Children of Divorce

The implementation of the Washington State Parenting Act in 1988 creates new models and terminology for divorcing families. The guidelines reflect these new concepts and seek to guide families in the development of a reasonable and child-centered residential schedule. As policy, the law recognizes the fundamental importance of the parent-child relationship to the welfare of the child and that the relationship between the child and each parent should be fostered unless inconsistent with the child's best interests.

Established Guidelines
The guidelines are based on child development theory and on research regarding children of divorce. This guide is offered to help identify the type of residential schedule suited to the needs of each child. The guidelines only provide some of the information that may be needed, but do present some of the possibilities for a schedule. They should not, however, be considered rules, laws, or be used rigidly. Arrangements which have been individually worked out and agreed to by the parents are much favored.

The guidelines which follow focus on the child's needs and abilities as suggested by stages of child development. However, these suggestions should not be applied without Giving due consideration to a range of other factors, including:
  • The existence of conditions which may require restriction of access pursuant to RCW 26.09.191
  • The quality of the relationship between the children and each parent as well as the history of parenting
  • The ability of the parents to cooperate with each other
  • The unique cultural and circumstantial needs of families
The Child's Needs
Some divorced parents are able to flexibly change residential schedules as children grow and their needs change. These families do not need intervention by the legal system or other helping professionals. For other families there will be conflict and these guidelines may be helpful in identifying residential schedules which best suit the needs of each child.

it must be recognized that a child is often influenced by the primary residential parent and/or step parent. It is essential that these persons support an ongoing relationship with the other parent. Both parents should help the child know that it is normal and healthy to feel positively about both parents and to enjoy time with each.

In understanding the needs of children at different ages it is useful to organize the relevant information into age related stages. However, it should be emphasized that stage related plans do not take into account the sometimes significant individual differences between children of the same age. Specific problems and exceptions may require professional consultation. The six developmental stages used here are: Infant, Toddler, Preschooler, Early Elementary, Late Elementary and Adolescent.

Developmental Aspects
Birth to 6 Months
For the baby it is essential to have consistency of physical care and sensitive, cooperative interaction between the infant and caregiver. The pattern of access should not interrupt the ability of the parents to provide smooth child care routines. Access periods should occur frequently enough to facilitate good bonding between the infant and parents. Daily contact of a few hours in the primary residence of the infant would be the optimal plan with both parents sharing in feeding, bathing, changing, and otherwise caring for the infant as well as playing with the child.

Ideally, both parents are committed to the infant developing a good relationship with both parents. While parental cooperation is important at any age, parental cooperation is the crucial fact affecting what plan can be used during infancy. When parents are unable to restrain themselves from engaging in open conflict, access periods should occur somewhat other than in the home of the residential parent. Special family circumstances may require that access periods occur in a protected setting or in the office of a mental health professional.

During early infancy frequent and predictable contact with the child is best. Unless circumstances allow several contacts a week, time with the child away from the residential parent should be limited to one or two hours.

6 to 18 Months

The forming of secure attachment relationships is the major issue at this age. The most important features of caregiving are stability and responsiveness. Young children can quickly lose feelings of attachment to people they do not frequently see.

As for younger infants, the more frequent and stable the pattern of access, the longer it can be.

If frequency is less than once or twice a week, access should not be more than one to three hours. Children this age need routine contact with familiar people. Overnights away from the primary caregiver should be discouraged unless the instability for the child is outweighed by other factors.

Toddlers - 18 Months to 3 Years Old
The tasks of children during this period are developing a sense of separateness from the parents and learning to master limits. The child should be given adequate freedom to explore and permission to resist the parent on unimportant issues, but must be required to obey in areas of safety, self control and social interaction.

While frequency and consistency are still important, children of this age can handle a schedule of access which provides less frequent contact. An 18 month old child who is with the other parent only on weekends can handle parts of a day. For older toddlers, when the nonresidential parent has been a regular and significant caretaker, an overnight per week is possible once the child has become accustomed to the other parent's surroundings. weekend long access is still not recommended.

