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Tensions, animosity and worry: Custody challenges for separated Cork parents amplified by coronavirus

SEPARATED parents, sharing custody of their children, are encountering a new world of issues as the Covid-19 lockdown continues.

Many families experiencing animosity have found themselves facing heightened tensions, while in some cases parents are using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to cut off parenting time from their ex-partners.

Relationship and Parent Mentor Frances Treacy has been working with separated families for the past 10 years since qualifying in UCC in 2010.

Speaking to The Echo, Ms Treacy said, for the most part, it does not matter if we are in the midst of a pandemic or not, the relationship you maintain with your former partner depends on your own mental wellbeing and how we handle ourselves.

“Any animosity that exists within the relationship is being amplified in the current situation due to the stress and anxiety that goes with it,” she said. “Some parents are threatening to keep the kids or arguing with their ex through the kids.”

Fran, who runs her own mentoring business, Separation Support, said she thought separated families are caught between complying with HSE health and safety regulations and the legal instructions of parenting plans, which remain the same.

“There is a lot of confusion around the guidelines of this situation. Mums I have spoken to would rather keep their child away from dad because he is working and living with other people and she would not deem it safe enough for her child to visit.”

Fran, who is a member of the Irish Association of Relationship Mentors (Iarm), also said she was dealing with a lot of mothers who were highly anxious that their former partners are not taking the situation seriously enough and there is a risk of the child bringing home the infection.

“It is a grey area if a parent is not following Government guidelines, there needs to be more clear cut guidelines issued by the Government in relation to separated families,” she said. “There is no legal helpline available and that is something that would be very useful.

“This is unchartered territory for separated/divorced families. Differing levels of concern about Covid-19 can cause conflict. The biggest issue I see is when two parents disagree about the severity of this coronavirus pandemic. Parents are being asked to adhere to current parenting plans that were set up prior to corona. We do not have a coronavirus clause. For the most part, and in most cases, parents will put the best interest of their children first. But the problem arises when each has a different view of what is in the child’s best interest.”

The relationship expert said that co-parenting is full of challenges under normal circumstances and trying to maintain a healthy parenting dynamic with your ex during a global pandemic is way more difficult.

“Differences and cracks will be amplified in a situation like this,” she said. “For those families who have not been able to come to agreeable workable terms, this situation is now adding fuel to fire. Unfortunately, each family has to work it out individually. All parents want what is best for their children. The difficult, but essential task now is for parents to put aside their personal issues and to find ways to work together in their children.”

On the other hand, parents who successfully manage co-parenting will find ways of managing this situation well. It is not the virus that is causing problems, but rather the relationships that people have with themselves and with others that is problematic.

“What it boils down to, is how well parents manage the everyday aspects of relationships and how well they manage communication.”

Addressing possibly the most important aspect of the current situation, Fran said children need to feel safe and protected.

“They need to know that they have capable adults looking out for their best interest,” she said. “The outside world is now a scary place. They need to know that they have safety, security at home within the family environment. They need assurances now of safety and stability. They need to know that parents are looking out for them.”

Offering some advice, Ms Treacy said to concede to the anxious parent. “Children do not need to be experiencing an anxious parent. This can be an opportunity to step up. Putting children first, would mean here, that we help soothe the other parent’s concerns and anxiety. The more transparent, and empathetic you can be right now, the better for everyone.”

Ms Treacy said unless someone is dealing with a high conflict ex who needs clear boundaries and rules, the name of the game during the Covid-19 pandemic is flexibility and working together for the sake of the children and your own sanity.

Another top tip for struggling parents is do not be afraid to ask for help.

“People may shy away from mental health support lines, they may think they are not the appropriate sources of support for them in relation to family dynamics.”

Fran said main carers are expressing a sense of guilt that they need a break for themselves, away from the children and they are finding it difficult being the only adult to care for the children.

“Loneliness is coming up, because there is no avoiding these things. Stay at home moms, a lot of them make sure they are very busy while their kids are in school with plenty of social contact and now they are in the house and loneliness is creeping in.

“It is hard going as one adult in a house, with children, 24 hours, seven days a week, trying to educate and entertain them.”

The relationship mentor also highlighted the lack of support that exists for women isolated with children.

“The Irish health organisations are supporting elderly people extremely well in this situation,” she said. “But the question of what supports are out there for separated families again comes into question.”

Ms Treacy encouraged single and separated parents to be aware that services are available.

“It is very difficult parenting on your own. If you are bothered by something, or unsure of something as in parenting time with dad or even run through a conversation you might have with another parent, you can do that with another mentor.

“It is really just a chat and just running through your worries with another person. And somebody affirming it is alright to think that. There is nothing wrong with saying you are exhausted and you would love a morning off, of course, you are. It is full-on when the kids get up in the morning and they expect you to be their entertainer for the day.

“Mentoring is not advice-giving, it is listening and checking in with people and seeing what is really up with them.”

Separated or divorced parents, in need of support, can contact The Irish Association of Relationship Mentors online at Iarm.ie. Separation Support is also online at separationsupport.ie and another organisation is also available: onefamily.ie.