How is COVID-19 affecting children in shared custody situations? A family therapist weighs in

Dr. Gina Galloway and Attorney Justin Sisemore

Fort Worth divorce attorney Justin Sisemore, founder of the Sisemore Law Firm, recently sat down with Gina Galloway Ph.D., a Tarrant County family therapist, to find out how families are dealing with challenges in the midst of the pandemic.

From the stressors of quarantine to disagreements over mask-wearing to the inability to get disputes resolved in court, Dr. Galloway has seen and heard a lot.

Among her many specialties, Dr. Galloway counsels parents and children before, during and after divorce. For over a decade, Dr. Galloway has been a frequent witness in the Tarrant County family courts, where she is often asked to testify on issues pertaining to children during divorce and child custody disputes.

While Justin has seen and heard many things from clients at the law firm in recent months, he knew Dr. Galloway would be able to share a different perspective.

The following is their exchange on how families are adapting to the challenges of the pandemic, and insight on how to cope and adapt during these trying times.

You can find additional resources for families dealing with divorce and child custody during the pandemic on our COVID-19 Resources page.

Justin Sisemore: I want to address a topic that’s on everybody’s brain. We’ve all been stuck in the house, dealing with stress of COVID-19 and related issues. What trends are you seeing, specifically, in your counseling sessions these days?

Dr. Gina Galloway: The biggest trend I’m seeing with these families—those who are separated, divorced or going through divorce—is a where one household views and handles COVID very differently from the other household.

For example, you may have a dad say, “We don’t go anywhere unless we absolutely have to. If we do go anywhere at all, we wear masks.” The child isn’t allowed to have play dates and must stay at home. Then you’ve got the other household, where the child lives 50 percent of the time. Mom is letting the child have play dates, and they don’t wear masks because mom thinks this is all this big scam.

JS: How are the kids in these situations coping with their parent’s opposing views about wearing masks?

Dr. G.: I actually had a preteen child tell me the other day that their stepdad said, “Well if we get it, we know we got it from you,” because the child didn’t have to wear a mask in the other household. Obviously, that’s a lot of undue pressure to place on a child. So it’s clearly an issue.

Another child shared that they wanted to wear a mask while visiting a big box store and a large gathering with their father, and the father said, “No.” He even scolded the child for trying to cover their face in those situations.

Clearly these opposing views create more than the usual conflict for these kiddos. They end up being put in the middle and not having a say, which can be very stressful for a child.

JS: Agreed. It’s unfair to put these kids in the middle, and that can only make a stressful time even more difficult right now. How should parents handle these types of disputes, where clearly there are two very different views on COVID-19?

Dr. G.: It isn’t easy. The parent who’s stricter tends to be the one who is upset with the parent who is not as strict. I encourage that parent to try to very respectfully dialog with the other parent about what their thoughts are, why they’re thinking this, why they want to do this. And to be prepared that the other parent may say, “No. I don’t agree. I’m not doing that.”

At that point, it’s a matter of having to accept that’s how the other person is choosing to proceed in this situation, in this environment.

It’s also important for that parent to talk with their child about the situation. For the child who tried to cover their face, mom could say, “We just have to accept that that’s just dad. That’s how he’s taking this. There’s nothing we can do about it. We just need to try to be as safe and healthy as possible.”

JS: The court only allows emergency hearings right now, which means many issues we’d like to resolve in front of a judge have been put on hold. From our perspective, we’ve been handling more legal issues with clients via Zoom meetings and hearings. Is that something you and your team have been utilizing?

Dr. G.: I haven’t personally been involved with any Zoom hearings yet but some of my associates at Galloway Consulting Center have had a Zoom conferences with judges. You bring up another good point about not getting into court though.

Some of my cases that normally should have gone back into court because things are going on have had to wait. Unfortunately, some of these parents are getting a temporary pass on some of their bad behavior because the situation doesn’t qualify as an emergency, so they can’t get back in front of a judge.

JS: The key word there is temporary. While some parents may have to practice some self-help to resolve issues right now, it’s important that they don’t cross the line, where they end up creating a parental alienation or emergency situation. I’ve seen judges come down hard and fast on parents who are trying to take advantage of the current situation. When the dust settles, their actions could have a serious and negative impact on the outcome of their custody case.

That’s why it’s really helpful for parents to utilize counselors and mental health professionals like you for advice in these situations. Parents just can’t get into court immediately today, say the child has a scratch or some other issue that would have been quickly resolved in court prior to COVID-19. Speaking with someone who can guide them on steps to take in the meantime can really bring peace of mind.

Thank you for shedding some light on this topic today Dr. Galloway.

Dr. G.: Happy to help Justin.

Get additional insight on how to navigate child custody and visitation during the coronavirus pandemic here.

Texas residents in search of family counseling and support can reach Dr. Galloway through her website

To schedule a confidential divorce or child custody case review with Justin, contact the Sisemore Law Firm in Fort Worth at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

The information above is general in nature and shouldn’t be construed as legal or medical advice. Consult an attorney or mental health professional to find out what steps your family should take next.