Communication and Planning are the Keys to Sharing Kids in the Summer
Summer can be both a rewarding and stressful period for divorced parents who share custody of children.
Routines will be disrupted, and it’s important for parents to communicate to avoid conflicts. This is especially true this summer when the COVID-19 crisis has interrupted plans made earlier in the year and parents may have different ideas on how to protect children from infection.
For starters, I always recommend that parents revisit their court-approved parenting plan periodically. What worked when a child was 10 may set up the parents and child for problems when she is 12. Parents’ lives change, too, with new jobs, new families or relationships, moves, and perhaps a fresh outlook on life. Some parents who get along well are comfortable with informal accords to deviate occasionally from the parenting plan, but it’s generally a good idea to put agreed-upon changes in writing, such as a confirmation email or text. When harmony hits a sour note, the parenting plan will rule.
COVID-19 and Holidays
Our society has divided into opposing camps over masks and mixing in crowds. Whatever your feelings on this issue, don’t let it divide your family or encourage your children to take sides. This is one of those issues you are just going to have to work out with each parent being considerate of the other. If you and your ex have different viewpoints on this issue, try to agree on a safety protocol that you both can implement. Having the same rules in both households will make children feel safe and reduce stress. Even if you can get in front of a judge to resolve a custody or visitation dispute, it is unlikely the court will forbid the child from visiting the “less safe” parent. Except in unique circumstances, you likely will be told to work through your disagreements and to stick to the current visitation schedule.
Many parenting plans include summer and holiday schedules that are very different from the regular schedule during the school year. When planning out your summer, make sure your plans don’t conflict with the summer holidays. The Fourth of July is an important holiday for many families, and often parents will alternate custody each year for this holiday. But maybe one parent is having a family reunion this summer and wants to trade July 4th for a different weekend. Another big issue is the length of uninterrupted time with each parent. Should it be one month with each parent or should the child go back and forth every two weeks? It’s hard to separate the preferences and convenience factor of the parents from what’s best for the child in this discussion, but as with any negotiation, expect to trade something to win a concession.
Take Special Care with International Travel
Summer travel is another of the more contentious issues we see. There is a natural tendency for parents to experience anxiety and a lack of control when a child is going away with the other parent. A firm itinerary and regular phone calls from the child while on the road can lower this stress.
International travel may require extra diligence. In addition to having a passport for the child, TSA or immigration authorities may ask for a document in which the other parent consents to the travel. Plan ahead and make sure you and your ex have exchanged any necessary information or documents prior to traveling with the child.
Communication and Planning Will Avoid Most Problems
Don’t expect a judge to take your side on any of these summer issues. Their calendars are packed, especially now after the courts were closed as part of the COVID-19 response. Barring an emergency, it’s tough to get in front of a judge on short notice. Even in normal times, judges are likely to be testy with parents who can’t work out their disagreements about their kids’ summer calendar.
Intact families have the luxury of making last-minute plans to go to the beach, but it does not work that way for divorced parents. It’s not fair to the other parent to announce in May that you want to trade visitation in June for July. Start planning and negotiating your summer with the children at the beginning of the year and try to have a formal agreement in place by March. Even though deviations are sometimes unavoidable, having a structured plan in place helps make last-minute changes less disruptive for both parents and children.
It’s understandable that communication may not be perfect between former spouses, but if both parties make an earnest effort it will avoid most summer custodial problems. Think about what is best for the child and remember that the goal is to help create great summer memories for your child. Many more shared summers and holidays are ahead. Don’t make them a battlefield. Someday, your children will thank you and your ex for putting aside personal feelings and placing them first.
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