Thank you to Erica Blystone, LCSW, for this week's guest blog post. You can read more about Erica and her practice in the bio below.
One of the most important decisions parents make during a divorce is the parenting plan (custody schedule). There are some guidelines that can make this easier. Every family, kid, and situation is different, so consider these guidelines as a jumping off point.
Here are some questions to help you get started crafting your parenting plan:
- What are your child’s needs based on age and developmental stage? A baby, child, and adolescent have different levels and types of dependency on their caregivers, allowing for longer periods of time apart from each parent and therefore fewer exchanges as they age. Does your child have special needs to consider?
- What is their temperament? How well do they adjust to change? If your child is particularly sensitive to transitions and struggles to adjust at every daycare drop-off or classroom change, they might struggle with frequent transitions between homes.
- What is their attachment to each parent? If one parent had minimal involvement in the child’s daily life prior to the separation, it might be in the child’s best interest to slowly increase frequency and duration of time spent with that parent.
- What is each parent’s availability as a caregiver? Does one parent travel a lot, work long hours, or have significant health issues preventing them from being able to take care of the child.
Considerations for Infant Age
Children benefit from having a healthy relationship with both parents, and in general younger children should not be away from either caregiver for long because they are still developing attachment and do not yet have a sense of time. There are different schools of thought as to whether very young babies should be with a primary caregiver or split time between each parent. Often the nursing mother is the primary custodial parent because of the logistics of breastfeeding, or because the other parent has not been extremely involved in the baby’s daily life prior to the separation. If there is a primary parent early on, visits with the other parent should increase in frequency and duration and eventually take place without the primary caregiver, outside the home. Starting around six months old, babies can remember people and form attachments to more than one caregiver through interactions like feeding, soothing, holding, playing, bathing, and putting to sleep, so time with each caregiver should include these activities. As the baby develops a stronger bond with the non-custodial parent, overnights can be considered.
Considerations for Toddler Age
Traditionally, toddlers don’t spend more than 2-3 days away from either parent. One guideline is at two years old they can spend two days away, at three years old they can spend three days away. However, typically all siblings are on the same schedule so you should choose one consistent with the older kid’s needs. It’s easier for younger kids to “play up” and be on a schedule meant for an older child because they have the stability of their sibling transitioning with them and also it’s often easy to work in extra time with the other parent (dinner or an overnight during a long stretch away, pickup from school, Facetime, etc.).
Considerations for School Age
School-aged children can spend more time away from each parent without disrupting the attachment, and they tend to prefer fewer exchanges. As they mature, they develop a better understanding of their own needs and might ask for a schedule change or flexibility to accommodate their new developmental stage. It can work well for older teens to have a very flexible schedule to accommodate their busier life.
Additional Things to Keep in Mind
Living in two homes will be a big life transition for your child so try to keep their life as normal as possible: allow them to attend their same school, continue their extracurricular activities, and play with their regular friends (even if having moved makes it less convenient). The closer parents live to each other, the easier it is to keep these things in place and be flexible when needed (letting a child play basketball on the non-custodial parent’s driveway, retrieving a forgotten item from the other parent’s home, seeing the other parent for dinner during a long time away). It also means the child is not frequently in the car for long periods of time for each transition.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is custodial time is not “My Time” but rather “Our Child's Time.” This helps you keep the child’s needs in focus when they want to spend the entire weekend with friends rather than at home with you. It’s understandable to want to spend all the time with your child when you see them much less than you used to, but having them sacrifice time with friends, at camp, in extracurriculars, or by themselves will negatively affect their lives far more than the divorce itself.
Regardless of the schedule you develop, remember the two things that contribute most to a child having a good outcome in divorce is that the parents have minimal conflict and that each support the child’s relationship with the other parent. This helps create a foundation of security and stability that bolsters a child’s resilience so they can adapt to whatever structural and practical changes come with the divorce.
Erica Blystone, LCSW is owner and sole practitioner at Wake Adult Counseling. For over 20 years she has served adults and families in individual therapy, couples counseling, and various divorce services. She is a certified Discernment Counselor. You can learn more about Erica and her practice at wakeadultcounseling.com.
Erica also contributed to a recent Work/Life guest post on Discernment Counseling.