When parents divorce, they often find themselves needing to make some very weighty decisions regarding their children's care. While issues of custody, living arrangements, and visitation rights must be addressed, by their very nature, they disrupt the family unit of the children involved. As such, negative emotional consequences may result, even when things are planned appropriately. Therefore, it is very important for divorcing parents to consider what will be in their children's best interest. One way in which to do so is to consult child development guidelines. Assuming that neither parent is abusive and that both desire to be positively involved in their children's lives, there are some basic parameters to evaluate when making such decisions.
Generally speaking, children from birth through age two-and-a-half need to know that they will not be abandoned. They will, therefore, thrive best with predictability and routine. For this reason, it may be best for primary custody to be granted to the parent who is the primary caregiver of the child's physical needs and the parent with whom the child spends the greatest proportion of awake time, and thus, the one with whom the child is most familiar. Therefore, it is best at this stage for the child to consistently spend each night at the home of the primary caregiver, with the ideal situation being that the visiting parent stops by daily for visits of only one to two hours in length. Keeping this basic bond intact helps the child to develop trust and a sense of security, which will be important throughout his or her lifespan.
Children between the ages of two and five years are also concerned that they will be abandoned, but they are additionally concerned that they are the cause of the divorce. Parents should be careful to dispute this incorrect notion and to let the child know that there is also nothing he or she can do that can reunite the parents and change the situation. Also, because children of this age are able to mentally consider the future, it is important for parents to reassure them that they will be reunited with the missing parent at a given time. Setting clear and dependable visitation arrangements is important, as is the need to promote respect for both the father and the mother, even in their absence.
At this stage, overnights at the visiting parent's home are best kept to a maximum of one or two nights, with the child spending the remainder of the week at their primary residence, so as to minimize feelings of loss and separation from the primary caregiver.
Children need to be reassured that it is all right that they have loyalty to the other parent and to establish a good relationship with that parent. However, it is best to keep the child's surroundings as familiar and dependable as possible.
Once children reach six years of age, they can tolerate longer separations from their primary caregivers without extreme fear. The primary concern at this stage is to allow the child access to both parents via a safe arrangement and one that is completed without parental conflict. It is important for children to have both male and female role models at this stage of development, so if possible, it is best for both mother and father to be actively involved in the child's life.
It is important for parents to make certain the friends and activities of their children in the six to eight-year-old age group be kept as stable and predictable as possible, so as to minimize the losses outside of the home as well. At this stage, it may be possible for the visiting parent to have up to a forty-percent share of the child's time, as long as the visiting parent is willing to transport the child to his or her regular activities. Week long stays are fine, but there should ideally be a limit on overnights at the visiting parent's home to no more than two weeks at a time, with good contact with the absent parent encouraged throughout.
Between the ages of nine and 12 years old, the child might demand an explanation of the reasons for the divorce, and it will become necessary for all concerned to avoid the trap of pitting one parent against the other, and to help the child deal with feelings of rage associated with precipitants of the divorce. At this stage, a child can have some input into the construction of the living and visitation arrangements, but importance might best be placed on providing a predictable and stable primary home life where both parents take care to build relationships with the child's teachers, coaches, and friends. Visitation can be longer at this stage, with one or two full weeks being acceptable.
Children from the ages of 13 through 18 years are primarily concerned with their social network and developing their sense of autonomy and individual identity. At this age, it is most helpful for the child's input to be taken into consideration, as allowing the child to feel he or she has a say in the living and visitation arrangements goes a long way. As with the other stages, it is important for structure to be in place which cannot be manipulated to suit the child's every whim, but which can be flexible enough to allow the child to renegotiate should a certain activity or need warrant it. Depending on the individual, this stage might produce anger or realistic objectivity in the child. It is at this point that joint-custody or fully-shared custody is definitely possible.
No matter the age of the child, parents are cautioned to recognize that although they are divorcing, it is in the best interest of the child to have the opportunity to spend time with each parent under safe constructs. Children benefit from the unique.htmlects of both the father and the mother, as long as neglect and abuse are absent, and responsible communication on the part of both parents is key to helping arrangements go smoothly.
It is wise to keep in mind that a periodic reevaluation of residence and visitation arrangements is beneficial for the child, so that parents can determine if they are still meeting the child's developmental needs. At times, children may regress to a prior developmental stage, but through thoughtful consideration by parents and the passage of time, children will eventually attain the next stage. When parents consider the needs of the child before their own, they provide the child with a protective buffer against some of the emotional turmoil which accompanies divorce.
Barris, M., & Garrity, C. (1988). “Children of Divorce: A Developmental Approach to Residence and Visitation.”DeKalb, IL: Psytec Corporation.
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