Courts

Child Development and Parents Who Don’t Live Together

In general,

  1. Children need residential arrangements that A) are specific
    and predictable, B) keep them out of the middle of their
    parents’ conflict, C) keep changes to a minimum, and D) allow for healthy
    relationships with each parent.
  2. SPECIFIC AND PREDICTABLE schedules encourage more time with
    each parent and eliminate some parental conflict.
  3. HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS requires parents to share
    their worries, fears, and concerns with adult support people and
    NEVER their children. Healthy relationships happen when parents
    reassure their children instead of allowing children to be in the
    role of reassuring their parents. Children should NEVER be the “best
    friend” of a parent.
  4. UNRESOLVED CONFLICT harms children. When parents are cooperating
    together for their children’s needs, almost any schedule will work.
    Schedules which work well for children whose parents cooperate
    together do not automatically work well for children whose parents
    cannot agree. Children become very stressed and get stuck in the
    middle of conflict whenever parents:
    A) ask children to give messages to the other parent, or
    B) ask children about the personal life of the other parent, or
    C) criticize or cut down the other parent to the children, or
    D) are hurt or jealous when children enjoy or miss the other parent,
    or
    E) discuss with children their problems and hurts from the marriage,
    or
    F) treat the other parent with hostility and threats around the
    children.
  5. Every child is unique and has individual needs. Parents must
    consider their children as individuals when fashioning shared
    parenting arrangements. Children with “fussy” or “difficult”
    temperaments are more vulnerable to life changes and stress and may
    need more help adjusting to divorce.
  6. Parenting often involves putting the parent’s needs second.
  7. Children whose parent s have been away (perhaps in the military or
    because of job requirements), need to build trust gradually and get
    to know the parent before jumping into a regular shared
    parenting schedule.
  8. Using this information to fuel a custody conflict is a misuse of
    the information. Conflict about custody is harmful to children
    and may indicate one or both parents are unable to put their
    children’s needs before parents’ desires.

Infants (0 – 12 months old)

Infants have limited memory and are beginning to recognize caregivers.
Because bonding involves all of the senses, the physical presence of a
parent rather than just hearing their voice is important.

Attachment between a parent and infant emerges during the second six
months of the infant’s life and continues to develop during early
childhood. Children form an attachment through a gradual process of
having basic needs met by someone who feeds them whey they are hungry,
changes them when they are wet, comforts them when they are upset,
talks to them, plays with them, cuddles, rocks, and who comes when
they cry. Infants begin to trust their needs will be met and that
the world is a safe place. They form attachments to caregivers who
satisfy their needs and soothe their discomfort and fears. Children can develop
multiple attachments to caregivers.

Infants this young have limited memories and need frequent contact
with parents–daily for an hour or so, if possible. The younger the
child, the more frequent the contacts need to be with shorter
durations. Predictable patterns of contact and familiarity is
important–same location every time, if possible. Frequent and shorter
contacts can help attachment and are much better than longer times spaced
far apart. The more frequently the parent is available, the longer the
contact can be. It is hard for infants to tolerate long times if they
only see the parent once or twice a week. Also, take care not to disrupt
the attachment of the parent living with the infant. Overnight away
should probably not occur until older.

Infants need smooth routines and to be away from emotional upset of
parents. They need sensitive and cooperative interactions with
caregivers. When parents are in conflict, reduce frequency of contact
between parents to protect infant.

Toddlers (12 – 36 months old)

In addition to building attachment and forming trust, toddlers begin
to develop sense of self and the ability to use familiar objects and toys
for comforting self. This means the child is beginning to feel safe
and comfortable in the world away from a primary caregiver for short
periods. Comfort for toddlers comes from having a strong connection to
caregivers who meed basic needs and respond to the toddler in warm and
predictable ways. Toddlers will check back frequently to see if the
primary caregiver is still there for them.

The loss of a primary caregiver and the loss of a familiar and
comfortable environment are the most deep seated fears the toddler has.
Two and three year olds may have trouble handling divorce because of
their huge fears of losing a caregiver. Expect normal separation anxiety
to be exaggerated. Parents underestimate the ability of two and
three year olds to use information about what is going on around them.
Parents should tell toddlers about what happened to the absent parent and
why, in ways they can understand.

A regular, frequent schedule is of major importance. Short times of
1-3 hours are recommended if frequency is low. If contact is regular
and frequent, the child can handle most of a day. Toddlers need
predictability and familiarity and contact works best when un familiar places
every time.

