During the pandemic, family life goes on. This means for separated parents there is an additional layer of confusion, emotion and complexity around the arrangements for seeing the children.
After some initial miscommunication, the government has now confirmed that children moving between the homes of separated parents does constitute essential travel. This means that any contact or child arrangements already in existence should continue during the pandemic.
Everybody should be following the government guidelines to stay at home and protect the NHS during this national crisis. But as we all know just from watching the news, the rules are being interpreted differently in every household. This is made more acute for separated and blended families where there may be more mixing. Different people have different levels of anxiety and social distancing - for example whether it is necessary to visit vulnerable extended family on one side, or where someone they know and came into contact with might have symptoms. Without a proper testing regime widely available, unless someone is hospitalised or a key worker, everyone is in the dark about who has had it, and who hasn’t. This atmosphere of fear and confusion is preying havoc with separated families.
The guidance below applies to separated parents generally but at no time is it more relevant than now. This is especially so during what is, for all of us, a very strange time, quite unlike anything we as adults have experienced. There are anxieties, heightened emotions and complexities to everything we do and how we interact. Imagine what that must feel like to children who are still learning about the world. They will remember this event for the rest of their lives. At all times, children and especially the children of separated parents crave support and to learn from the adults around them. Now, more than ever, they need to see a unified approach from you both, otherwise it will merely heighten their anxiety.
Although you may not like communicating with each other as separated parents, first of all it is necessary and secondly it is desirable. Your children will model all their adult relationships on the relationship they see between their parents. That is absolutely accepted by modern child psychology. Conducting a relationship by email for the next 10 years is going to be damaging to them. Being able to communicate effectively with each other is vital.
Your communications needs to be open. Neither of you should be worried about saying anything about the children to the other person. Communications should be made without fear of judgment or anger. Obviously, there are times when people get upset but the guidance here is designed to try to put some parameters in place.
Several of my clients have had success with the Our Family Wizard app. It is a one stop shop for separated parents. It costs about £100 per annum per user and it has a messaging app, a function for sharing expenses and calendars and medical information. The messaging app is especially good as it will identify any hostile language and ask if you are sure you want to send it. It is useful for day to day interactions as it provides one dedicated channel for communications about the children so that you are not bombarding the other person with texts, emails and WhatsApps or vice versa. Our Family Wizard is great for confining those run of the mill communications to one place. I suggest that you check it once a day and that that is the sole place where you interact in relation to day to day (and mundane) discussions – so called “books and socks” conversations.
However, as with email and text messages, it is not a place where parents can air a dispute about the children. To do that effectively you would need to do it face to face or over the phone if face to face is not possible. Start by having a 10 or 15 minute call, ideally over Facetime, once a week at a pre-arranged time. Try it for a month – that’s four 15-minute sessions. If you can’t take an hour out of your month to communicate better for the sake of your children then there is something wrong.
These calls (and probably the emails too) should have three rules - the 3 Cs
- COMPLIMENT The first rule is you must start your conversation by saying something nice about the children and how they are. You have something wonderful in common – your children. This is the bedrock of your relationship and all your focus should be on them when you interact with each other. Don’t bog the communication down in socks and books – let’s talk big picture about how they are. Acknowledge that the other parent has done a good job in trying circumstances.
- COLLABORATE Your interactions need to be collaborative. This means that if there is an issue which has arisen, you need to work together as a team to resolve it. You haven’t been a team for a while but that does not mean that you can’t be one as co-parents. Don’t start the conversation with “well I’m doing this and I don’t care what you think”. Conversations need to begin with “here’s the problem and this is what I think we should do but what do you think?” If you approach any issues in relation to the children in this way, you listen to what the other person says, you will find that your interactions come much more naturally and are far less fraught.
- COMMUNICATE Under no circumstances must you shout or talk over each other. In the heat of emotion it does get difficult to get your point across. Wait for the other person to finish what they are saying. You were respectful of what each other thought once and you may acknowledge that the other is a very good parent. You may both have a point of view that the other person has not thought of. There might be issues around having a girl or having a boy that the other person has some insight into. The moment one of you starts shouting or talking over the other person, the other person is going to stop listening and the communication will break down and you’re back at square one.
I also would recommend that you read around the subject if you can. There is a very good book which I read for my own interest by Philippa Perry called “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read And You Will Be Glad That You Did”. It is an excellent insight into dos and don’ts of parenting and there is a whole section on communication between parents who have gone through a divorce and separation.
There are two other suggestions I have. One is that I regularly work with a parenting counsellor called Annie Pleshette-Murphy. She’s an expert on parenting. She may have some insights into how to improve your communication. The other is that on our website we have a link to Kids Come First which is a course for separated parents that looks at the psychology of separation and impact on children. Should you need any further information regarding Annie or Kids Come First, or any other queries, please do just get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org .