The Silent Victims: When We Get Parenting-Time Schedules Wrong

Apr 8, 2022

We won’t have the research on very young children experiencing 50/50 parenting-time schedules for another 20 years – so, we must begin with our knowledge of child development, common sense and risk management. (Refer to “Easy Rule of Thumb: Matching Overnight Stays to Age in Years” for more specific schedule considerations.)

They say “bad things come in three’s.” This week alone, received three pleas for help with parenting-time schedules from parents of very young children – proposed schedules that could very well be in direct conflict with the healthy emerging psychological development of their little one.

  • A dad who proposed a week-on/week-off schedule for his six month old because Mom was refusing to share information with him or speak to him,
  • A mom who signed an agreed order in settlement conference for week-on/week-off for her 18 month old out of fear of her soon-to-be former husband’s wrath (on-going unaffordable litigation) if she refused, and
  • A frantic call from a parent being pushed to agree to a 2-2-5-5 schedule right out of the gate for their 30 month old when the conflict was high and parenting rocky.

What’s best for kids? Encouraging “good enough” parents to create two homes where children live with each parent is definitely best for kids. That said if we don’t apply sound developmental information, and ensure adequate parenting skills when designing parenting-time schedules, young children especially will likely suffer.

Not immaterial, the impact to the infant or toddler’s secure attachments to parents due to prolonged, repeated separations imposed by parenting-time schedules and/or inadequate parenting capacities may have devastating life-long impacts on that little person’s overall social-emotional adjustment during these particularly vulnerable years. Let’s understand why:

The psychological birth of a human infant unfolds across many sub-phases that include nuanced and valuable psychological steps that each little person will move through as they’re neurologically ready. Taking approximately three years, an infant-then-toddler typically completes this foundational developmental process with parents – and/or other primary care-providing adults. The little one learns to come and go in a manner that helps them understand their sense of self, secure relationships with others, and the nature of their world as a safe place. An important aspect is the little one’s experience of separation from their primary caregivers at an emotionally tolerable level – followed by the all-important return to their safe and secure base(s). Watch an infant crawl away from a parent only to return with a renewed frantic pace – back to safety all within the space of the family room floor!

Infants and toddlers practice separations when dropped at daycare, or spend an overnight with a loving grandparent. And in two-home families, they practice and master separations with parents vis-à-vis a parenting-time schedule. In later elementary school, secure children become ready for a sleep-over camp without despair … and ultimately, they’re ready to leave home as competent, psychologically sound young adults living on their own!

Think of these phases as strengthening and lengthening a child’s emotional tolerance for secure separations and welcoming returns to and from their important people.

When we exceed an infant/toddler’s emotional capacity for separation from a parent(s) without adequate emotional support, a child may begin to adapt to the repeated sense of loss with distress and disrupted behavior. Eventually, this may create a sort of trauma stored in the infant/toddler’s body that can result in life-long impacts. Their ability to rely on others in an emotionally healthy manner may become fraught with anxiety or detachment or worse, become disorganized. This isn’t to say they won’t grow up – they will if they’re otherwise cared for. The damage undetected by x-ray, will be evident in the child’s repeated behavioral, emotional and relational difficulties through childhood and beyond.

The parenting-time schedule is only one part of the equation. Good-enough parenting must be intact. Children cared for by competent, capable, calm parents who keep their child’s needs and adjustment central – who can flex and work well together, who communicate effectively will provide their child regardless of court papers. That said we’re often working with parents who are struggling with each other on multiple fronts with baby caught in the middle. Unrelenting stress, tension and conflict are not good for baby’s developing nervous system – healthy adults committed to co-parenting are part and parcel to healthy outcomes with children of all ages, but in particular for very young children.

Children and their capacity for secure attachments are resilient! That said, their healthy psychological development in the first three years is best supported by at least one if not a solid handful of established, predictable secure attachment people to practice with, to complete their healthy psychological birth in relationship to. As children get older, and when they have had the experience of meaningful secure attachments, they can go on to build additional secure attachments with others.  Happily human!

As we consider 50/50 shared parenting schedules with very young children, the risk of balancing “parental rights” with “best interest of the infant/toddler” becomes strained and complicated. Keep in mind the three-legged stool of parenting-time schedules for very young children:

  1. Developmental appropriateness of the lengths of separations for the infant/toddler from the little one’s secure attachment adults,
  2. “Good enough” parenting that includes the capacity to provide warmth and structure in their care-giving and for the child to feel seen, safe, soothed and secure, and
  3. Co-parents whose communication skills are strong enough to coordinate and care for their little one across two homes with focus on the child’s underlying rhythms and needs without undue stress and tension/conflict.

Parents sharing a very young child across both homes may benefit from regular check-ins with a parenting coordinator / mental health provider to assist with parenting skills to meet the infant’s/toddler’s needs and developmental tasks, monitor and ensure constructive communication between the parents, and to assist parents in abiding by the provisions of the parenting plan without conflict and stress.

To learn more: Chronic high conflict between parents is correlated with a number of challenging outcomes for children. “The Co-Parenting Handbook” offers strategies for managing your own stress, communicating clearly, and diminishing conflict with your co-parent. For suggestions regarding developmentally-appropriate parenting-time schedules, check out the Appendix of “Family-Centered Parenting Planning” (also available as a free download on the Book page).

Easy Rule of Thumb: Matching Overnight Stays to Age in Years
Helping Kids with Transitions between Homes


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