Times of separation and divorce are difficult times for parents and children. Although some of what we suggest might be difficult for some parents to achieve, our suggestions are based on our understanding of the arrangements that would best support young children’s development.
Find a place of mutual respect: Children’s successful emotional development will be fueled by their confidence that their parents are powerful, protecting and wise. (Children can learn in future years about their parent’s limitations.) Therefore, it is especially important that both parents support children’s positive view of the other parent. This support requires that each parent talk, behave and feel positively toward the other parent. Children know how their parents truly feel, and statements or actions that are inconsistent with true feeling are generally confusing for children.
Obviously, establishing such a supportive attitude is a tall order when parents are disappointed, hurt and angry. We don't mean to be simplistic, or ignore the reality that disagreements about parenting are often part of the reason for divorce. However, if both parents cannot achieve this frame of mind, children inevitably suffer conflicts of loyalty. Loving a parent that their other loved parent does not respect, while maintaining respect for both, is a difficult and often impossible task for children.
Of course, there are regrettable situations in which it is impossible to feel good about the parenting of the child's other parent. Sometimes professionals can help with these situations.
Nurture children’s sense of confidence and security: The most important emotional task of the first five years of life involves the creation of a firm and confident sense of self. Children achieve a confident sense of self primarily on the basis of having mastered two emotional tasks: achieving a deep and loving dependent relationship with a parent (attachment) and beginning to carry inside themselves the sustaining feelings associated with that attachment relationship, enabling them to function independently (separation). Successful attachment and separation require continued attention throughout the early childhood years. Why is that?
Children begin to construct comforting mental images of their parents around the age of 6 months; this is the beginning of true attachment. Although there may be exceptional occasions in which children spread their basic attachment between two parents, children seem biologically programmed to focus their attachment upon one parent — typically the parent most involved in the child's first year. This "core parent of attachment" provides a sense that the world is trustworthy and safe when he or she is present. By the end of the first year, this sense of security begins to live inside children in the form of images and memories of the parent. However, these comforting images slip away from young children if they are not regularly reinforced by the parent's physical presence. The loss of these images can leave children feeling alone, afraid, depressed and abandoned, interfering with the child's sense of safety in the world. This is an outcome to be avoided if at all possible.
The ideal arrangement provides stability and regular contact with both parents: Young children will have difficulty maintaining the internal image of their core parent of attachment when separated for extended periods of time. Children can comfortably tolerate longer stretches of time apart from their core parent of attachment as they progress through early childhood. With this in mind, we recommend two basic guidelines during parental separations:
Provide a stable home base: Children should live primarily with their core parent of attachment rather than having to endure excessive separations from this parent. We recommend that overnights away from the core parent of attachment begin around the age of 4. Occasional weekend separations can begin around the age of 5 or 6. We advise against prolonged vacations with the parent who is not the parent of attachment during these early, formative years. Following these guidelines protects young children from excessive separation and allows the child to have the comfort of going to sleep in the same bed each night in the presence of the parent of attachment — a crucial support to the child's development. Our clinical experience is that other arrangements in early childhood, such as fully shared physical custody, pose risks and extra challenges for a child's emotional development. Although some children do well in such other arrangements, we do not recommend this approach in these early years.
Maintain a relationship with the non-custodial parent: Alongside the need to protect and nurture children’s core attachment relationship is the need to assist the development of the strongest possible relationship with his or her other parent. Young children must maintain an internal connection with their non-custodial parent. For that reason, some standard custody arrangements, such as alternating Wednesdays and weekend "visits" for the non-custodial parent, potentially interfere with their relationship with their non-custodial parent. The times between contacts are too long, and children are at risk for managing the pain of separation and loss by building up barriers to a deep relationship, because interruptions in shallower relationships hurt less.
We strongly support daily contact between children and their non-custodial parent. Our experience with hundreds of families has been that it is frequently possible to arrange such daily contact with flexibility, communication and mutual support. Perhaps such an arrangement involves lunch at the child's daycare or school, or picking up the child and bringing him to his or her primary home; perhaps it means a few hours on Saturday morning and a longer stretch on Sunday. At a minimum, there can be a telephone call.
We know these recommendations ask a great deal from parents. However, the extra sacrifice can be tempered with the knowledge that when parents keep their child out of the middle, when they continue to prioritize the child's needs over the pragmatic difficulties posed by a two-household situation, there is much reason to believe that the child can surmount the extra challenges of a divorce and develop in a fully emotionally healthy way.
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