Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Child Custody Decisions and Child Age Differences

Children's age differences affect their response to separation.

Next week I'll be participating in an orientation program for new judges in my state, who will be starting their work in family court. They will be dealing with child custody in divorce cases, with visitation and with termination of parental rights, and with other concerns about children and their families. In most cases, these judges will deal with matters that have come to court either because divorcing parents can't agree or because some family problem has come to official attention. Under the traditional "family veil" assumption, courts do not interfere in family functioning unless it has become clear that children are suffering in some way, so these judges will not be making decisions unless it is clear that the family is not doing a good enough job in their own decision-making.

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I have a lot of sympathy for the family court judges, who are faced with enormous amounts of information and usually have limited training in psychological theory or research. In family court, they are often called upon to cope with the concept of attachment and with very confusing statements about the effects of separation on children. Looking at appeals court decisions in my state (New Jersey) over the last several decades, I see precedents for a wide variety of decisions involving attachment theory-- enough to confuse any judge, or anyone else for that matter. For example, in an older case, Sees v. Baber, 1977, the decision assumed that one year (that is, the period from birth to one year of age) was not sufficient for the child to form an attachment. In a later case, Zack v. Fiebert, 1989, the decision assumed that the role of attachment in the lives of adolescents was the same as that for toddlers, and that teenage children would be harmed by the absence of a familiar parent if they were to visit grandparents more often. In V.C. v. M.J.B, 1999, an attorney argued unsuccessfully that three-year-olds are too young to be affected by separation from a familiar caregiver.

What is the reality of the situation? Are all children severely affected by separation from unfamiliar people? Are ANY children affected? The answers to these questions need to be approached from a developmental point of view. That is, children of different ages can be expected to respond differently to separation.

To deal with the first question, however, the first point that needs discussion is how severe "severe" is. There seems to be no evidence that even the most abrupt and distressing separations in and of themselves cause mental illness or criminal behavior. Children who have had rocky attachment histories, but who are placed with good, consistent, permanent caregivers, make up developmentally for a great many of the problems they may have, as we see in the work of Michael Rutter and other researchers on the Romanian orphanage children adopted by British families. Nevertheless, abrupt separations cause at least short-term distress, and as children recover from this, their depression, apathy, poor sleeping, and poor eating may interfere with cognitive and emotional development that ought to be going on at that point. The children do not "stop developing", but their development follows a less-than-ideal path for some time.

Babies under 6 months show relatively little concern about separation from caregivers, although they may experience distress as new caregivers take a while to figure out a given baby's needs, habits, and communications. Babies between 6 and 12 months who have begun to show attachment to familiar people are likely to protest vigorously against separation and to go through some months of disturbance and re-adjustment before an attachment to new caregivers can be seen. These babies have a particularly hard time because they combine a fear of the unfamiliar with language development so immature that no explanation or discussion of their feelings is possible. New caregivers can help these babies weather their experiences by sensitive, comforting responses, which the caregivers are more likely to manage if they have some understanding of early development. Between 12 and 18 months, toddlers are still very much distressed by abrupt separation, but some may have slightly better language development and be able to use this for some comfort. For example, if it is possible for the toddler to hear the voice of the familiar caregiver on the telephone, it may be helpful.

When infants and toddlers have visits with their separated caregivers, the children are likely to respond with increased displays of distress. This does not mean that they are afraid of or have been abused by the visitor, however. In the long run, where visiting is an option, more and more frequent visits are beneficial, but in many cases neither the new or the old caregiver can bear the child's emotional reaction to visits.

Between 18 months and 3 years, and even on into the preschool period, children may respond to separation by "regression", or repetitions of less mature behavior than what they ordinarily show. This is especially obvious with respect to toilet training, self-feeding, and sleep routines. Caregivers should understand the need to tolerate and help the child through these problems. These behaviors are usually not symptoms of long-term difficulties, and certainly do not indicate that the child is "too bad to deal with".

When infants, toddlers, and preschoolers must for some reason be separated from their familiar caregivers, the ideal approach would involve a gradual change from the old living situation to a new one. When this is possible, children do very well. But of course it is rare for it to be possible, as separations often involve some legal or criminal issues that do not permit much attention to the child's needs. Even when it is possible, as I said earlier, it is unusual for caregivers to be able to tolerate the child's displays of distress during transitions from one adult to the other.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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