenges of self-isolation. In what follows, I have outlined some strategies for coparents to keep in mind as they navigate the choppy waters in the weeks ahead.
Practice Digital Decorum
Self-isolation means that children will likely be communicating with coparents through Skype, FaceTime or another video chat platform. Regular remote communication can lessen the psychological impact of self-isolation and maintain a sense of family togetherness. The following recommendations can help families facilitate successful remote communication:
1. Parents need to take the lead in supporting younger children. This may entail teaching your children necessary technical skills, such as how to answer a video call, how to redial if the call is lost, how to angle the camera and what to do if the screen freezes. Ensure that you and your children are comfortable enough with the technology to get the most out of each call.
2. Set the stage for any digital communication. This is especially important for younger children, who may not respond well to interruptions in their activity. A simple “Guys, guess what, it’s almost time to speak to mommy/daddy/grandparents” can work well in redirecting focus to the upcoming call. If you are interrupting a current activity, promise to return to that activity after the call.
3. Try to minimize opportunities for distraction. Turn off the television and reduce any background noise. If the children are young, have a snack and drink readily available so that they will not need to remove themselves from the call. It is also a good idea for children to use the bathroom prior to the call and to collect any materials beforehand, such as recently completed artwork, they may wish to share.
4. Give children the privacy and space appropriate to their age. Don’t interrupt or insert yourself into the call and refrain from asking children to report on the conversation. Children need to know that this is their time with the parent and that you respect and value this time.
5. Finally, cultivate a good relationship with your former partner. Be punctual when making or receiving a call. Return missed calls promptly, and text your former partner if you will be late making or answering a call. Consistency is important in these challenging times: try to avoid missing a previously scheduled call and promptly reschedule if this is unavoidable. In essence, elevate your social graces and allow yourself to be guided by the Golden Rule . . . Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Embrace the Digital Sandbox
Self-isolation in the home can be difficult, especially as spring approaches and children long to play outside. With the suspension of school, parents are also understandably concerned about learning loss. Luckily, there is a wide array of mobile apps to promote play, learning and physical and mental wellbeing.
Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. In fact, there are a plethora of interactive apps to connect and engage across the physical distance. Houseparty is one of the most popular, but there are many others, including Bunch or Marco Polo, that offer a unique twist on the usual video-conferencing platforms. There are also interactive party apps such as Psych! and Trivia Crack, along with apps like Scribble Press or Melody Jams that cater to children’s creative side.
On the learning front, Scrabble, Kiddopia, and Microsoft Math Solver are just a few of the many mobile apps available that build literacy and numeracy through fun, interactive strategies. Parents can use these apps in tandem with Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform, to help children stay on top of their online learning.
Finally, these are anxious times. Parents can help foster a climate of wellness in the home through physical activity and mindfulness practices. Sworkit Kids, Just Dance Now, and GoNoodle Kids provide structured activities to get children moving inside the home, while Inhale & Exhale, Calm, and Stop, Breathe & Think Kids are a few of the better apps that teach mindfulness and mediation.
Remember: Sharing is Caring
In times like these, it is easy to fixate on the needs of one’s immediate family. Try, however, to resist this tendency and give generously to the household of your coparent. Share your bounty, whether that be extra hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes or books, toys, and electronic devices. Small acts of service, such as delivering a meal or sharing a Netflix account, can build goodwill and help sustain a productive relationship, both now and in the longer term. Practice benevolence whenever you can.
Bring the principle of sharing into your own home, as well. If you have a particular skill or passion, this is now the perfect time to pass it on. Teach your children to cook, bake, speak a new language or play an instrument. Pass on that heirloom recipe or cherished family story.
Stay Clean With Your Communication
When communicating with the coparent, it’s important to mind your Ps and Qs--and I don’t mean paper towels and quarantine! Maintain regular communication practices and keep each other informed regarding the children’s health and well-being, and their response to the pandemic. When it comes to younger children, be especially attuned to changes in eating patterns and toileting and communicate any concerns to your coparent.
Establish a clear strategy for how you will communicate, together, on issues relating to the coronavirus. You may have to keep your children inside, but that does not mean keeping them in the dark. Talk to your children about the virus, using clear information and concrete facts. Be flexible and modify the message so that it is appropriate to the children’s age and developmental needs.The overall goal is to make children feel safe and secure in this uncertain time.
On a parting note . . .
It is perfectly natural to feel overwhelmed. Coparenting while social distancing, isolating or in quarantine introduces significant and unprecedented challenges. It is okay to acknowledge feeling frustrated; you may feel physically and emotionally exhausted, tapped out, and struggling to manage children beset with boredom and cabin fever. Your coparent can be an ally in these challenging times. Now, more than ever, you are a team and must work together to support your children. Mind your manners and wear kid gloves, not just rubber ones!
About the Author Deborah Mecklinger
Deborah Mecklinger is an experienced professional coach well known for her work in the areas of divorce mediation, conflict resolution, and individual, couple and family therapy. She is also the founder of "walkthetalk," a professional coaching program that aims to provide consistency between actions and stated intention. Deborah holds an LL. B degree from Osgoode Hall and an MSW from the University of Toronto and is an Accredited Family Mediator (AccFM) with the OAFM. Deborah has studied at Oxford University, the Adler School of Professional Coaching and The Stepfamily Foundation in New York. She is a certified coach and a master certified step-family coach. Deborah is accredited in organizational dispute resolution, facilitation, interest-based negotiation and child protection meditation.
Deborah began her career as a divorce mediator therapist and coach at the Family Mediation & Conciliation Program in South Florida. She has also worked as a mediator and trainer with CDR Associates in Boulder, Colorado. After her return to Canada, Deborah worked as a lawyer for the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto and as a mediator and facilitator for the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto before transitioning to private practice.
Deborah’s expertise ranges from divorce to the corporate world as she helps others communicate, resolve conflict and set goals so they can live more intentional and productive lives. Deborah is committed to ongoing learning and mentorship and has taught family mediation and dispute resolution at the University of Toronto and Seneca College. She is a frequent contributor to media articles examining contemporary relationship challenges and has been cited in The Globe and Mail, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine, the Toronto Sun and other publications. Deborah is also a popular guest on radio and television. Her professional background and experience underpins her practice as a professional coach and supports her commitment to help her clients walk the talk. To reach Deborah click here.