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Developmental Needs of Children of Divorce
The children must be the primary focus when developing a time-sharing plan.
Each child’s developmental needs, and signs of stress must be considered before the parents needs are met. Each child must be considered as an individual as some go through a stage more quickly, some are developmentally delayed and others have special needs. Ongoing stress causes serious and lifelong problems for a child. Parents must remember that children will survive separation, divorce, developmentally appropriate time-sharing plans, but will suffer by ongoing conflict.
The relationship between the child and each parent must be taken into consideration when developing a parenting plan when a parent has been actively involved in a child’s life, the plan should reflect it. If a parent has had little or no contact with the child, the plan should be developed slowly to reduce the child’s stress. If the parent has a significant problem such as drug/alcohol abuse, mental illness, anger control or lack of parenting skills, this must be remedied first. At no time should the child be overly stressed, or be exposed to a dangerous situation such as domestic violence.
Parents should be aware that their attitude and willingness for the child to have a relationship with both parents plays a large role in the child’s adjustment. If a child knows a parent does not want him/her to go to the other parent, the child may act out and have adjustment problems. Children must not be used to get even with the other parent. Children needs parents to encourage ongoing relationships with both parents/extended family life. A child caught in the conflict will develop serious life-long problems. The goal is to build a relationship with the child that is positive and lasting into adulthood.
The following guidelines should be used to develop a time-sharing plan that reflects the needs of the child, the relationship with each parent. If the parents have a low level of conflict and both have been actively involved with the child, there may be alternatives to what is outlined as follows:
INFANTS: 0 to 6 months old
Developmental Task: To establish trust that basic needs, such as food and nurturing, will be available.
Characteristics of this Stage: Child is dependent upon others. Child cries to get needs met. Child cannot purposely disobey or willfully misbehave. Mood can change quickly from happy to sad. Child often reflects the care giver’s level of stress.
Signs of Stress: Excessive crying, problems with eating and or sleeping.
Child’s Needs: Child needs consistent responding from care givers and a predictable schedule to satisfy basic needs. Child responds to being held and loved consistently.
Time-Sharing Schedule: One primary home with consistent care giver. No overnights away from primary care giver. If conflict is low, frequent short visits at least three times a week with the non-primary parent.
Long Distance Time-Sharing: Non-primary parent must go to the child as often as possible.
INFANTS: 6 to 18 months old
Developmental Task: To establish an attachment bond with at least one care giver.
Characteristics of this Stage: 6-9 months, child normally shows separation/stranger anxiety (a healthy sign of attachment). Children who go with strangers are at risk for being hurt by them. Child may show distress when leaving primary care giver to go with any other person (INCLUDING the other loving parent). Child often takes cue from the primary parent as to how to react.
Signs of Stress: Crying, clinginess, fear of separations, tantrums, eating/sleeping problems.
Child Needs: Consistency with no long separations from care giver in a predictable/safe environment.
Time-Sharing Schedule: One primary home and regular time (several times a week) with the other parent, returning to the primary home at night. If the child knows the other parent and has spent regular periods of time with him/her, the child can begin to spend longer periods of time away from the primary home. The child’s behavior should be monitored to determine adjustment.
Long-Distance Time-Sharing Schedule: The non-primary parent should travel to see the child as often as possible. The care giver should try to take the child to the other parent. If there has been significant involvement by the non-primary parent, the child may spend time similar to the other one outlined above. If there has been little involvement, the schedule should be gradually increased to meet the child’s’ needs. The goal is to establish a positive relationship not one marked by traumatic separations.
TODDLERS: 18 months to 3 years old
Developmental Task: Child is developing a sense of independence, autonomy, and a sense of self as separate and different from the parent.
Characteristics of this Stage: Child will test limits constantly, be uncooperative and self-centered at times while learning a sense of his/her own personal power and separateness.
Signs of Stress: More irritable than most children this age. Demonstrate anxiety, fears and worries as seen in the child’s behavior of being clingy, eating/sleeping problems and crying frequently. There may be regression to earlier behaviors, fear of separation and asking for the absent parent.
Child Needs: A predictable, consistent and safe environment is critical. Clearly defined and enforced limits will help the child feel safe and secure.
Time-Sharing Schedule: After age 2 child may tolerate overnights if the non-primary parent has been an active and regular participant in the child’s life. The schedule should continue to be predictable with frequent contact with the non-primary parent to maintain a strong relationship.
Long-Distance Time-Sharing Schedule: Parents continue to have the responsibility to encourage and develop the parent-child relationship. Each case must be assessed to determine the child’s ability to tolerate change, and previous involvement/ commitment to the child.
PRESCHOOLERS: 3 to 6 years old
Developmental Task: To learn to take the initiative, gain some impulse control, interact and play cooperatively with peers, and to begin the socialization process.