Preschoolers - 3 to 5 Years Old
Preschool children are developing sex role identification and peer relationships as well as learning to manage their impulses. Parents need to model clear roles and values and to use effective parenting skills.

The level of conflict between parents appears to be more important than the schedule of contact for preschool children. Almost as important is the predictability of the contact. Frequent contact also is indicated. Sporadic, infrequent access is clearly contra- indicated.

Weekly access consisting of one overnight for younger preschoolers and full weekends for older preschoolers throughout the year is recommended. More frequent contact is recommended assuming a low level of conflict between the parents. A few week long contacts for holidays and summer vacations can be handled well. If practicalities dictate periods longer than a week at a time, the parents should obtain specialized consultation on helping children handle the lengthier time frames.

Early Elementary Age - 5 to 9 Years Old
For children this age the primary influence of the parents is now shared with teachers, peers and often community contacts. Schedules of access need to take into account various organized activities in which children may be involved.

The recommended schedule is a minimum of two weekends per month, and assuming the parents get along reasonably well, more frequent access including midweek contacts. At 7 to 8 years of age children who have contact with the nonresidential parent several times a week are most satisfied with the access pattern.

Extended time with the other parent is more feasible at this age because of the child's developed sense of time. Up to six weeks may be appropriate, but not necessarily to be taken all at one time. When staying for long periods with the nonresidential parent, contact with the residential parent should be arranged.

Later Elementary Age - 9 to 12 Years Old
The pattern for this age group can be much the same as for ages five to nine. However, it should be recognized that children of this age generally need definite involvement in the decisions affecting them. Also, by ages 11 to 12, their friends and school involvements have increased importance which may lead children to want less contact with the parents and a more flexible schedule of contact.

Adolescents - 12 or Over
12 to 15 Years Old - The younger adolescent needs more support and guidance from parents than does the older one. The recommended schedule is much the same as for ages 9 to 12 with recognition that the younger adolescent needs to be able to opt out of occasional contacts or vary from the schedule.

15 to 16 Years Old - The schedule for older adolescents should be mutually established between the teen and the nonresidential parent. The schedule for adolescents should take into account that teenagers do not need contact of long duration with either parent, but need to know they can count on both parents. At least brief contact on a weekly or every other week basis is strongly recommended for the teenager and nonresidential parent.

It should be noted that there is no legally designated age at which children have the right to decide with whom they live or whether or not they will have time with the other parent. In practice the adolescent's need for autonomy should be balanced against the child's sometimes unfelt need for at least minimal contact with both parents. It should be noted that spending a full weekend with a parent may be experienced by some teenagers as being grounded.

In addition to the suggested routine schedules, there needs to be provisions for specific holiday access which should be structured according to the family's traditions. Religious or other holidays with significance to the family should be defined and stated in the legal decree. Sharing of time should be the paramount consideration. For example, major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and 4th of July can be alternated. Some parents find it preferable to establish a tradition of Christmas Eve in one home and Christmas Day in the other.

Minor holidays which are adjacent to the access weekends can be included in those weekends. School vacations, winter and spring, can be divided between the parents in ways consistent with the children's needs. It should be understood that holidays and special occasions spelled out in a residential schedule take precedence over the routine schedule.

The residential schedule recommendations will often not be workable when the parents are geographically distant from one another. In those situations, the child's needs for a relationship with both parents will have to be met with individualized access programs.

If a preschool child can separate from the residential parent, extended time with the other parent may be appropriate. When the child reaches school age, consideration may be given to the child spending major portions of school vacations with the non-residential parent.

Resource Information

The following books are suggested for parents who need more information about developing a plan for their children following separation and divorce:
  • Interventions for Children of Divorce - Custody, Access and Psychotherapy, by William F. Hodges
  • Mom's House/Dad's House, by Isolina Ricci
  • Second Chances Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakes Lee
  • Sharing Parenthood After Divorce, by Ciji Ware
  • Sharing the Children: How to Resolve Custody Problems and Get On With Your Life, by Robert E. Adler
  • Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly
  • The Parents Book About Divorce, by Richard Gardner
  • 101 Ways to be a Long Distance Super-Dad, by Newman