By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)
Attachment Parenting International regularly fields questions from members regarding different aspects of attachment, child development, and challenging family situations. Easily the largest area of concern is among divorced and separated parents who are involved in custody cases in which the other parent is demanding overnight visitation for an infant or young child.
Parents involved in this stressful situation believe that overnight visitation is harmful not only to their individual attachment with the child but also to the child’s overall development. Isabelle Fox, PhD, a psychotherapist, author of Being There, renowned expert on API’s Principle of Providing Consistent and Loving Care, and a member of API’s Advisory Board, wants to leave parents with the truth – that, yes, overnight visitations can be quite harmful to the young child…but that, unfortunately, the courts system is woefully behind on education in this arena of child development.
Dr. Fox spoke during the second day of API’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, last weekend, in a special Hot Topic session, “Custody and Separation.” The session was attended by parents, therapists, and others who work frequently with attached parents dealing with the heartbreak of shared custody, especially with infants and young children who are not yet able to verbally express their needs and wants.
Among these parents was Christy Farr, API’s former executive director who lives in Nashville. She went through a divorce when her children were very young and struggled through a time when there was little information as to the effects of various custody arrangements on the wellbeing of children. Even now, as more information becomes available, parents are still challenged by a courts system that focuses more on what the parents want in terms of equitable division of assets rather than on the rights of the child.
“It’s been only in the last ten to 15 years that I’ve been confronted with so many people going through divorce,” said Dr. Fox, who not only advocates for attached parents in shared custody cases but who is also involved in divorce prevention. Her and her husband, Bob, an attorney, are co-authoring a new book, Who to Marry?
Why Divorce is So Hard on Children
Regardless of the many reasons why divorce rates have soared the past decade, marital separation is certainly a concern of child development: “All children experience it as a great stress,” Dr. Fox said.
When one parent moves out of the house, and out of the family dynamic, that poses a major break or disruption in attachment that, if not handled sensitively, can cause long-term damage to the child’s emotional health and ability to maintain healthy relationships.
While divorce and separation is never easy for any age of child, those who are school-age or older are able to verbally express their feelings in the presence of a supportive parents. But what about a preverbal child – an infant or young child not developmentally ready to describe their feelings about a situation in words? No doubt that the end to a marriage, and family dynamic, can be especially confusing and frightening to this age group.
The Problem with Overnight Visitations
Probably the most talked-about tension surrounding shared custody is when the courts system grants overnight visitation rights of an infant or young child to the parent who is not the primary caregiver, so that a baby who is accustomed to cosleeping and nursing at night is forced to be separated from the primary caregiver and put into the care of the parent who may be reluctant to continue attachment-promoting practices.
Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to overnights, not only because the more intense Attachment Parenting (AP) practices such as cosleeping and nursing at night are likely at this age but also because children this age have a difficult time understanding separation.
“Aloneness feels much more intense during the night, the dark,” Dr. Fox said.
She gave the example of Steven, a typical ten-month-old baby who has learned to handle the nighttime hours by seeking comfort in the smell, touch and holding, singing voice, and rocking motion provided through his mother. Steven’s father demands overnight visitations and the courts system grants his wish. While the situation could be aptly explained to an older child, who can also voice his concerns, Steven has no language development either to express his feelings or to be prepared through explanation for the sudden change in nighttime routines he’ll experience going from the familiarity of his mother’s care to unpredictability and perhaps fear and confusion, as in the case of a father who does not practice AP himself.
It is impossible for a parent to explain to a ten-month-old baby that she will be back. “All that stays with him is loss and anger and fear,” Dr. Fox said. “There is no cognitive understanding” of what is happening.
In Steven’s situation, there will be a lot of crying at his father’s home during the overnight stays. Eventually, the crying may stop but the rage remains. When Steven returns to his mother, he will be extremely clingy, irritable, and anxious about separation from her for several days after each overnight visitation. Steven will feel a sense of abandonment during each visitation, then anxiety upon returning to his mother, and literally a need to re-acclimate to his normal care routine. It’s an enormous amount of stress on a young child’s emotional capabilities.
The biology of this stress is illustrated through the high levels of the hormone Cortisol, which floods the brain and impairs development. Lifelong effects of chronic Cortisol release include anxiety disorders, anger problems, and withdrawal. In addition, overnight visitations do nothing to improve the attachment bond with the non-primary caregiver and actually strains it.