Characteristic of this Stage: Focus is on social roles and mimicking adult behaviors. Stage may include nightmares, invented monsters/fantasies, and magical thinking (If I think it, it will happen) which create anxiety. There is acute sensitivity to parental conflicts, moods and feelings. Time perception is limited. Child benefits from frequent contact by phone/in person with absent parent.
Signs of Stress: Excessive fears/anxieties including fear of separation/abandonment. Blames self for adult actions (including the divorce). Shows regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking, bed wetting, tantrums, clinginess, etc. Show’s distress at transition times.
Child Needs: Reassurance with hugs and words like “I love you, you’ll be OK, your mom and dad will make sure things are OK”. Child needs consistent and predictable routines with some advanced warning of change in the routine. Calendars may be helpful in giving child visual cues.
Time-Sharing Schedule: Schedule should continue to be predictable/consistent. If a parent has been an active participant, overnights can be considered. The child’s behavior should be monitored for signs of stress when changes are made. The goal is to ensure the child’s comfort level.
Long-Distance Time-Sharing Schedules: Actual schedules will vary depending on the child’s temperament, parent’s ability to work together and focus on the needs of the child, and if there are older siblings. Generally the preschooler who has a parent that has been actively involved and has a good bond with the child can tolerate short periods of time of a few days initially up to a few weeks by age 6. The child’s behavior should always be the key as to when to increase or decrease the time.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN: 6 to 10 years old
Developmental Task: To learn skills to be competent, industrious and productive. This age group is focused on school, outside activities and peer relationships.
Characteristics of this Stage: Child begins to think logically, take the perspective of others, and show true empathy, no longer being purely self-centered. Time perception is developed, child can maintain close relationships with a parent even with more extended time away. Child may express the desire for things to be fair even if it costs the child in areas of development.
Signs of Stress: Problems with school performance and/or peer relationships. With new empathy ability, child reacts strongly to parent’s pain. Child may act sad, angry, blaming, morally and righteously indignant, and avows loyalty to the parent that is perceived to need help.
Child Needs: Help with solving school/peer problems early in the stage. Give child reassurance with clear, understandable explanations. Remove child from parental disputes and/or from being a caretaker for a parent. Continue consistency in routines. Make allowances with the time-sharing schedule to let the child engage in outside activities and for friendships to develop.
Time-Sharing Schedule: Most appropriate schedule will depend on the child’s relationship with both parents, child’s temperament, and developmental progress. This age can tolerate 50/50 timesharing plans IF both parents agree that it is a good idea, have similar parenting styles, good communication, and live in close proximity to that the child can easily go to school and maintain friendships.
Long-Distance Time-Sharing Schedule: Varies depending on the child’s developmental needs, maturity, relationship with each parent, parent’s ability to communicate and commitment to make it work.
Typically a plan will be limited to school holidays and summer. Parents must consider the child’s activities and need for time with friends in addition to time with each parent. Children may resent a parent they see as interfering with activities/friendships.
PRE-ADOLESCENCE: 11 to 12 years old
Developmental Task: To gain a sense of control and comfort with peers and emerging sexuality.
Characteristics of this Stage: Child begins development of true abstract thinking and can think about hypothetical ideas. Child can now understand the real reasons for the divorce. Child can understand a variety of time-sharing schedules, without needing to directly experience them.
Signs of Stress: Development of intense loyalty conflicts. Acting prematurely adolescent, which retards true maturation. Depression, anxiety and school problems.
Child Needs: Flexibility to time-sharing schedule so the child can develop friendships and outside activities.
Time-Sharing Schedule: The parents must be aware of the child’s schedule and routine. While some can continue on the schedule for the elementary school child, others may need to move toward one primary home or longer periods of time between transitions.
Long-distance Time-Sharing: Similar to elementary school children. Parents must consider issues involving the beginning of adolescence, importance of friends.
ADOLESCENCE: 13 to 18 years old
Developmental Task: To develop identities that are separate from the parents. To grow away from the family and prepare for adulthood.
Characteristics of this Stage: Adolescents normally pull away from the family, physically, socially and emotionally to become independent. They resist family activities and challenge adult ideas.
Signs of Stress: Breaking rules, acting out, withdrawal, isolation, depression, abuse of alcohol and or drugs, suicide threats/attempts, and poor school performance. Loyalty conflict which leads to cutting off contact with one or both parents. Loyalty may change between the parents over time. May become pseudo mature and become the care giver for a hurting parent.
Child Needs: Protection from loyalty conflicts. Consistency of rules between households. Timely professional attention to significant emotional problems.
Time-Sharing: Flexible schedule that shows respect to the adolescent’s needs first and the parent’s second. Usually adolescents prefer one home and flexible time sharing.
Long-Distance Time-Sharing Schedule: Parents must focus on the needs of the adolescent. During this stage, even in intact families, the children move away from interacting as often with the parents and are more focused on friends/activities. An adolescent who is forced to spend time away from the primary home where friends/activities are, will resent the parents.