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COVID-19: tips to help separated parents cope

Tips to help separated families cope with COVID-19

Image: weerapat1003/stock.adobe.com

Children whose parents live separately can still move between their houses during the coronavirus crisis (despite initial mixed messaging from the government).

Confusion early on about the situation led to many parents believing their children had to stay in one home with one parent. But on 23 March, the government issued the following guidance alongside its Stay At Home Rules: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”

At the same time, the Courts pointed out that this doesn’t mean that children must move between homes, even if they do normally. Parents are expected to make judgements based on the health of their children, and the health and vulnerability of people in the different households.

The coronavirus crisis is stressful for most families, for all sorts of reasons. It poses a particular set of problems for separated families, even where they previously had a routine that worked for everyone.

The law

The Family Courts are expecting parents to reach reasonable agreements. Not everyone is reasonable, of course, and it’s easy to see how the Stay At Home measures could be used either to reduce the agreed contact – or to get the other parent to do more.

The Family Court advises that if you’re going to alter the usual arrangements:

  • You should record any agreement to change arrangements in a note, email or text message.
  • When arrangements are changed, every effort should be made to maintain contact through video calling, texts, family WhatsApp etc.
  • If there is a dispute afterwards, the courts will look at both of these points: what was agreed in writing and how much effort was made to maintain contact? Whether each parent acted responsibly will be taken into account “bearing in mind the specific circumstances of each family.”

In other words, there’s no right way to do this, legally. But if a dispute reaches the Family Courts, it will matter how much effort everyone made. You can still make an application to the Court during the crisis – but only the most serious cases are being dealt with over the phone at the moment.

Emotional fallout

For most separated families, this isn’t going to be a legal issue so much as an emotional one. Any disruption to the usual routines can be upsetting for children – so the aim is to reduce that as much as possible. Keep to the usual routines if you can. If not, make the changes as easy for children as possible. For example, in a family where the children aren’t travelling between homes midweek to cut down the number of journeys, the children might spend more time with their dad or mum at the weekend.

How to make it easier

  • Acknowledge that not seeing one of your parents might be hard for your child. 
  • Reassure them that the arrangements are temporary.
  • Talk to them about the crisis and why these changes are happening. 
  • Allow them space and time to talk about their feelings.
  • Use phone calls, video chats, emails, family WhatsApp and texts to maintain contact as much as possible.
  • Try not to make false promises – the situation is fast-moving.
  • Aim to be as flexible as possible. People are dealing with the pressures of work and illness and may need help. Single parents who do most of the childcare may appreciate offers of extra help from the other parent.
  • Look after yourself and don’t be afraid to talk to people – whether your ex-partner or friends – about the stresses involved.
  • Keep a tally of changes to the usual arrangements. Children may want ‘make up time’ afterwards.
  • Do everything you can to maintain trust and cooperation.

Perhaps the best piece of advice is to think ahead. The arrangements you have to make during the coronavirus criss are only temporary. But the period will loom large in all of our memories. Almost certainly, we’ll be talking about it for years to come. Think about how you’ll want your children to remember it.

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