What Happens When Co-Parents Disagree About Their Child's Coronavirus Health Plan?
Co-parents with opposing views may find themselves in a standoff once a coronavirus vaccine is approved for children
Co-parenting in the time of COVID-19 brings extreme challenges.
In addition to remote learning, economic changes and shelter-in-place orders, children of separated families also need to move between households — often with different COVID rules. That's why it's important for co-parents to communicate about protecting their children's health.
Professor of Psychology Abbie Goldberg at Clark University researched COVID's effects on relationships and parenting and found divorced families face unique strains during the pandemic.
"When parents felt that their exes were being too lax — for example allowing their child to spend time with non-household members or to travel to visit family — their frustration over not having their stated wishes honored was intensified by the very real health risks associated with the pandemic: risks to their child, and to them," Goldberg tells PEOPLE.
"When divorced co-parents did not see eye-to-eye on virus risk mitigation, this often led to escalating mistrust, anxiety and arguments," she continued. For example, requests for other people to wear masks around the child might be seen by one parent as an attempt at exerting control during their non-parenting time.
In her research, "parents sometimes depicted their exes as anti-science and 'anti-vaxxers' and as endorsing theories regarding COVID-19 as a hoax or conspiracy," Goldberg says. "One mom said, 'I will almost certainly have to take him to court to be able to vaccinate [my child].' "
These tensions can exacerbate an already strained dynamic.
"Parents should remember this is stressful for everyone and many children will be feeling anxious," Goldberg says. "If parents can agree on consistent rules between households and keep conflict to a minimum, it would help their children feel as secure as possible when moving between households."
Even if co-parents don't share the same views, they should try to find some common ground, even when it may be difficult.
"When parents are unable to discuss hot issues without arguing, it is especially important to play nice," Sarah Bennett, says managing attorney at Sodoma Law North. "Be a good example for your children — keep the conversation from getting personal, accusatory or aggressive and discuss any disputed topics on neutral territory or with the assistance of a family counselor or mediator."
She also recommends parents express their viewpoints in writing if they can't treat each other with civility. "That way, parents have a record of what was said and how it was said and emotions won't get in the way of memory," says Bennet. "In addition, a written record is crucial evidence if parents ultimately end up in court or mediation. "
Medical arguments are likely to increase in the coming months once a vaccine is approved for children. For many exes, disagreements over whether or not to have children get the shot are inevitable. "Most parents who disagreed about vaccination expected this to become a key source of tension in the future," says Goldberg.
In any case, don't involve the kids in your discussion. "Do your best to avoid passing messages through your children, no matter their age," Bennet says. "When parents use their children to pass along messages, they set their child up to receive the other parent's reaction to that message."
She continued: "Whether to vaccinate often comes from a deeply-rooted viewpoint; sending a message you know the other parent will find disagreeable might result in your child receiving a nasty or emotional response."
As vaccination decisions approach, parents should refer to their custody agreements to see who was given the right to make medical decisions. If parents share that right but don't agree, they may need to get legal assistance, either through a mediator to help reach a mutually agreeable decision, or through a judge's ruling in court.
Bennet urges parents to act quickly if they anticipate a problem with vaccination plans. "If you and your child's other parent are not on the same page about vaccination, the time to act is now," Bennet says. "If you cannot agree and need to go to court, then you may need to be prepared for a lengthy process. Depending on your jurisdiction, many court dockets are already substantially backed up because of COVID state court shutdowns. Addressing the issue now will help parents reach a consensus or seek court intervention prior to the time the vaccine is actually available."
Remember that going to court is costly and will not necessarily provide the solution a parent wants. "While a judge will not likely make the decision to vaccinate, the court will assign one parent the final decision-making authority as to medical issues," Bennet explains. "The parent with that authority will ultimately be able to proceed with medical treatment in the manner he or she sees as best for the child."