Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Parenting Plans: Considering the needs of Young Children

Young children have special needs when parents divorce.

When parents divorce, most of them are able to come on their own to some agreement about child custody and visitation. Only about 10% of divorcing couples need the help of a court or a mediator to manage this, and even fewer require a court order to force a decision. Of the couples who need help, most benefit from the assistance of a child custody evaluator or some other way of working out a parenting plan. The "parenting plan" concept is a very useful one, because decisions about children are not simply a matter of awarding custody to one or the other parent and then assuming that all problems are solved. Rather than a simple custody decision, divorcing families need to make plans that will take into account the ways children's needs change from day to day and from year to year. Their parenting plans should consider not only the problems of holiday visiting, but the facts of school attendance, relationships with grandparents, and teenage summer jobs.

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Teenagers and older children are usually willing to state their needs and wishes, and even when they are not, parenting plans for them are shaped by school requirements, sports, music lessons, and so on. The idea of "school nights" is generally respected by custodial and non-custodial parents alike. But infants, toddlers, and preschoolers do not have these constraints unless they have some condition like autism that requires regular intervention.

It would seem that parenting plans for young children could involve all kinds of different schedules for contacts with the two parents-- and sometimes they do have very peculiar schedules agreed upon by parents or even ordered by courts. Unfortunately, some of these schedules ignore the facts of early development, the young child's poor concept of time, and the anxiety young children experience when separated from familiar persons and places. As a result, young children are caused unnecessary distress, and parents dealing with that distress may become anxious about their own parenting ability, in some cases even deciding to relinquish access to the child because they find their contacts so distressing.

One example of an inappropriate parenting plan involved a couple with a little boy who was just over two years old. The parents had never been married, but had lived together intermittently, and finally went to court to try to establish a clear parenting plan. The mother had moved with the child to a city a few hours' travel away from the father's usual residence. While waiting for a child custody evaluation and a subsequent trial, the parents agreed that the child would spend a period of 12 days with the mother, during which he would attend day care while she worked, alternating with a period of 9 days with the father, during which he sometimes flew with the child to his native country and stayed with his parents. The mother brought the child by train to hand him over to the father, and these hand-offs were characterized by hostility between the parents. While with one parent, the child did not have any regular contact with the other. (Incidentally, a nanny, no longer in the picture, had cared for the little boy for most of the first year and a half of his life.)

This arrangement was made because of the inconvenience for the parents of traveling from city to city more frequently, and because of the difficulties associated with having the father, a foreign national, remain in the U.S. for extended periods without a visa. However, it did not take into account the impact of these lengthy separations on the child's relationships with his parents. The child custody evaluator reported that his attachment to each parent was of a somewhat disorganized nature, not surprisingly in view of his many months of disorganized and unpredictable experiences.

In another case, a court ordered that a 12-month-old girl spend a week with each parent, alternating custody. This child showed great anxiety when returning to one parent, clung to the parent and avoided separation more intensely than is usually seen in children of this age. Not only did this involve unnecessary distress to the child and probably both parents, but the child's response had the potential for interfering with the exploration and learning that contribute to normal development for children of this age.

The keywords of parenting plans for infants, toddlers, and young preschoolers should be "change gradually." The point of parenting is to act in such a way as to assure the child's best possible development, and this should be the goal of parenting plans focused on the child's best interests. If a child has never been away from a parent for an entire day, an overnight visit needs to be delayed until a day-long visit with the other parent can proceed happily and without consequences such as crying or poor sleep after returning home. When changes are made, they should be done experimentally and in small increments; for example, the first sleep-over should be planned for one night, not for a week.

The absolute ideal would be for the non-custodial parent initially to stay in the child's familiar home rather than taking the child elsewhere. I am perfectly well aware that this would be more than almost any adult could stand, whether the custodial or non-custodial parent! However, there is no question that young children are "attached" to their familiar places as well as to familiar people, and that they respond more positively to unfamiliar events when they occur at home. When both places and people are unfamiliar, young children's anxiety and distress reaches a peak.

If a now non-custodial parent has in the past done a large share of child care, including sleep and toileting, he or she will have a fairly clear idea of what is familiar to the child. If he or she has not done much, or has been out of the child's home for many months, the "visitor" needs to get as much information as possible about what the child is used to. This is no time to decide that the custodial parent has "spoiled" the child and that all the usual practices need to be changed; that can come later, if necessary. The goal should be to create as familiar as possible an experience for the child, while parent and child adjust to each other.

Tomorrow: How parenting plans should consider sleep problems and grandparent involvement.



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


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