Crisis Planning and Counseling for Parents with Shared Custody

Family life can be chaotic. A crisis adds another layer of logistics to the already complicated lives of parents, guardians and children.

The coronavirus pandemic, for example, has parents wondering if their children can safely play outside, if kids next door can come for a visit, and if they should be wearing masks. For parents who are separated or divorced, answering these questions can be even harder.

How can parents sharing child custody prepare for and respond to a crisis?

1. Consider the Challenges

A crisis can hit families at various points in the separation process. Parents may be divorced, in the process of getting divorced, or living together but planning to separate. If their state court has to postpone hearing dates or close entirely, the family may be stuck in a particular phase for some time.

Families may find themselves in the following three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Living Apart with a Finalized Divorce

The parents have a finalized divorce. They have a joint custody agreement and possibly a parenting plan in place. They live separately and their children may have already settled into new routines.

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES: Parents may deal with a crisis differently. For example, during a pandemic, they may have different interpretations of stay-at-home orders.

Scenario 2: In the Process of Separating

When the crisis began, the parents were working through separation, divorce or shared custody processes.

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES: Assuming both parents are fit to retain custody, without a finalized custody agreement, it can be difficult to know which parent keeps the children and for how long.

“Each parent has an equal right to the children under the law,” said Alice Stubbs, a family law attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But since there’s no court, there’s no hammer.”

In other words, there are few ways to enforce the rules and there may be no rules to enforce.

Scenario 3: Living Together, Wanting to Separate

Parents may be living together with the intention of separating but cannot because of the crisis. The process may be stalled due to court postponements, financial difficulties or other barriers.

POTENTIAL CHALLENGES: This scenario can be emotionally draining for the entire family. Watching parents fight physically or verbally can be damaging for children, said Kathy Memel, a licensed marriage and family therapy practitioner and parenting mediator.

A crisis can also lead to a rise in domestic violence. Since the pandemic began, Stubbs has personally seen an uptick in calls related to domestic violence in her own jurisdiction. Even though police reports of domestic abuse have fallen in major cities across the country, actual violence may be increasing as families are forced inside together.  Stay-at-home orders and unemployment may make victims less likely (or less able) to seek help.

If you or somebody you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline  by calling 1-800-787-3224, texting LOVEIS to 22522, or visiting the to speak with trained advocate.

2. Create a Crisis Parenting Plan Template

Jennifer Joyner-Hall, PsyD, a psychologist and parenting coordinator, encourages parents to consider their children first.

“Parents really have to figure out what the best interests of their children are and figure out how to trust their partner in co-parenting so that the kids can have success,” she said.

For those with shared custody, the first step in preparing for or responding to a crisis is creating a parenting plan that allows both parents to have time with the child or children. For families currently in crisis, the plan needs to work in the present moment, at least until the legal custody process can be completed.

Stubbs counsels parents to take the initiative to work a crisis custody agreement out themselves, if at all possible.

“Don’t incur legal fees,” she said, adding that during the current pandemic, “kids are already under enough emotional stress, and they sense it when their parents are fighting all the time.”

Memel, the specialist in marriage and family therapy, noted that parents can make better decisions in crisis scenarios for their children because they know them and understand the conditions in which they thrive. A judge probably does not.

Parenting Plans in Crisis: Questions to Consider

As a starting point, Joyner-Hall suggests that parents consider the following questions when creating or revising a crisis parenting plan. These can be worked on together or brought to a specialist in marriage and family therapy, counseling or parenting coordination.

Where Children Stay
  • Do parents need to make changes to their custody schedule? If so, how will they communicate, negotiate, record and revisit these changes?
  • How will exchanges continue safely during a crisis? What are potential contingency plans?
  • During a disease outbreak, what is the plan if one parent or a child gets sick and needs to quarantine?
  • If one parent’s access must change for a season, how can the lost time with the children be made up?
  • For families whose children spend the school year with one parent and summer with the other, how would a crisis affect this arrangement?
Child Care, Support and Stability
  • Which parent has the most availability to care for and support the children?
  • How do parents’ work schedules affect their availability?
  • How can each parent adopt routines that are familiar to the child to provide stability?
Education and Summer Plans
  • How will parents provide support and stability in the children’s education?
  • How will parents handle extended school closings—two weeks, one month, three months?
  • Will summer camp plans be affected?

3. Practice Compassion and Self-Care

When a crisis rocks a family’s life, the parents are often the ones who must set things back in order. Recreating stability for children at home can be exhausting—especially if the world outside continues to be unstable. Investing in self-care and redirecting unhealthy thoughts can help parents endure a crisis, even one that lingers.

Consider individual counseling or marriage and family therapy.

Support from a mental health professional can help with managing anxiety or overwhelming emotions. Working these out as an individual can set parents up to better care for their families.

Acknowledge the uncertainty.

A crisis can throw plans into confusion, and this can be frustrating and discouraging for parents. Simply recognizing this reality can offer some relief.

Be graceful with yourself and your kids.

Times of crisis are challenging for everyone.

“There is this huge emotional undercurrent going on underneath,” Joyner-Hall said.

Practice having compassion for the varied, sometimes unexpected ways these emotions affect each member of the family.

Try not to compare your family to others.

“We beat ourselves up for not doing what we think is right,” Joyner-Hall said.

But remember: each household’s plan will look different depending on schedules, parental availability and the kids.

Look at small chunks of time.

Instead of wondering how to handle the entire school year, try asking: “How do I want this month to look?”

During a crisis, state courts, which handle divorce and child custody claims, may be forced to postpone hearing dates. Parents may be unable to access the legal routes typically available for resolving disputes and solidifying agreements.

The legal options available will differ by state, and legal counseling should always be sought from professionals who can provide guidance tailored to the family and their geographic area.

The following options for creating temporary agreements that last until the courts resume full operations or revising custody agreements and parenting plans during crises may be available to families in some states.


Mediation may take place over a video meeting platform. Each party contacts their lawyer and, over video, a mediator helps them work out an arrangement. The result may be an agreement, which is a contract, although not an enforceable court order.

Friendly Complaint

To get an enforceable court order, a friendly complaint could be filed by submitting the agreement reached by both parties to the court. The resulting order would be modifiable only upon a substantial change in circumstances. Before attempting this option, seek counsel from a licensed legal professional.

Have a Lawyer “Paper” an Agreement

Parents who reach an agreement for parenting in crisis on their own can contact their lawyer(s) to make it enforceable.

The coronavirus pandemic has proven particularly challenging for parents with shared custody of their children. But Stubbs, Memel and Joyner-Hall all have witnessed couples coming together to provide physical and emotional safety for their families during this time.

“Really, the majority of people do that,” Stubbs said. “But there are enough that don’t that I still am really busy with that percentage.”

This article is for informational purposes only. For legal advice, please seek the counsel of a legal professional.

Are you interested in counseling families? Learn more about what a master’s in marriage and family therapy can offer.