When Illness Strikes: Navigating a Sick Child When Parents are Separated

February 9, 2023

There’s no question that caring for a sick child is no easy feat – add into the mix the inherent challenges presented by separated parents, and it can create a recipe for additional stress and chaos.

In order to see these difficulties play out, one needs to look no further than this most recent cold and flu season. Indeed, for many parents with minor children in the United States—regardless of marital status—this most recent cold and flu season has, and continues to, hit hard. Beginning in the Fall, there has been seemingly non-stop news coverage on the packed state of pediatric hospital wings and emergency rooms due to large (and early) spikes in COVID-19, RSV, influenza, and other similar illnesses among children. While, according to the CDC, these trends seem to be improving as of late, the remainder of the winter months continues to be a concern.

Parenting a Sick Child is Difficult

As any parent will likely agree, when a child gets sick, there’s a ripple effect. Clearly, there’s the emotional and physical aspects of having a sick child. Specifically, watching your sickly child can be emotionally and physically exhausting for a parent, not to mention the sleepless nights that sometimes come with caring for an especially young, sick child.

There’s also the logical aspects of having a sick child. Generally speaking, plans must be rearranged, doctor’s appointments must be scheduled, work may have to be missed, and thus, sick and vacation time (if paid at all) cashed in, money and time lost, etc. For example, in October 2022, over 100,000 workers in the United States missed work due to a childcare issue, setting a new all-time high. Naturally, while these logistical challenges, understandably, take second fiddle to ensuring that a child gets well, that doesn’t mean that they don’t create very real implications and consequences for working parents.

When parents are living separately, this ripple effect is even more pronounced. Now, not only are the parents navigating all the realities and challenges of having a sick child, but they are tasked with doing the same over two households. However, while each individual situation is different, the following three tips, if mutually followed, should best enable separated parents to collectively navigate the challenges of a sick child.

Tip #1: Communication is Key

While communication is always essential when co-parenting, it is even more imperative for separated parents to communicate clearly and effectively when they are caring for a sick child. The list of potential topics that may need to be discussed when a child is sick is not only lengthy, but for many of the subjects, there is a possibility of very serious consequences to the health and safety of a child if not appropriately addressed. Some of those potential topics include the following:

  • The scheduling of doctor’s appointments
  • The recommended course of medical care
  • The giving and timing of medications,
  • Any necessary changes to the parenting time schedule
  • Updates on the child’s condition
  • A plan of action for who will be caring for the child while they are sick
  • Any resulting arrangements that need to be made

While some parenting agreements will set forth exactly what needs to be communicated and when it needs to be communicated in the context of a sick child, it’s impossible for these types of provisions, by their nature, to be comprehensive. In this way, with a sick child, over-communication may be better than under-communication, as the same will best enable both parents to navigate the situation over two households.

Tip #2: Use Common Sense

In parenting agreements, there is often a provision that states something like the following:

“No agreement can adequately spell out what should be common sense when dealing with an ill or injured child.”

Regardless of whether this provision is included in a governing parenting agreement, the sentiment conveyed by the same is completely and totally accurate. When caring for a sick child over two households, common sense must rule the day. For example, care instructions from a treating doctor should be followed across both households. As a result, both parents should ensure that each has the relevant information (and if applicable, medication) in order to adequately comply with the doctor’s instructions. If a child is too ill or injured to go for scheduled parenting time, make-up time should be readily offered. Of course, all things being equal, both parents are able to care for a sick child. In this way, a sick child, in and of itself, is not a reason to deny a parent his or her parenting time, without other extenuating circumstances. These things are common sense. In this way, adhering to common sense in the context of a sick child will create the best situation for the child and for the parents.

Tip #3: Be Flexible

In a similar vein, when caring for a sick child over two households, it is typically not the time or place to be overly rigid or take action (or fail to take action) in order to prove a point. Instead, flexibility is crucial. Of course, there are some scenarios when, despite having a sick child, rigid adherence to the terms of a parenting agreement remains important—for instance, in the context of provisions governing the giving and notification of medications to the affected child, or adherence to doctor’s care instructions. However, in the context of a sick child, it may make the most sense for other aspects of a parenting agreement to become a little more flexible given the circumstances. For example, in certain circumstances involving a sick child, rigid adherence to the start times and end times of parenting time, the precise parenting time schedule, or transportation provisions may not be appropriate. To be sure, neither parent should use the scenario of a sick child to try to take advantage of the other parent. But, ultimately, with a sick child, it’s usually best for there to be a give and take between the parents, so as to ensure that the affected child is cared for in a way which best suits his or her needs and least impacts both households.

For questions or guidance on these or other child custody issues, please contact Janet Stewart Scalley (JS@kjk.com), or another member of KJK Family Law by calling 216.696.8700.