One of the biggest challenges you will face as a parent going through a divorce is learning to put your children’s needs ahead of your own, especially when you have an infant or toddler. There is no question about it: this is a huge challenge. At a time of serious emotional upheaval-fear, anger and conflict-you find yourself in the alternate universe of the legal system. On top of everything else, your lawyer begins to harp on you about the “best interest of the child.”
“What?” You think to yourself. “Best interest of the child? My child? I know what’s best.”
Well, maybe, maybe not, as far as the legal standard is concerned. If you are in the middle of a divorce, you are probably learning quickly that your family is suddenly being told what to do by the family court system. And as impossible as it may sound, it’s time for you to stop, take a deep breath and remember that if you want your children to grow and do well, you must do your homework. It’s time to get familiar with the psychological literature on how to help your children be healthy and happy after your divorce.
As a family law attorney, I see children suffer -and for no good reason-just because their parents have put their own personal needs before the needs of their children. This never leads to a healthy psychological outcome for children or parents. On top of that, I’ve seen an increase the last few years in divorces involving infants and toddlers.
Coming up with a child custody plan for these young families is very challenging. And the frustrating part is that even though psychologists have spent the last ten years doing research on this topic, there is still no definitive data. However, there are several researchers that judges, family law attorneys and other divorce professionals pay attention to when creating child custody plans for infants and toddlers.
Here are some of the main infant and toddler researchers specializing in divorce:
- Joan Kelly and Michael Lamb
- Judith Solomon
- Marcia Kline Pruitt
- Eleanor Willemsen and Kristi Marcel
If you are a divorcing parent who has an infant or toddler, I’d suggest you search online and read the books and papers written by these psychologists.
I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist, and I’m certainly not saying that these researchers know everything, or that you should follow exactly what they suggest. But I am saying that these researchers’ work is often read by judges and people who work with families during the divorce process. So, if you read their research too, you’ll know what judges and other legal folks know, and it will be easier for you to be prepared to present your case in the best possible light as you go about creating a good child custody plan for your infant and/or toddlers during your divorce.
How to Come Up with a Child Custody Plan for an Infant or Toddler
In order to know how to create a good child custody plan, you’ll need to understand the psychological concept of “attachment.” Attachment is how a child fulfills its physical need to survive. A child attaches by forming a strong relationship with the person who will protect her. For an infant, no attachment is a threat to her very survival. (I’m using a girl child as an example, but all of this is completely true for boys as well.)
From the child’s perspective, this first attachment is her first “love connection.” The very young child attaches to an “attachment figure.” (This is usually Mom or Dad). The attachment figure gives the child physical, social and emotional care so that her basic needs are met. As she grows up, this early connection informs her definition of love. According to the psychological literature, a successful attachment relationship creates a secure base for the child, and it is from this base that she can explore her world.
The big questions in the psychological literature about the best custody arrangement for an infant or toddler are:
- Can a child form successful attachment relationships with both parents?
- More importantly, how will a child react if she spends significant time away from her primary attachment figure?
As parents, we know that when our children are scared or unhappy, they race to us for comfort. Here’s where the expert literature get really interesting: it turns out that when we comfort our distressed child, she is actually creating pathways in her brain that teach her how to comfort and soothe herself. As you can imagine, a child’s ability to do this (or not) will affect her for the rest of her life. If your child develops healthy attachments in infancy, she is more likely to grow into an adult who can better handle her emotions and go on to develop healthy social and romantic relationships.
For the purposes of understanding the best child custody arrangement, the questions then become:
- How will a child handle being separated from her primary attachment figure?
- What is an appropriate custody schedule for an infant or toddler?
- When should the secondary attachment figure begin having overnights? (This is a big question that the courts consider.)
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say the Mom is the primary attachment figure. She may find that the baby is upset, fussy, and maybe seems angry upon returning from being with Dad. But Dad says that the baby was fine when they were together.
Some experts say that the baby can form attachments to both parents. Other experts advise caution about disrupting the time the child spends with her primary attachment figure. Clinical researcher Judith Solomon finds that there are many unanswered questions about what is best for infants as far as custody arrangements. But researcher Marcia Kline Pruitt finds that infants and toddlers do not suffer from short term overnights with the secondary attachment figure. And Kline Pruitt even challenges the concept that infants and toddlers necessarily do best in a “home base” situation with a single primary attachment figure. According to Dr. Kline Pruitt, a very young child, who has never known a two-parent living arrangement, may easily adapt to a shared custody arrangement from the beginning.
With these contradictory research findings, you can see how this issue leads to confusion, and you can see how courts can come to completely different conclusions about a well-thought-out parenting or custody plan. One thing all of the researchers seem to agree on, however, is that consistency is the single most important factor in a child custody plan for an infant or toddler. Children need to know what to expect.
Here are some examples of what child experts agree should definitely happen for your child:
- To make the transition between homes go smoothly, the baby should always have her “transitional object.” This would be your child’s blanket or favorite stuffed animal. A photo of the other parent should also always be available for the baby in each home. (Yes, this means you should have a picture of your ex in your child’s bedroom).
- Parents should agree to follow the same routine at the time of transition between homes (for example, each parent agrees that they spend an hour alone with the child at transition time).
- Transitions should be scheduled several hours before bedtime so the child can engage in routines at each home.
Are you starting to see how truly challenging it is to design a custody arrangement for an infant or toddler when you are also dealing with your feelings about your ex-spouse? But you can do this, and your success will result in a happier, healthier, more stable child. Your success also means that you will be known for doing an excellent job of parenting during your divorce.
It’s Hard Work
Nearly every family comes into the divorce process from a place of huge emotional pain. On top of all that, you have to navigate the often confusing legal system and familiarize yourself with the current research on child custody. Divorce is a lot of work. And to make it all the more scary, you’ll also have to figure out how to support yourself, where you are going to live, what assets and debts you have, and how to divide everything up.
The key is to gather a great legal team who stays on top of the literature on child custody. You’ll also want to get emotional support from people who can help you focus entirely on your child’s best interest and not on your anger at your ex. This is entirely possible, it happens all the time, and it’s totally reasonable to expect great results for your kids.
So do the right thing. Create and put into action a child custody plan for your infant or toddler that will have a truly positive impact on the rest of her life. As you go through your divorce, work with an attorney who understands that a great child custody plan will help your child form positive, lasting relationships with you, your ex-spouse, and others later in her life. You love your children, and because you love them, love them all the way through the divorce and beyond by doing everything you can to put “the best interest of the child” front and center in your divorce.
Seattle Divorce Attorneys and Seattle Family Law Attorneys. Our Main Office serves Greater Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland and Mercer Island
DuBois Cary Law Group, PLLC
927 North Northlake Way
Seattle WA 98103