By Doni R. Feinberg, Esq.
The coming weeks for most New Jersey families are apt to be overwhelming, with school, business and government closures, isolation requests, appointment cancellations, limited access to resources – and parents simultaneously working at home, overseeing school work and refereeing.
Fear and anxiety about the unknown can generate strong emotions in both adults and children in any family – but potentially much more so in families where parents are divorced or separated. Even the knowledge that this craziness is temporary does not help much when you are struggling to manage agreed-upon parenting time, together with all the other pandemic-related schedule changes and demands on you.
The question of your children’s safety versus agreed schedules is a challenging one, further complicated in many cases by emotion. In amicable situations, divorced and separated parents are working out these issues. At Spector Foerst & Associates, we have been hearing from family law clients who are having difficulty deciding whether to abide by their court-sanctioned parenting time agreements or file emergency applications to courts whose own schedules are disrupted by the pandemic.
We of course cannot foresee how a judge will rule on such an application. As a general rule, courts will uphold parenting time agreements. We do have the ability to file an Order to Show Cause if there is a compelling reason, such as exposure to COVID-19, to set an agreement aside, but we should expect courts by and large to uphold parenting agreement where at all possible.
Make your children’s needs paramount
One important point to remember: This will not go on forever. It is a temporary situation, and best-case scenario for a short-term situation is you continue to follow your parenting time schedule and work together to minimize your children’s stress. Children need to feel safe and secure, and maintaining the schedule to which they are accustomed can, in and of itself, be reassuring.
It is perfectly normal for a parent to be concerned about possible exposure when children move from home to home, especially if grandparents – who are at greater risk – are involved. Then, too, the other parent wants and is entitled to parenting time. Whatever your specific circumstances, this dilemma is best resolved by the parents themselves, principally because, should you resort to filing an emergency application, you have no way of knowing which way the court will rule – or even when the court might take up your case. Going to court should be your last resort.
Be creative; use technology
Instead, look for creative solutions, and be flexible. Technology can help – use Skype, Zoom or FaceTime to connect regularly. Meet as a family outside in sunshine and fresh air for recreation and relaxation – another option for alleviating stress for adults and children alike. Go on hikes. Play outdoor games.
Indoors, set aside time for recreation as well – perhaps some yoga or simple exercise routines with your children, as well as board games, card games and puzzles. Take turns reading aloud. Some dancing schools and other after-school programs are using Zoom to continue lessons in the home – look into what might be available in your area.
All of this constitutes stress relief for the parent as well as children. Consider also playing soothing music softly in the background – Mozart, for example, or any other calming music that helps establish a relaxed environment.
Communication and coordination are key
Whenever the children are with you, keep the other parent updated on schoolwork, health and behavioral issues. Communication is key – with each other and with your children. Work together on the key messages you want to convey to your children about coronavirus and coordinate what you are telling them – find resources on the web for talking with children about the virus to alleviate their fears and reduce anxiety. If both parents are delivering the same messages, it will help them remain calm.
Use technology, if possible, to talk together as a family, answer their questions and reassure them that they are safe. At the same time, both parents should consider limiting their children’s exposure to news and social media, as children can misinterpret what they hear and it can be frightening to them.
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