Thoughts on Shared Parenting Presumptions – Part II

Different Needs at Different Ages Birth to age 5:

Generally, this is a period when children need lots of stability and “secure attachment” experiences with both parents. Generally, it appears best to have one parent with the majority of the time and the other parent having frequent access, although this doesn’t have to be long to be beneficial for this age child. It’s the frequency that matters. For various reasons, biological and historical, mothers have had the majority of time during these years, although fathers have been very actively and successfully involved as long as they didn’t undermine the development of a secure attachment with the mother. The most important part is that the child has a secure attachment with both parents, regardless of time: that they are predictable, consistent and emotionally available when they are with the child.

I agree with the majority of researchers I have read over the past thirty years, such as the following comments in the introduction to a journal on the subject of child attachment in divorce:

One widespread view shared by this Issue’s contributors is that children should be assigned to the primary custody of one parenting figure (whether mother or father) across approximately the first three years of life…. Such a position – if taken consistently by the court – should contribute to the alleviation of this often central focus of parental stress, confusion and contentiousness. In addition, many papers in this Issue may also serve to reduce the worries of the ‘visiting’ parent via an understanding that his or her relationship during infancy and toddlerhood need not ultimately be ‘secondary’ in any important sense. Thus, so long as the ‘visiting’ parent can maintain regularity of contact which involves lively, sensitive interactions with the child, the child’s opportunity for forming a full and secure attachment to that parent will remain intact. Judges informed by these views can (a) alleviate the strain incurred by both parents engaged in a well-meaning but untoward attempts at designing ‘half-and-half’ early care arrangements; and (b) reassure the ‘secondary’, ‘visiting’ parent that his/her opportunity for establishing a full relationship with the child need not be compromised.

Attachment Theory and Research, Main et al., Family Court Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, July 2011 (426-463), 427.

When my clients are the parents with much less parenting time during this period, I reassure them that these early years are laying the groundwork for all future relationships for the child, so that having stability and security of contact for the child with the other parent will benefit my client in developing a relationship later on of equal significance, whether or not there is equal time later on. In some of my cases, it has been the father who has had the majority of this parenting time and the child has developed quite a secure primary attachment. However, most of the time it has been the mother and there is some research that reinforces the biological precedent for this – from pregnancy to children having more neurons for processing a woman’s voice in early childhood.

In either case, it is more important that the child have at least one consistently secure attachment at this age, than to have two insecure attachments with parents who are undermining each other. Of course, if the primary parent is seriously disturbed then he or she should have much less than 50% of the parenting time so that the other parent (assuming he or she is less disturbed) can provide a secure primary attachment. However, in general, both parents can have secure attachments during this age period, even if one has a lot more time than the other.

It’s the interactive quality and consistency of the relationship that makes it secure or not, not the amount of time. A presumption for equal shared parenting time during these early years could undermine the child’s ability to develop a secure attachment with either parent and thereby undermine his or her sense of security and long-term personality development (insecure early childhood attachment appears to be one of the main factors in developing adult personality disorders).

Age 5-12:

Generally, this is the age range when children seem to do fine with relatively equal shared parenting. There are a variety of schedules (2-2-5-5; alternate weeks – with a mid-week visit with the other parent; etc.) that seem to work, so long as the parents both support the schedule. If they don’t both support the schedule, then it’s easy to make this fail. (I’ve seen many cases where one parent who is uncomfortable with the schedule says “it’s too many back-and-forths” or “too long away.” Then the child appears to absorb this parent’s concern and makes the exact same complaints – even though many other children with relaxed parents seem to do fine with these schedules.) The key here is that these are cooperative parents, and that their children have been raised with both parents actively involved.

There are many other children who experience significant distress by having a shared parenting schedule, who are much happier to have a primary parent (65% or more) and less time with the other parent. Fighting against such a schedule usually increases the child’s anxiety, rather than increasing their happiness. Of course, there are some cases (domestic violence, alienation, etc.) in which I have encouraged a “noncustodial” parent to fight for a change in custody because the primary parent has had serious behavior problems.

But if the effort has not succeeded after a year or two, I have advised many parents to stop the fight if they have at least 25% of the parenting time, as it will not help the child to be raised in the context of an endless battle. I have had several cases in which the noncustodial parent developed a much stronger relationship after the child turned 18 or 20, because they had stopped the battle years before when it was clear it was not succeeding. Shared parenting time based on a presumption would have increased these conflicts rather than reducing them – and we know that stressed parents pass it on to their children.

Age 13-18:

Generally, this is an age where children should be developing friendships and social skills with peers, while counting on the support of their parents. Parenting schedules have to become more flexible during this age period, especially as a child reaches 15 or 16. Imposing a schedule just doesn’t work, unless the parents have sacrificed the child’s need for increased autonomy to satisfy their own security needs through the child. Generally, children in this age group should be developing their own activity schedules – within reasonable limits set by both parents.

Thus, shared parenting time that is approximately equal often becomes highly restrictive for adolescents and they often simply don’t follow it. In reality, they often have a home base that is more likely to be one parent’s house, rather than spending time with that one parent. I have had many cases in which an older teenager (usually 17-18) spends a dinner a week with one parent and the rest of the time at the other parent’s house. But this dinner-a-week has a lot of meaning and flexibility (just negotiating which night it will be helps the teen develop planning skills that will apply to success in the future). A shared parenting presumption for this age group will simply be ignored by many teens, unless enforced strictly by a parent who probably is uninformed about adolescent development.

For years, judges have understood that they cannot really enforce schedules with children over about age 15. A better solution for a parent who feels limited or estranged from a teenager, is to get some kind of counseling assistance that includes both parents and the child (like our New Ways for Families method, which involves both parents in structured sessions with the child). Discussing and problem-solving the teenager’s relationship with each parent will help the teen learn relationships skills that an imposed schedule will not. For many years I was a child and family counselor working with many teenagers, before I became a family law attorney. Teenagers need to learn relationship skills – including dealing with one or two difficult parents – rather than learning that relationship problems can be solved simply by percentages.

(Part III will discuss the research on this topic and will be posted on Monday July 29, 2013.)

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Bill Eddy is a family law attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist), a therapist with children and families (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), a family mediator (Senior Family Mediator, National Conflict Resolution Center) and President of the High Conflict Institute. He has handled over 400 divorces as a lawyer and over 1100 divorces as a mediator. He is the developer of the New Ways for Families method in use in the United States and Canada. He has taught at the University of San Diego School of Law, the Pepperdine School of Law and is on the part-time faculty of the National Judicial College. He is the author of several books, including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress, Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Don't Alienate the Kids!: Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. For more information about his seminars, consultations and books: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.