Toddlers have better memory, so they can go longer periods of time
without seeing a parent, but routine and frequency are still important.
Toddlers struggle to figure out that someone out of sight can and
will return, so it is hard for them to cope with long times away
from a primary caregiver. Many three year olds tolerate overnights OK,
but weekends or long times during summer are hard.

Pre-schoolers (3 – 5 years old)

Pre-schoolers are learning to talk and can talk about their feelings
and needs. They are learning to control their emotions and bodily
functions and are beginning to understand what tomorrow is. These
children can now hold in mind a picture of a comforting parent when away
from him or her and so they can usually tolerate separation from
their parents and caregivers. As they become more independent, they
wonder if they still will be loved if they oppose a parent’s will. The primary
fear is of losing parental love.

Children are strongly affected by interparental conflict. Children who
are distressed during the transition but are OK within 30 minutes, may
be responding to their parents’ tension instead of their own. They
need each parent’s permission to love and enjoy being with the other
parent. They need honest and frequent comforting from parents because
they feel huge worries about being abandoned.

Pre-schoolers are bewildered about the separation and often use
fantasy as a coping skill. They fantasize about their parents being
together and may deny the divorce has happened. Children this age often
assume it is their unlovability that caused the separation and they
feel guilty. Besides intense fear of abandonment, children worry
about food, shelter, and seeing the other parent. They may reach
out randomly for nurturing or cling to parents and appear
emotionally needy.

School age (6 – 8 years old)

At about age 6, guilt begins to develop and realizing others have
feelings first starts. Children learn to make friends, get along with
teachers, use moral judgement, have greater self-control of impulses, and
feel they are competent. They have a better sense of time and can
understand a schedule alternating from one home to the other.

As empathy develops, children are very sensitive to subtle pressures and
loyalty conflicts between parents. They may believe they are being
disloyal to one parent when they love and enjoy being with the other
parent. They fear the loss of a parent. As moral judgement develops,
children have difficulty understanding people can be both good and bad.
Children this age have difficulty not going along with their parents’
wishes and may blame themselves for the break-up. They may tell each
parent they want to live with that parent. Although fewer children this
age believe they caused the divorce, many actively try trickery, illness,
or accidents to get their parents together again.

At about ages 7-8, there is a major shift in thinking ability which
helps children to understand cause and effect better and thinking about
the future and “forever.” Reducing changes is especially critical
for children this age. They need to grieve. Children who don’t resolve
this grief can become very depressed. Children are more likely to grieve
if their parents grieve, so don’t hide your own feelings of sadness about
the divorce. This is not to say children should be overwhelmed by a sense
of their parent’s sadness, because they need to know someone is in
control and their needs will be met.

Children this age need regular, frequent contact with each parent,
shielding from parental hostility, involvement of both parents in a
child’s life, and regular school attendance. The schedule should
allow the child to maintain contact with friends, school, and
after-school activities. Many children still require a home base while
being with other parent from 1 – 3 days/week. Some children can tolerate
alternating half-weeks at each parent’s home. Multiple overnights are usually
OK and a full week at each parent’s home can usually be phased in by age
8.

Children should be en encouraged not to carry information back and forth
between homes and to talk directly with each parent about rules in
that household.

School age (9 – 12 years old)

At these ages, children develop skills in school academics, sports,
and community activities. They get to know themselves better and can
evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses as compared to others.

Children this age are able to join in discussions and have a grasp of
adult issues including divorce. Commonly, 9-12 year olds demand
explanation. Give them basic information, but no details of unhappiness
or actions of parents. Children this age are able to genuinely empathize
with their parents’ attitudes, feelings, and reason for divorce.
The child can see the world from someone else’s point of view. This
leads to concern and caring about the parent’s pain and can lead to the
child taking care of the parent.

Children this age are also very idealistic and are starting to have
moral judgements. Children this age can have relationships on an equal
basis with each parent. In a divorce situation, a child’s idealism
can easily produce a sense of rage. This rage is frequently
directed at the parent whose behavior the child decides is at odds
with his/her own sense of standards and therefore (in the child’s
mind) is to blame for the break-up of the family.

Because children this age are capable of empathy, parents should use
someone else for talking about their problems, daily difficulties, or
the loneliness of the nights. While children of divorce may be
given more responsibility to help the family cope with the amount
of work, parents should take care to avoid burdening the child to
the point of eliminating play.