Attachment-Based, Not Biological
Dr. Fox’s recommendation against overnight visitations with a non-primary caregiver applies always with the primary caregiver, often the mother but perhaps the father or a grandparent. The trauma an infant or young child can experience is related to the threat to the attachment bond, not to the biological role of each parent. Therefore, “overnights away from this father [the primary caregiver] could be just as stressful as overnights away from the mother,” Dr. Fox said.
“There are 3 million stay-at-home fathers in the United States right now,” she added. “So, you can’t be judgmental; you have to see what the situation is,” and not assume the mother is always the primary caregiver.
The same holds true for families in which both parents are primary attachment figures to the child, a phenomenon known as tandem parenting and explained by James McKenna, MD, during API’s 15th Anniversary Think-Tank Event. The solution here would be to allow overnight visitations with the parent who is accustomed to putting the child to bed at night, whether or not he or she is the primary caregiver in all childcare tasks. “This is because sleep is different; it’s a process,” Dr. Fox said.
Alternative to Overnights
Night and day visitations have very different impacts on a young child, Dr. Fox said. A parent demanding overnight visitations must be especially careful of who is the primary attachment for the child, as well as whether the child is developmentally ready to handle an overnight visitation. A child normally isn’t ready to spend a night away from home, except an emotionally close family member, until at least the school-age years.
Rather, a parent who is not the primary caregiver and would otherwise wish for an overnight visitation should request more daytime visitation.
When Overnight Visitations are OK
If the parent can wait until the child is at least three years old before requesting overnight visitations, the effect is much smmother on the child who is able to better sense time and has improved language development. The child can not only better express their feelings but also can understand a parent’s explanation of what will happen during a visitation and afterwards.
“Wait until the child is two or three and is able to truly prepare for a different process of going asleep,” Dr. Fox said. “So, it isn’t such an abusive act to snatch the baby away from one parent and give him away to another.”
The Problem with this Logic
Whether a parent would ignore a child’s developmental needs in favor of overnight visitation rests in the parent’s maturity level as well as pressure from the courts system.
“The courts are miserable,” said Dr. Fox, who added that the system is under educated on how nighttime separations affect child development, to the point that some spouses who speak up for their children against overnight visitations are labeled as anti-father or anti-mother. The focus in Western society is on the rights of the parents, rather than that of the children. “Courts are very fair and equitable in what to give to each parent,” Dr. Fox said, “but a child is not a bank account to be divided.”
What it comes down to is the decisions made by the parent seeking custody. Dr. Fox told the Biblical story of Solomon who encountered two women claiming the same baby as her own. The woman who was truly the mother was the one who cared more about the baby’s wellbeing than custody of the child. The take-home message, then and now, is: The parents who love their children will focus on what’s best for their child, regardless of whether visitation is granted during the daytime only or overnight.
While there are many cases of the father being the primary caregiver, it is a recent development that non-primary caregiving fathers have started to demand overnight visitations. Part of this new trend, believes Dr. Fox, could be that if a father can get partial custody, he pays little to no child support.
“In years past, the courts never took children away from their mothers until three or four years old. Even then, preschoolers have a very difficult time moving from home to home,” Dr. Fox said.
Some parents and therapists believe that getting infants and small children used to small separations away from their primary caregiver helps to prepare a child for overnight visitations. Dr. Fox warns of this advice, especially with the younger child: “I think three or four year olds can have small separations like going to a preschool or something else during the day, but overnights are a big deal!”
Inevitably, some parents will have to deal with shared custody and overnight visitations of their children at the non-primary caregiver’s home. So what does Dr. Fox recommend?
- Talk about the situation and play it out with dolls or teddybears.
- Teach the non-primary caregiver how to put the child down for a daytime nap to ease into the bedtime routine.
Divorce-Proofing Your Child
The future of marriage and stable family life lies in what our children learn about dealing with conflict and stress in relationships from our own marriages – and AP is helping parents to lay the foundation for future, healthy marriages.
“To make a good marriage, you have to have the capacity to form real, long-term commitments and you teach that in the first two years of life,” Dr. Fox said, further illustrating that overnight visitations are a bigger issue than who has custody rights.