Developing a contact schedule with children after a divorce
When parents are developing a set schedule of timesharing or contact between the child and both parents after a divorce, the tendency is to think about today. However, you will save time and money to think of five different schedules, anticipating the changes in your child’s age and needs. The following information is intended as a guide of age defined considerations to develop a sequential contact schedule:
General considerations for all timesharing or contact schedules
1. It is better to have a set schedule.
You may not need it now, but there are times when your relationship with the other parent may be difficult and it is better to be prepared than to be sorry later. You may ignore the set schedule now, and either parent invoke it at difficult times, and then ignore it again at better times.
2. Consider the parental contact and involvement during the intact marriage, prior to the breakdown of the relationship.
Agree whether to continue that schedule or make changes, and why. This is a focus on parental needs and wants, and should be refocused to what is in the best interests of the minor children.
3. The general rule and presumption is that it is in the best interests of the minor child to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the dissolution of marriage.
The parent who opposes this has the burden of showing why this would be detrimental to the children’s best interests. It is a difficult burden to overcome and requires a strong showing that children’s emotional, mental, and physical health would be in risk of permanent harm. The standard for dependency is that the other parent is a danger to the children, and then the consideration becomes one of limitations on contact, supervision of contact, and interventions for the parent “who needs improvement.”
4. Both parents should be actively involved in the children’s lives with responsible time as well as recreational time.
Children need two homes and chores and involvement in day-to-day activities in both, for example, food shopping and cleaning the house. Both parents should have a homework assignment, and a project responsibility. Both parents should have time when the child has school activities and extra-curricular activities.
5. Consideration should be given to the geographical proximity between the parents’ homes, the parents’ availability, and work schedule, and the child’s school and activity schedule.
The children should be the priority, and accommodations should be to that priority. Parents should make an agreement as to contact that is workable and requires little change. The change should be to the appointment that interferes with the schedule, than to the schedule, so the children are not disappointed and understand that they are the priority in their parents’ lives.
Where there is more than one child, individual time with each parent should be considered.
6. Consideration should be given to “adjustment” time.
Children who go from one home to another may need time to adjust to the differences, unwind, and have preparation time for the next day. If there is a long time away from the primary or secondary home, the children will require more time. If the parents are considering equal timesharing, consideration should be given to the temperament of the child and how the child adapts to change, a new caretaker, and a new school. Some children must sleep in one bed or had to use one toilet when having been toilet trained or did not do well their first time in preschool or when being separated from their caretaker; these children may not be good candidates for equal timesharing.
7. The amount of contact is not as important as the absence of conflict between the parents, communication between the parents, and rituals created with the children.
Children are destroyed by conflict and thrive in its absence. Rituals created with children, such as holidays shared, hobbies created, and routines such as some of the same books in both homes with bedtime stories each evening with each parent create the memories that children will carry with them to their children. So will they carry the conflict, arguments, fighting, and yelling with them; however, they are then more likely than not never to have children. There are experts who can help parents develop communication plans, and even ideas for rituals, before the children reach their school age years when serious problems may arise, whatever the contact schedule.
8. The issue of relocation is one which may have no amicable resolution unless both parents are committed to the child’s best interests as paramount.
There is much literature to explore and experts to consult regarding an individual child and individual circumstance. If relocation is a potential issue, speak to the lawyer early so that information and interventions may take place early.
Age based considerations
1. Infants and babies to age eighteen months need familiarity and consistency.
The younger the child, the shorter and more frequent should be the contacts. The environments at the parents’ homes should be as identical as possible, duplicating the rooms down to the smells of the fabric softeners and detergents. If possible, there should be the same caretaker when neither of the parents can be with the child. Try not to leave the child with unfamiliar caretakers or with frequent environmental changes. The child should have the same schedules of naps and bedtime, bath time, feeding, type of formula, etc. Overnights may be appropriate depending on the amount and frequency of contact between the parent and child and the duplication of environment and schedule commitment.
2. Toddlers eighteen months to three years need continuity as well as what is provided in the consideration for infants.
Toilet training methods need to be the same. The child needs the same routine, eating, activities, and bedtime. Structure is important and the structure should be the same in both homes.
3. Preschoolers age three to five need predictability and frequent assurance when they will see the other parent to prevent separation anxiety.
The same calendar highlighted with the days with each parent in different colors in each parent’s home will give the child a reference point. Changes should be minimal. The child needs a continuation of the two previous considerations for infants to toddlers. The child may be fine with adding two night weekends to the weekday contacts and may be fine with one week blocks of time in the summer and during school vacations.
4. School age children from ages six to twelve years old need responsible as well as recreational time with both parents and responsibility at both homes.
Overnights during the week depend on the children’s school responsibilities and the considerations in the previous guideline for preschoolers. Both parents need to be committed to school as a priority with a reasonable bedtime, homework time set aside, and the same homework finished at both homes. Extended summer time with both parents, with contact with both parents during the extended time may be appropriate. Both parents should car pool and supervise activities to remain actively involved in the children’s lives.
5. Adolescence from ages thirteen to seventeen years require as much supervision as toddlers.
This is a trying time for parents as well as children and requires a commitment to those considerations for school age children, predictable and consistent parenting and contact, with flexibility. The teenager may want reduction in contact time so car pooling and volunteering to chaperone activities is important to respect their need to socialize and become independent as well as provide supervision. Children may want friends along for contact as well as other input into the contact schedule.