Children benefit when parents are able to reduce life changes for the
child and reduce conflict between the parents. It is especially important
for parents to maintain a regular and predictable contact with the
child, even if the child is intensely angry at the parent. They need
parents to avoid blaming each other and to be honest.

Children this age need involvement of both parents and are most
content with several contacts a week with each parent. The schedule
should be regular and predictable and minimize interference with
peer relationships, school, and after-school activities. Many
children desire one home base with specific evenings, weekends, and
activities at the other home. Some children do well with equal contact in
each home. Some children prefer less contact, may be every other week. At
this age, children need more flexibility.

Teenagers (13 – 17 years old)

Younger teens are figuring out who they are in relation to friends’
and society’s rules. Middle teens focus on how they think and feel about
themselves. They develop a sense of purpose, clarify long-term plans and
values and have a growing sense of who one really is and where one is
headed. Older teens are focused on taking increased responsibility for
what they do and who they are. Teens also learn intimacy, which allows
for openness, honesty, self-disclosure, and trust in relationships.

Teens need parents’ permission for independence and encouragement for
taking responsibility. They need parents to provide closeness, concern,
and fairness. From age 12, children are usually able to understand the
divorce process and separate themselves from their parents’ actions and
reactions.

Teens are capable of forming an independent opinion about where and
with whom they want to live. This opinion should be considered but
not necessarily followed. Some teens pick the parent who leaves as
the enemy and some blame the remaining parent for not being lovable or
supportive enough.

Teens often act as though they can handle anything and that divorce is
no big deal. Teens are the last to admit being needy and act as if they don’t
care what their parents do. A stance of fierce independence is likely to
mislead parents into believing that the teen needs less support than is
actually the case.

Teens do well when both parents stay involved with them, when parents
don’t start acting like teens, when parents don’t involve teens in parent
worries, and don’t expose teens to parents’ sexuality. Teens need protection, a
lot of encouragement, recognition of real and honest effort, and a sense they
are lovable as they are — not for what they do. It is important that parents
not handle their own guilt by becoming extra permissive toward their children.
Remind teens a variety of behaviors for adults are not acceptable for
teens.

Teens need some say in planning the schedule. Teens do not need contact of
long duration with either parent and flexibility in shared parenting
is required. Contact once or twice each week for an hour or more may be
enough. Some teens need one home base with regular and predictable evenings,
weekends, and activities at the other home. Some teens prefer a more equal
basis with each parent. Maintain accessibility to school, peers, after-school,
and community involvements from both homes.

A teen who has primarily lived with one parent commonly wants to move
in with the other parent. It is also common for a teen who has gone back
and forth between homes to desire one home base.

My children are fine…if they were stressed I would
know

School Age (6 – 8 years old) — red flags for parents

  • intense sadness and despair — doesn’t smile or laugh
  • fear about the future — secretive
  • more irritable, restless, whiny, anxious
  • physical pains — headaches, stomachaches
  • angry, aggressive, or temper tantrums
  • misbehaves at school or grades slip
  • difficulty with small changes in routine
  • problems making and keeping friends
  • stealing or lying

School Age (9 – 12 years old) — red flags for parents

  • extreme anger at a parent
  • takes on adult responsibility at home
  • tries to take care of or “be there” for a parent
  • physical pains — headaches, stomachaches
  • becoming overactive in school or grades slip
  • resentment — won’t communicate
  • fear about the future — secretive
  • problems making and keeping firends
  • tries alcohol or drugs or cigarettes

Teenagers (13 – 17 years old) — red flags for parents

  • extreme anger at a parent
  • overcloseness to a parent
  • competition with a parent
  • chronic fatigue or difficulty concentrating
  • becoming overactive in school, sports, music, clubs, work
  • problems at school or drop in grades or dropping out
  • sexually active
  • extreme independence or refusal of support
  • problems making and keeping friends
  • uses alcohol or drugs or cigarettes
  • moody and depressed
  • violent

My children are stressed out…What can I do?

