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US: COVID co-parenting: Some divorced parents battle over vaccines for kids

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For many separated or divorced parents, the COVID-19 vaccine for children isn't a relief, but rather another source of co-parenting contention.

That's certainly the case for Jillian, a 32-year-old mom of three living in Washington State. She's eager to get her children protected against a virus that has claimed over 750,000 American lives, and cheered when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the two-shot Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use for kids ages 5 through 11 on Oct. 29.

While she says her ex-husband never had an issue with their three children, ages 9, 8, and 5, receiving other FDA-approved vaccination shots — like the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines — he doesn't want his children to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

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"He doesn't agree that the children should be getting it without years of research proving that it works and that it's not going to kill our children," Jillian told TODAY Parents (we are withholding the last names of the parents in this article to protect their children's privacy). "We have talked about it two or three times, because we knew it was going to be something we'd eventually have to decide, but his mindset is that even if the kids caught Covid they'd be fine, so why get a shot to prevent it?"

In fact, COVID can have serious consequences for children. An estimated 6.4 million children have tested positive for COVID, and as many as 897 have died as a result, according to most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting. And studies have shown that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, including for kids ages 5 to 11.

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Related: Pediatricians answer common questions and concerns about the shot.

Despite studies, published data, and recommendations from infectious disease experts, some parents are hesitant to give their kids the vaccine. A constant stream of misinformation, the proliferation of conspiracy theories, and inconsistent safety guidelines are adding to the difficulties that often come with parenting alongside an ex.

More and more co-parents are going to court over COVID-19 vaccines for children.

"There has been a significant increase" in court cases, lawyer Hillary Moonay, a partner at Oberymayer law firm's family law department, tells TODAY. "Now... disputes are creeping into flu vaccine concerns as well. I believe this is primarily because parents who do not want their child to get the COVID-19 vaccine believe it helps their position if they now claim they do not want their child to get the flu vaccine either."

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Moonay says her law firm is fielding calls about COVID-related family disputes on a weekly basis. "For comparison, prior to the pandemic, custody-related vaccine issues were rare," she says. "I probably had a total of two or three over the course of my 25-year career before now." This past summer her team successfully litigated one case where they represented a parent wanting to vaccinate their child.

"Most commonly, judges are not deciding whether a child should receive the vaccine but, instead, awarding one parent sole legal custody to make that decision," Moonay explains. "Judges are primarily relying upon the recommendations of the children’s pediatrician or family doctor to reach a decision. Additionally, judges are considering whether a child has had other childhood vaccines without the objection of either parent."

Why some co-parents are arguing over the Covid-19 vaccine for kids.

"Really nobody has experienced something like this before. It has been an extremely stressful and life-changing time," Dr. Amanda Craig, PhD, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist practicing in New York City, tells TODAY Parents. "Then you add in the current political climate and a choice parents have to make with a person who they probably have a contentious relationship with, and it's a perfect storm that turns a little ole vaccine into a massive decision point."

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Craig adds that arguments surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine are, frequently, not about the vaccine at all, but about deeper issues within the co-parenting relationship.

Jillian says her divorce was far from amicable, and the vaccine is one of many points of contention. "He doesn't like giving me child support," she adds. "He doesn't like the way I parent. He disagrees with me and my wife and how we're raising them."

The two also disagree politically. "He thinks Covid was just a way to get President Joe Biden elected," she explains. "He believes my wife and I are only vaccinated or wear masks because we're Democrats instead of Republicans."

Related: An FDA advisory committee is expected to meet next week to discuss Pfizer and BioNTech's request to authorize their vaccine for children in that age range.

How to handle COVID and co-parenting

Craig encourages parents to get second, third, even fourth opinions from trusted and accredited medical professionals. "Ask the pediatrician," she explains. "If the child sees a therapist or another medical professional due to a medical issue, get all of their opinions — both parents."

There are go-to phrases and questions you can use will help the conversation be more productive.

"'Tell me more' are the best words you can use in a conversation where maybe you're not seeing eye-to-eye," Dr. Meredith Shirey, MF, LMFT, a psychotherapist practicing in New York City, tells TODAY. "Because you’re not saying you’re going to agree or disagree, you’re just saying that you want to understand their perspective. And often times when we fully understand someone’s perspective on why they want or do not want to do something, it opens up the door and it makes the solution a lot more clear. You have to hear each other first."

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Shirey says it helps to state why your vaccination stance is so important to you, and ask your ex why they feel the way they feel, what worries or fears they may have, and to both go through the pros and cons of vaccinating and not vaccinating your child or children.

Related: Kids are returning to school this month, and children under the age of 12 still can't be vaccinated. An expert panel answered TODAY's biggest questions.

If your co-parenting relationship is contentious, you may have to rely on the legal boundaries set in your co-parenting agreement and/or divorce.

"You can start that conversation by saying, 'Hey, I wanted to keep you informed,' because that sets an assertive tone without being authoritarian," Shirey says.

Jillian does have sole medical decision-making power. She says that while she is taking her ex-husband's hesitation into account, in the end she is going to get her children the COVID-19 vaccine.

"He's bothered that he doesn't have any say over it," she explains. "But we told the kids it's up to them and they said they want the vaccine, so they're going to get it."

Related: "This is going to be a huge issue," said one expert.

Bailee, a 38-year-old mother of two living in Washington state, cannot rely on her legal parenting plan: It requires both parents to agree on medical decisions for their children. She says she can't have a calm discussion with her ex-husband about most things, and their conversations gotten worse due to the pandemic.

"He is not ready to make a decision about the Covid-19 vaccine, as he believes there isn't enough information available for him," Bailee tells TODAY. "As bad as it sounds, I think it might be a way to upset me, as we have a very contentious relationship and he knows I believe strongly in masks and vaccines."

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Bailee says she has started a mediation through Volunteers of America, in the hopes that they can come to an agreement, but she's worried. "It's super frustrating," she says. "Luckily, our kids have the best attitude about staying safe and masking up."

Both Craig and Shirey say that it's OK to ask your children what they want to do, using age-appropriate language.

"You can have a conversation around what your kids think about the vaccine, whether or not it's something they talk to their friends about, and if it's something they want to do," Dr. Craig adds. "You can tell then it's two shots over a period of a month and give them those types of details and feedback. They're hearing about it at school, so it behooves parents to get involved."

Related: Between camp, vacations and the school year ahead, how safe are summer or fall plans for kids?

Protecting your mental health while co-parenting

There are things co-parents can do to protect their mental health as they navigate these difficult conversations.

"When you’re going through some kind of relationship shift, you need to do individual therapy," Shirey says. "It's the best place to help you get some perspective on ... the power struggle, or to identify the things that can be triggering."

Bailee says she has started seeing a therapist, in part to help her handle how differently she and her son's father view Covid-19, the aftermath of the 2020 election and social injustices. "We are very different people with very different views, and I worry that conflicting views from your mother and your father can be really difficult for kids," she says. "My therapist has been a lifesaver."

Related: Get advice on how to navigate tricky conversations with friends and family.

If therapy isn't an option, Shirey says journaling can help people process their emotions and gain perspective.

"You can go back every week and read the journal entries," she explains. "I would not recommend doing that on your phone or on any internet-enabled device — god forbid you hit send — but a pencil and paper journal is a great way to allow yourself to free-flow. Write a letter to your partner that you’d never send in that journal where you can get all the emotions out — all the anger, all the bitterness, all the resentment, all of it. Call them every name in the book, that’s fine. Because you need to be able to kind of drain the tank, so to speak."

Related:

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