Co-parenting does not work unless parents strive to cooperate with each other for the benefit of their children and create an effective parenting plan. And while cooperation is certainly important, parents should also consider how their children may respond to separation at different ages.
It is important to follow certain guidelines closely when figuring out how to best divide custody between parents. I will summarize some key research on childhood development that many parents may find helpful when navigating the world of co-parenting.
Babies and toddlers tend to be the most challenging group for which to plan a reliable schedule. Babies need consistency, and even little changes in their schedules can put them in a state of distress. In particular, children at this age rely on a primary caretaker on whom they are dependent most of the time. In order to alleviate any stress, babies should be with this primary caretaker nearly all the time; however, it is important for the other parent to see children at this age often—around 2 to 3 times a week for several hours.
Children need this time to develop a healthy attachment to each parent. Conversely, if both parents are gone (i.e. the child is raised by a nanny, daycare employee, other relative, etc.) it is possible for the child to grow up without an attachment to either parent. Thus, it is important for both parents to spend quality time bonding with their babies.
As your child gets older, it is a good idea to slowly transition into overnight visits in order to help your child adjust to an unfamiliar schedule. Alternating one full day every other week is a good way to see if your child is okay being away from their primary caretaker. Also, since younger children typically have a difficult time understanding how long a few days or a week is, you may have to continually remind them when they will see their other parent again.
Preschoolers are also a bit difficult to manage, but it is easier for children to be with one parent for longer stretches of time at this age. You should slowly transition into a two-day, one-night away routine and make sure to keep a line of contact open with the other parent either through an actual meet-up or a phone call. Children at this age still need stability and frequent contact with both parents as they are still developing their attachments.
Younger children are easier to manage as they have the routine of school and independent activities to structure their lives outside of their interactions with their parents. They are generally better able to cope with time away from their primary caretaker and have a more open attitude toward the parent they do not live with. Splitting weeks is typically a good route to take when transitioning your child into a new schedule.
Teens and older children have less predictable schedules and are thus harder to accommodate. Additionally, they may respond to the divorce in a variety of ways as they have grown up with both parents living in the same household well into their personal development. By this time, however, development is nearing an end, and it is important to consider your child’s social lives and busy schedules when planning how to organize visits between parents. Indeed, divorce may increase the autonomy of your child as they lose the stability of their childhood home life.
With these factors in mind, figure out a parenting schedule. Decide who will get which days or stretches of days in each week/month/year. While flexibility is essential when first trying out a new plan, it is important to eventually agree on a fixed schedule in order to help your child maintain stability in their everyday lives.
Divorce is messy, especially when kids are involved, and so it is very important to understand how your child may respond to certain changes in their schedules. As children get older, they tend to develop more autonomy and accept more changes in their daily lives. In any case, you should work with your children in order to get a better idea of what works for them in regard to their schedules.