Infants (0 – 12 months old)

  • keep infants away from emotional upset of parents
  • predictable pattern of contact with parents
  • familiary places — same location each time with parent
  • smooth routines — especially naps, bedtimes, and meals
  • consider no overnights until signs of stress disappear
  • more frequesnt contact with parent if conflict is low
  • warm and affectionate child care person
  • lots of colors, shapes for child to see and hear
  • be more aware of how infants are feeling

Toddlers (12 – 36 months old)

  • shield children from conflict between parents
  • predictable routine of schedule with both parents
  • frequent contact with both parents if conflict is low
  • if frequency is low, short times of 1 – 3 hours
  • familiar places — same location each time with parent
  • smooth routines — especially naps, bedtimes, and meals
  • consider no overnights for a while
  • consider fewer transitions between homes for a while
  • warm and affectionate child care person
  • explain that mommy and daddy both love the child even though mommy and
    daddy live in two places
  • be a broken record because their memory doesn’t work well
  • stimulating environment for child

Pre-schoolers (3 – 5 years old)

  • shield children from conflict between parents
  • predictable routine of schedule with both parents
  • frequent contact with both parents if conflict is low
  • familiar places — same location each time with parent
  • consider fewer or no overnights for a while
  • consider fewer transitions between homes for a while
  • warm and affectionate child care person
  • explain that mommy and daddy both love the child even though mommy and
    daddy live in two places
  • give permission for child to love other parent
  • explain the child is lovable and did nothing to cause the problems
    between mommy and daddy
  • be a boken record because their memory doesn’t work well

School Age (6 – 8 years old)

  • shield children from conflict between parents
  • predictable routine schedule with both parents
  • show children how to grieve, what to do about sadness
  • reduce changes in the life of the child
  • both parents be involved in child’s school and sports
  • encourage contact with child’s friends
  • give convincing permission for child to love other parent
  • don’t let child be messenger between parents
  • don’t listen to child complain about other parent
  • tell child to talk directly with other parent
  • don’t say negative things about other parent

School Age (9 – 12 years old)

  • shield children from conflict between parents
  • predictable schedule with both parents
  • show children what to do about anger
  • reduce changes in the life of the child
  • both parents be involved in child’s school and sports
  • don’t burden the child with adult problems or loneliness
  • don’t burden the child with too many chores at home
  • don’t let child be messenger between parents
  • don’t listen to child complain about other parent
  • tell child to talk directly with other parent
  • don’t say negative things about other parent

Teenagers (13 – 17 years old)

  • shield teens from conflict between parents
  • give teens some say in schedule with parents
  • predictable schedule with both parents with flexibility
  • show teens what to do with anger
  • both parents be involved in teen’s school and sports
  • don’t discuss problems or worries with teens
  • don’t discuss parent’s dating or sexuality with teens
  • don’t put teens in charge of younger siblings daily
  • don’t let teens be messengers between parents
  • don’t listen to teens complain about the other parent
  • don’t say negative things about other parent
  • don’t be to over missive

Love and Care for your Children — Nuturing Children

Provide Emotional Security

  • talk and act so that children feel safe and comfortable expressing
    themselves
  • be gentle
  • be dependable

Provide Physical Security

  • provide food, shelter, clothing
  • teach personal hygiene and nutrition
  • monitor safety
  • maintain a family routine
  • attend to wounds

Provide Discipline

  • be consistent
  • ensure rules are appropriate to age and development of child
  • be clear about limits and expectaions
  • use discipline to give instruction, not punish

Give Time

  • participate in your children’s lives: activities, school, sports,
    special events and days, celebrations, friends
  • include your children in your activities
  • reveal who you are to your children

Encourage and Support

  • be affirming
  • encourage children to follow their interests
  • let children disagree with you
  • recognize improvement
  • teach new skills
  • let them make mistakes

Give Affection

  • express verbal and physical affection
  • be affectionate when your children are physically or emotionally
    hurt

Care for Yourself

  • give yourself personal time
  • keep yourself healthy
  • maintain friendships
  • accept love

Trust and Respect

  • acknowledge children’s right to have own feelings, friends,
    activities, and opinions
  • promote independence
  • allow for privacy
  • respect feelings for other parent
  • believe your children

Sources:

Caught in the Middle. Garrity, Carla B. & Baris, Mitchell A.;
Lexington Books, 1994
The Child’s Attorney. Haralambie, Ann M.; American Bar Association, 1993
Children of Divorce. Baris, Mitchell A. & Garrity, Carla B.; Blue Ridge
Printing, 1988
The Children’s Book. Erickson, Marilyn & Erickson, Stephen; CPI Publishing,
1992
Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, 206 West Fourth Street, Duluth, MN 55806,
(218)722-2781
Interventions for Children of Divorce, 2nd Edition. Hodges, William F.; John
Wiley & Sons, 1991
Second Chances. Wallerstein, Judith & Blakeslee, Sandra;
Ticknor & Fields, 1989