When a court divides parenting time in divorce or custody cases, it is the parents’ voices that are heard in the court room. No one is there to speak directly for the children except in rare cases where the judge has appointed a guardian ad litem. Even so, it is up to the court to determine not what is best for the parties, but what is in the best interests of the children.
When negotiating a shared parenting time arrangement, many lawyers and judges default to a week-on, week-off arrangement. This is easy to remember and involves fewer transitions between households for the children. But at least one social worker, Gary Direnfeld, believes this could be doing harm to the young children subjected to such an order:
As an infant, toddler and preschooler, the brain has not yet developed enough to hold a consistent image of the parent if away from the parent for as much as a week. Thus the child gets used to one parent only to be taken away. As the hours and days move on, the child grows uncomfortable missing the absent parent. For children this young, it actually grows intolerable and is often evidenced by diaper rash, being inconsolable, regressing from being toilet trained to soiling, trouble sleeping and eating, aggressive or withdrawn behaviour. The child is responding to the emotional pain of week after week missing the then absent parent.
Direnfeld goes on to say that an alternating week schedule may not be appropriate until the child reaches the teenage years. Prior to that it could affect the child’s ability in school, which in turn can cause tension between the parents as each one blames the other for the child’s poor grades.
This gets complicated from a legal perspective because ordinary changes in life (like growing up) are not generally grounds to modify a custody arrangement. This means that the frequent exchanges set up when the child was young will continue into their teen years even though she no longer needs the constant reminder of who daddy is.
These frequent transitions can pose significant problems for teenagers and their parents as they try to juggle extra-curricular activities, jobs, and homework. But the courts will not order a change in the schedule unless there has been a substantial change in circumstances.
The parents, however, can agree to such a modification. If both parties stipulate to a change in the parenting time order the court will usually agree that it is in the child’s best interest. But to do that, the parents will need to set aside their own priorities and look at what is really going to be best for their child.