A. How Do You Divide the Child?
Children of all ages need stable and frequent contact with both their parents. However, children at different ages have different developmental needs and because of this, parenting plans must be fashioned that are appropriate to the psychosocial needs of the children.
While each situation has its own unique set of circumstances, developmental guidelines are helpful in arriving at a parenting plan that is most appropriate to the child’s needs. These general guidelines should be followed in conjunction with working out a specific child sharing arrangement: (1) minimize the child’s sense of loss; (2) maximize the relationship the child has with each parent; (3) Allow for successful mastery of age appropriate developmental tasks and consider redesigning arrangements for each child as development progresses.
Schedules for infants can be the most difficult to arrange. They require a very stable environment, a regular schedule, and consistent caregivers. When separated from a primary caregiver the infant can become distressed as they are deprived from their source of comfort and nurturtance. Ideally, the infant will not be separated from the primary caregiver for long periods of time. Ideally, both parents will have very frequent contact with the child as the infants memory is limited and for optimum bonding to occur there should be contact every two or three days for several hours if there is a non-resident parent. If possible the contact should take place in a familiar setting where the non-resident parent engages in lots of cuddling, talking, and playing. While overnights are generally not recommended for infants, if the child is particularly adaptable and perhaps as already grown accustomed to overnights at the non-residents parent’s home occasional overnight visits may be O.K. Consistency and stability are important.
When children are one to three years of age they continue to need stability and the predictability of routine. As the baby approaches one-year of age, daylong visits may be appropriate. As the toddler reaches 18 months old, two days with one overnight may be appropriate (e.g. on alternate weekends), providing they know the non-resident parent very well. Longer stays, at this stage should still be discouraged, as the child’s sense of time is still poor. During overnight stays the non-resident parent must be sensitive to the child and alert to signs of distress, such as increased fussiness, aggressiveness, tantrums, fears about separation, lack of smiling, or waking up crying through the night. If the toddler shows these signs the parents should return to a daytime schedule. If the overnights go smoothly, then, after a period of time, it may be advantageous to increase the one overnight to occur each week.
For preschoolers (3-5 years of age), more liberal guidelines suggest that the time with the non-resident parent can be expanded to two-night stretches. These could occur on an alternating week basis. Ideally, the child will continue to have contact with both parents without 3-4 days passing. Generally, children this age should not go more than seven to ten days without seeing the other parent. As with younger children, consistency of routine and frequent and predictable contact with both parents is desirable. Pre-schoolers are still developing their concept of time and have difficulty grasping the concept of “next week.” During this stage of development it is helpful to allow the child to visualize on a large calendar when they will be seeing the non-resident parent, again.
Latency age children (six years to twelve years of age) are ready for more extensive contact with a non-resident parent. If the goal is to have an equal time sharing arrangement with the child, this is an appropriate time to consider such a plan. During this phase of development the child’s peers and outside activities begin to take on greater significance. They will spend increased amount of time with their friends and outside activities and less time with the parents. It is important that the parenting schedule allow for these developmentally appropriate activities that foster the child’s socialization.
Because of adolescents more active social lives, they oftentimes prefer one residence. Because of the spontaneity of the adolescent, they enjoy spontaneous meetings with the non-resident parent of a few hours duration. If the parents live in the same neighborhood, many teenagers enjoy going back and forth between the two homes.
They prefer to do this on an informal basis, leaving messages, and letting the parents know how to have their friends reach them.
It is obvious that the parenting plan that is initially decided up may need to be revised over time as the child’s needs change. Sometimes “step-up” plans are incorporated into Court Orders that reflect the child’s changing developmental needs at different ages (e.g. one plan until the child reaches the age of three; and another plan when the child is five).
Guidelines are not hard and fast rules. Issues of the child’s temperament, sibling relationships, parental cooperation, history of involvement, sensitivity of the parent to the changing needs of the child, and practical considerations must all be taken into account. If parents cannot agree between themselves, consultation with an impartial mental health professional may assist them in devising an appropriate plan that fosters each child’s mastery of developmental tasks.
B. What Do You Do for an Out-of-State Parent?
Mental health professionals who work in the child custody field are in general agreement that stability and continuity of relationships are essential for supporting children’s post-divorce adjustment. As a general rule, children do best when not subjected to dramatic changes. However, as reminded by Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D. in her Amica Curiae Brief in the Burgess Case (December, 1995), many changes occur in the post-divorce family as parents attempt to reconstitute their separate lives.
A re-location for a child always subjects the child to certain risk factors (i.e. adjusting to a new school environment; making new friends; loss of the consistent involvement of a parent). The re-location move itself occurs following the child’s experience of the disruption of his or her family. Maintaining a relationship with a parent over a long distance provides an essential buffer against the impact of the additional disruption and some measure of protection against future unforeseen events. Sustaining the long distant relationship presents ongoing challenges long after the divorce is final.
The obvious difficulty is that the child is deprived from having shared experiences with a “left-behind” parent when the geographical distance precludes frequent contact. Therefore, the relationship may suffer and weaken. There is no specific social science research that addresses the necessary amount of contact required for sustaining a relationship over long distance. However, certainly developmental issues must be taken into consideration when attempting to sustain the long distant relationship with the emphasis being placed on trying to have shared experiences with the child.
