Blog: Parental disputes magnified by lockdown



Shona Smith (top)
and Lynne Mulcahy

Couples who split up often have very different views on how to do things and Covid-19 has magnified this enormously, write Shona Smith and Lynne Mulcahy.

We have seen the breakdown of lots of arrangements for shared child care that rubbed along perfectly well until last year.

Never before has the gulf in parenting attitudes been so stark as it has been over what is acceptable in lockdown conditions.

One parent might follow restrictions to the absolute letter, then the kids come back from mum or dad and tell them they went to aunty’s house, played with her kids, saw grandma in her house, then went shopping… or went in to see the neighbours.

Children often say something innocent about what has happened during their time with mum or dad and it sets off a huge rumpus.

This is sometimes made worse because the parent sticking closely to the guidance might have an elderly relative who is unwell, or a medical condition themselves. If they see the other parent as much more lackadaisical, that creates a real problem.

We have been hearing these stories regularly since the first lockdown.

Sometimes, it simply exacerbates underlying tensions about new relationships. The kids might tell dad, for example, that they went round with mum to her new boyfriend’s house, and that his kids were there too. If a new partner has children also in a shared care arrangement, that makes the risk worse in the eyes of the more cautious parent because it’s an additional household mixing.

Generally, parents aren’t complaining to be difficult. They feel sincerely about these issues, they feel anxious.

There have been extreme cases where one parent has refused to return children to the other parent at the agreed time because they genuinely feel their health is being threatened.

Most major problems have occurred where relationships that were already fragile have cracked, and that has definitely impacted on children. Some have spent less time with a ‘non-resident parent’ because the other parent has deemed their behaviour to be ‘unsafe’.

Holidays have been another divisive issue. It was chaotic around the time where you could travel to some countries, with parents looking at differing quarantine restrictions and whether the kids would be back in time to return to school.. For some, the idea of children missing school was terrible. For others, going on holiday was the big thing.

This is likely to continue this year. Parents are already using holidays as a bargaining chip, saying things like: “I’m not even going to talk about summer holidays unless he/she does X & Y.”

We’ve always told people that they will parent in different ways, because they are different human beings - but that’s OK. Everyone will adapt; your children are flexible. But in a health crisis like this, things are very different.

Guidance has changed a lot over the last year and much of it is about interpretation. We find ourselves trying to keep up with the briefings to make sure we are at least fully up-to-date about what the guidance says when we are speaking to parents.

We advise them it’s vital to communicate effectively and act reasonably and sensibly in the light of the Government guidance in place at that time - but it can be uncomfortable finding middle ground when people have such strong views and when the guidance is changing. As lawyers, we are used to rules that apply in a fixed way for a lengthy period. Guidance over the last year has often only lasted for weeks at a time.

The pressure on governments to set out roadmaps will continue. In an ideal world, it would be very helpful for guidance on summer holidays to be clear and definitive, given well in advance and not changed regularly – but we accept that we are where we are.

The next challenge will come with the Covid-19 vaccination programme. We know there are strongly-held opinions on vaccines and in the event that they are rolled out to children, it’s likely to be a big issue where parents have totally opposing views.

Shona Smith is head of family law and Lynne Mulcahy is a family law partner at Balfour and Manson