When it comes to setting a custodial care plan for children of divorcing parents, there is no end to controversy with regard to what is best. Decision-makers, influencers, researchers and clinicians differ a great deal when it comes recommending the ideal parenting arrangements in a divorce situation.
What all experts do agree on, however, is that children do best when their parents get along well and the children feel that they are being parented together by both mom and dad, as a team.
This handout is not intended to be fully comprehensive, nor is it intended to pre-determine what is best for your child or children. It is, however, a compilation of recent research and conclusions that I have read and heard time and again over the many years that I have been in the family law and mediation field.
Please know, however, that these findings are not necessarily representative of what is going on in the courts. Instead, these findings are more representative of what neuroscientists, human development experts and psychologists are finding to be true about the effect of various parenting arrangements on children of divorce.
When establishing a custodial care plan for your child, it is important to customize a plan that best fits your child’s present needs, bolsters his or her sense of security, as well as helps in the development of the relationship skills for now and the future.
When crafting your parenting arrangements, many clinicians will tell you that children do not count days or hours. They count quality of time. Bickering over make-up time and ensuring a quantifiable 50/50 split, for example, does little to assist your child in becoming a happy, emotionally healthy and balanced human being. They will remember the squabbling; not the number of days missed with Mom or Dad.
They count on whether or not they feel that their parents are always be there for them, without fighting and harsh words to each other, and whether their home life feels somewhat “normal” in relationship to their friends and neighbors.
Infants & Toddlers (0 -2.5 Years):
Infancy is a time for building attachments. Without strong attachments, a child will grow up to have difficulty bonding with and forming relationships with other people. Another primary developmental task for infants is to form trust in the environment, which requires consistency in both the caretaker and the baby’s home.
- Only about a quarter of an infant’s brain is developed at birth. The actual structure of a baby’s brain is formed in large part as a result of his/her human relationships.
- Many experts believe that there should be a primary caretaker. This is because infants and toddlers cannot maintain the image of their primary caretaker for long and this can cause extreme stress and confusion to a baby or toddler, who may already have outside caretakers in his or her life (such as daycare, nannies).
- Many experts believe that the mother is the best choice for the role of primary caretaker. This has to do with the theory that a mother’s brain is better wired to help an infant develop his/her ability to regulate and cope. This is related to the fact that an infant’s right brain (which reacts to deep primitive feelings) is more developed at birth than the left (thinking) side. In other words, many experts believe that mothers have a better innate capacity to” tune in” to infants than do fathers. This comes from new neuroscientific research and is not necessarily accepted by other disciplines or the courts.
- It is essential that babies and toddlers have frequent time with the noncustodial parent in order for them to bond with that parent—which will be essential when that baby grows into a preschooler.
Preschoolers (2.5 – 5 Years):
This is a time of continued growth and individuality. This is typically the age where time away from the primary caretaker should increase, and overnights with the noncustodial parent are recommended to become more frequent and regularized (if the child is being raised in a primary-caretaker style).
Some parents begin 50/50 custody at this age. This type of arrangement needs to be carefully considered in terms of the child’s personality, how well the parents get along and how close the parents live to one another.
- As preschool-aged children start becoming more and more curious about their physical world, many experts believe that lots of time with their fathers is essential to help their preschoolers explore, take risks and investigate their body’s relationship to their environment
- Preschoolers’ have much greater development of the left side of their brain than do infants and toddlers. This makes it easier for fathers to “tune in” to their children. Fathers and toddlers, some believe, are “wired” to be together and this is the time when the lack of a father can be hard on children in terms of meeting their development needs.
This period of development is focused on peer and community relationships. It is important during this stage of development for the noncustodial parent (if that is the parenting arrangements) to be part of the activities that his or her children are involved in. At this stage, children thrive on consistent contact with friends, school, and extra-curricular activities.
- In non 50/50 custody arrangements, many experts believe that the parenting plans should include multiple overnight visits per-week with the noncustodial parent.
- However, if a child is distressed by being away from the other parent, it is recommended that the time away should be decreased to a tolerable level, at least for a period of time.
- If a child tolerates the stress of living in two homes, however, this can be best in terms of his or her opportunity to form strong bonds with both parents.
- Time spent in your child’s “orbit” is important. Children at this age are watching everything you do. More often than not, children learn more by being around you and seeing how you handle life than they do from what you try and teach them directly.
During these years, children develop their academic, athletic, and artistic skills. The noncustodial parent (if that is the parents’ arrangement) is advised to schedule time with their child, as much as possible, within the orbit of the child’s home base. In 50/50 custody situations, children still tend to have a “home base” — in terms of schools, activities, friends and where they feel most “at home” — and the other parent will need to develop a comfort level with spending time where the child has built his or her world.
- Parent-child time needs to allow for the pre-teen’s social life, academics, sports and other extracurricular activities.
- Parents often find themselves more of a “chauffeur” than a parent at this stage of their child’s life; but driving your children to their various activities is often a good time to talk and share. Volunteer for carpools – you will learn a lot about your children’s friends this way and also get to know the other parents in your children’s circle.
- It is important for both parents to maintain a strong role in their pre-teen’s life. This fosters a healthy and lasting relationship with both parents. Strong parental bonds are key to a child’s ability to form relationships with others, both now and throughout their lives.
This period marks the beginning of psychological emancipation as children rapidly begin establishing their personal identify. Though parents are usually settled into a routine of care for their child at this age, that may change as these teenage children seek to have input into their parenting arrangements. The priorities for these young people are their social lives, academics, and their extracurricular activities. Spending quality time with Mom or Dad is not on their minds, like it may be for their parents. The pressure of having to make space in their busy lives for “quality time” with two parents, in two separate homes, may be a source of irritation and resentment for your busy teenager. Creativity is key at this time in order to stay in tune with your child, while at the same time respecting his or her need to grow-up.
- The custodial care schedule will need to be flexible in order to work with the teenager’s complex schedule.
- It is important to consider the teenager’s need for his or her own agenda, as this is a part of maturing and establishing independence.
- It is important to stay involved in the teenager’s activities such as academics, sports, arts, etc. This is important in order to maintain a healthy relationship with your teenager, show that you care, and know the people who your child is spending time with.
Posted by Robin Graine, JD, Virginia Supreme Court Certified Mediator
This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.