For children from Infancy to 2-1/2 years of age parents should send as many photographs as possible. Taped messages in the parent’s own voice is very effective. The child’s name should be used frequently on the tape-recorded message. Singing songs to the child or tape recording the child’s favorite stories may also be useful. In addition, sending the child paper cutouts, stickers, homemade items, or shells or other objects from the parent’s locale may be helpful. Cards for all holidays and special occasions should be sent. Long distant telephone calls can be helpful as the child hears the voice of the parent. However, the parent should not expect reciprocation at this early stage of development. Clearly less can be done for children under the age of 2-1/2 years because of their lack of language and inability to hold images for long periods of time. Of course there is no substitution for frequent visits, which should be arranged, as much as possible, in both directions.
For children 2-1/2 years to five years of age, frequent telephone calls should be arranged. Because pre-school children vary with respect to their ability to speak on the telephone, there should not be an expectation of reciprocity. The parent needs to realize that the phone call may be a “one-way” conversation. The parent should avoid asking the question “why” with the child, as the typical response will be, “I don’t know.” Open-ended questions are also difficult for children this age. Specific questions about the details of their lives are the best way to get information. For example, “did you go to the park this week?” However, there is always the risk the custodial parent will interpret such questioning as probing if the parents continue to be in conflict. In addition to telephone calls, sending cassette tapes and letters as often as possible where the messages are personalized by giving information about yourself and using the child’s name often should be implemented. Reminiscing with the child about shared experiences is also very helpful. A parent can also send a drawing that they have started and ask the child to complete the drawing and then return it; the drawing can then be discussed with the child. The parent should enclose in letters things such as stickers, balloons, candy or other treats. Send photographs and perhaps subscribe to children’s magazine (received by both parent and child) where the stories can be read over the telephone or on cassette tape.
With respect to children of school age, six to twelve years old, receiving mail is a tremendous source of pleasure for children. Telephone calls can now become 2-way conversations. Tapes, video and cassette, can be sent back and forth. Parents should know what their child’s favorite TV shows are, and watch them, so they can be discussed with the child. The computer can be used for e-mail and “real-time” conversations. Parents could encourage the child to keep a scrapbook, where photographs and other items can be placed of remembrances. Also, the parent can contribute equipment related to hobbies or special interests (i.e. ballet shoes, football, etc.) so the child has the feeling the parent has contributed to a significant aspect of their life and can serve as a constant reminder to the child.
For older children, twelve years old and into adolescence, children can assume more responsibility for traveling to visit. The parent must realize, however, that adolescence is a period of development where peer relationships take on great significance and can surpass the desire to visit with a parent. Including the child’s friends may help facilitate contact. An attempt should be made to have telephone calls initiated by the adolescent. Providing the adolescent with a calling card or showing them how to call collect is helpful. As the adolescent is moving toward greater independence an effort should be made by the parent to not be overly critical or prying. Sending food is a very good way to sustain the contact with the adolescent along with clothes or grooming items. The computer has become a means of communicating for many adolescents so the use of e-mail can be effective and less expensive than frequent long distance telephone calls. Magazine subscriptions are another useful way of maintaining contact, while serving as a continual reminder for the child of a parent’s interest. In addition, making arrangements to provide tickets to either a sporting event or musical event can communicate a parent’s involvement and interest.
Maintaining a relationship with a child over long distance involves many obstacles, but these can be overcome with consistent efforts on the part of the parent. Of course, cooperation between the parents continues to be a significant factor, as with all post divorce adjustments, but this is particularly important in the case of the parents separated from their child by great geographical distance.
C. Developmental Issues of Children vs. Parental Demands in Structuring Visitations Schedules
See section V.A.
D. Split Custody Issues.
Split custody refers to various parenting plans for more than one child where each parent has sole legal and physical custody of one or more children and the non-custodial parent has rights of visitation (e.g. father awarded custody of son, mother awarded custody of daughter). Both parents may have visitation rights with the noncustodial child.
Such an arrangement is generally agreed upon as not being the preferred custodial arrangement. Split custody arrangements are therefore the least common arrangement as mental health professionals; judges and parents themselves are reluctant to separate siblings. For children already exposed to the turmoil of a divorce, having them in a split custody arrangement may compound their sense of loss. In addition, children can feel rejected if not chosen to go with a particular parent. Oftentimes extreme jealousy toward the other sibling who was chosen may become apparent and compromise a child’s psychological and emotional adjustment.
Exceptions occasionally occur, however, and split custody may be considered when the interactions between siblings are extremely destructive. Even in these circumstances efforts should be made to arrange visitations in such a way that overlapping time is provided where the children can have some time together.
Split custody is sometimes seen when children are in very different stages of psychosocial development. For example, when one child is in adolescence and the other child is much younger, perhaps a toddler. The adolescent may elect to live with one parent over the other while the younger child may remain in the primary custody of the other parent.
In an effort and attempt to allow siblings to remain together and also to facilitate the creation of a family in both re-constituted homes, split custody is rarely recommended or selected as a custodial choice.
E. Use of Guardians Ad Litem and Visitation Expediters to Resolve Parental Conflicts on Scheduling
See section III.D.