Divorced Parents Are Clashing Over COVID-19 Vaccines

Lambeth Hochwald

July 12, 2021

Now that the COVID-19 vaccines are available for children ages 12 years and older, some divorced parents are facing a challenge: What to do when one parent wants the kids to get the COVID-19 vaccine and the other parent doesn't.

This is the situation facing Michelle Roy-Augustin*, a divorced mom of two sons, ages 12 and 10, who lives in Los Angeles, California. While her ex-wife wants their 12-year-old-son to get vaccinated right away, Roy-Augustin would rather wait, as some teenagers, albeit rarely, have had heart inflammation after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, according to the CDC.

"I'd prefer to wait for there to be a larger sample size of kids getting the vaccine to see if there any other problems," said Roy-Augustin. She added that she and her ex-wife are vaccinated and that the two have never disagreed about any of the other vaccinations their sons have received throughout their childhoods.

"This is the first time we've disagreed about something like this. We've been remarkably on the same page with most of our co-parenting decisions — until now."

Ask divorce attorneys, and they'll tell you that they've litigated plenty of vaccine issues between ex-spouses lately. But the law is clear: Generally speaking, if the parents aren't divorced or living under an order, either parent can give consent for a child to be vaccinated, said Jennifer S. Hargrave, a divorce attorney at Hargrave Family Law in Dallas, Texas.

"However, once the parents separate and are living under a parenting order [such as a divorce decree], the order will govern which parent has the rights to decide on a child's medical care, including 'invasive medical procedures' such as vaccines, since these puncture the skin," she said.

Depending on the agreement, the right to consent to this sort of procedure requires both parents to agree. In other words, if one parent does not agree to it, that parent can stop the child from getting the vaccine, Hargrave said.

"The other parent can ask the court to use their judgment to step in and determine whether the child should have the vaccine," she said.

For Roy-Augustin, the to-vaccinate-or-not negotiation with her ex-spouse remains ongoing — and stressful.

"I text my ex studies about the side effects of the vaccine, but I doubt she reads them," she said. "My ex operates in a state of constant health anxiety. I think she's assuming the schools will mandate the vaccine and then I'll have no choice."

Until the COVID-19 vaccine becomes mandatory — if that happens, that is — neither parent should unilaterally sign off on a child's vaccine without the other's consent, said Chantelle A. Porter, a family law attorney at A. Traub & Associates in Lombard, Illinois.

"It's best to inform the other parent if you have the sole decision-making responsibility or get consent from your ex-spouse if you have joint decision-making," she said.

If you still can't come to a resolution and you remain in two separate vaccine camps, with neither party even coming close to a concession, you might consider sitting down with your child's pediatrician or a mediator.

"I believe it helps for both parents to sit down and have a conversation with an expert about the pros and cons of the vaccine," Porter said. "It's also a neutral place where you can raise any concerns you might have."

As for Roy-Augustin, she's hoping to decide by the fall.

"We now have millions of kids getting their second shot," she said. "If there aren't any problems by October, then I will consider it — but maybe the J&J and not two shots?"

Three Ways to Bridge the COVID-19 Vax Gap

If you and your spouse just can't decide whether to have your child vaccinated against COVID-19, you should find a way to discuss this maturely, because this issue isn't going to disappear overnight, said Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City and author of Light on the Other Side of Divorce.

Below, Cohen, also the self-described "Divorce Doctor," suggests three ways to best communicate about this:

  1. Separate your feelings for your ex from your co-parenting responsibilities.

In fact, your goal should be to rethink the entire way you're talking to your ex, Cohen said. "Ask yourself: 'If I was negotiating with a business partner, how would I approach this situation?'" she suggests. "Yes, your ex is someone you have likely had a long history of not feeling heard. And, yes, this is playing into your conversations with your ex, but you have to put those feelings aside for the sake of resolving this."

  1. Stay factual.

Avoid saying things like, "'You always' or 'You never cared about the kids' medical stuff before, why do you care now?'" Cohen suggests.

"Instead, be very clear about why you feel like this is the right decision," she said. "Again, explain it as if you were talking to a neutral person and take any emotional language out of the discussion."

  1. Respect your ex's point of view.

It can be very challenging, but it's very important to come from a place of respect for the other person's opinion, Cohen said.

"Remember, your ex feels just as strongly about this as you do," she said. "Ask him or her to explain how they came to their decision. Remember: Your underlying anger and resentment towards this person has nothing to do with whether your child should get the vaccine — or not."

*Name changed for privacy purposes.