Best visitation schedule for shared custody?

Hi Dr. Laura,

Three and half years ago my son's dad and I began our joint custody arrangement for our son, 5 days with dad, five days with mom, two days with dad, two days with mom. Basically, dad always has M/Tu and I always have W/Th and we trade off F/Sa/Su. This was so we wouldn't be apart from him for long periods of time. He was only 4 at the time.

I have always felt that he needs more continuity, as much as possible given the fact that he has two homes, and I have approached his dad about switching weeks. My son never knows what day it is, never gets a chance to finish a book. Seems like he just settles in to the space and it's time to go again.

I have approached his dad about transitioning week-to-week and he is resistant. He says that he's not sure it would help the continuity problem (to which I replied "think about it: he has to make two transitions a cycle instead of four" but he was not convinced). He also doesn't want to be away from him for that long.

I offered that we could have time when the other parent sees our son when it's not our week, like for dinner or what have you.  I believe this is very important for our son's well-being and would like to convince my ex of this. Are there studies or resources that you know of that I can refer him to? Do you have suggestions that might help us make the right move for our son? Thanks for your assistance.
-- Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned,

It sounds to me like you are on the right track.

Here's my understanding of the literature.  Joint custody is better for kids than having one parent vanish, and it is a rare parent who can stay close to a child who does not live with them at least some of the time.  Therefore, we opt for joint custody as a way to keep both parents in meaningful relationship with the child. 

However, it is hardly an ideal situation for a child.  In fact, it is a severe stressor and risk factor for the child.  In your case, happily, you have two parents who are highly invested in parenting your son and in making this situation work for him. But that doesn't mean it isn't a severe stressor.

The stress comes from two primary factors:

1. Separation from a beloved parent -- which is by definition is going on 100% of the time for the child.  This can be lessened by reducing the time away from each parent, in other words, by more frequent transitions.

2. The stress of constantly transitioning from one household to another.  This can be lessened by less frequent transitions.

There are also a number of other factors that can cause severe stress: the feeling of the child that he has no real home but is a visitor in both places, the difficulties in keeping continuity re school, social activities and friends, etc., parents fighting, etc etc.  Luckily, all of these can be lessened by parental communication, via mediation if necessary.

So, as you have pin-pointed, #1 and #2 are the big challenges, because they conflict with each other.  The usual way of thinking about this is that a toddler cannot handle long separations without it damaging the parent-child relationship, so we do more frequent transitions, even though they stress the child.  As kids get older and school becomes the main job of the child, the stress from the transitions often becomes more apparent, as kids exhibit difficulty in school, remembering things from house to house, etc.  They often become more directly vocal about their dislike of the transitions, but even if they don't we can usually see the stress.

At that point, the obvious solution is to have longer stays with each parent.  Teenagers often even like a two week block with each parent, but separations of more than 5-7 days are never recommended for a seven year old. Kids should ALWAYS be able to phone and email each parent at all times so that connection is honored.

The split week arrangement is the most common arrangement once kids are school-age. It is described below. Note the bold sentences (my emphasis):

"Split week arrangement. One parent has the children Sunday through Tuesday, the other Wednesday through Saturday. This arrangement means parents must live close to each other within the same school district. This structure may help children feel secure because they truly have two parents and two homes. Yet, going back and forth between two homes might be difficult for children and parents. This arrangement is better suited for children seven years of age and older. It doesn’t usually work for young children. The specific temperament, age, and needs of the child also should be considered. Children must have the flexibility and resiliency to make frequent transitions. The split week arrangement is best for cooperative former spouses. It is not the best arrangement if there is a lot of parental conflict. Studies show that this arrangement has been overprescribed and many couples have been pressured to adopt it. It is important to think about how well parents handle their differences and the needs of the children." (ceinfo.unh.edu)

Joan B. Kelly is known as an expert in this area. Essentially, she says that if your kid can't handle the transitions, do them less frequently.  Of course, whether the kid is having a hard time is a matter of perception.

Here's some info from Separated Parenting Access & Resource Center, again, note my bolded emphasis: "While many elementary school age children benefit from a primary home base, children at this stage of development can also benefit from spending longer periods of time with their noncustodial parent, assuming that they have developed and maintained a close relationship with that parent. Children of this age may be comfortable being away from their custodial parent on a regular basis for visitation lasting two to three days and for longer periods during school breaks and summer vacation. The more time a child has spent with the noncustodial parent, the more comfortable the child will be spending time away from the child's home base. For younger children of this age group, frequent visitation (at least once per week) with their noncustodial parent is desirable. As a child matures, longer visitation with fewer transitions may be preferred. Parents can help their elementary school age children by: Establishing and following a predictable visitation routine, Gradually changing the frequency and increasing the duration of visitation...."

Here's a biased view against joint custody, again note my emphasis:

"Recently, it has become apparent that joint physical custody is not the ideal solution it was once thought to be. Too often the child may be shuttled back and forth between parents and have no real feeling of a "home." Consistency is often difficult to achieve in such an arrangement. The rules may be different at each parent's home -- bedtime is 8:30 at Mom's but 10:00 at Dad's. Schoolwork sometimes suffers. For example, homework assigned while the child is staying at one home, but due to be turned in when he is at the other, can be inadvertently overlooked. Friends are different at each home and harder to keep up with, the babysitter may be different each time, and so on. Children who have difficulty adapting to change may find joint physical custody too chaotic. Generally, the parents must work very hard at such an arrangement. Joint physical custody seldom reduces hostility between the parties and may even increase it. It requires two parents who maintain a commitment over time to put the needs of the child first and are able to create a conflict- free zone for their child. Parents who choose joint physical custody must be willing to have open and frequent communication with each other. Joint physical custody requires two parents committed to be co-parents." (http://www.ncfamilylaw.com/download/jtcus27.html)

Notice that I am not citing studies.  Most of the research is compromised by the parents fighting, so although I could cite you studies of kids having difficulty with the transitions, it is always complicated by conflict between the parents. Here's an example:

"Researcher, Doctor Jennifer McIntosh from Family Transitions, looked at children's development in 130 high-conflict families, some of whom went to court. Dr McIntosh says children in shared care are more troubled, distressed and anxious than children who have more flexible arrangements. The children also had higher rates of hyperactivity than children who had a stable home base with one of their parents." (http://www.thelizlibrary.org/site-index/site-index-frame.html#soulhttp://www.thelizlibrary.org/liz/those-jointcustody-studies.html)

There is also research on younger kids, none of which is relevant to your situation.  So while I am sharing with you my sense of the general attitude by experts nowadays, it is really based on whether a particular child can handle the arrangement imposed by the parents.  Of course, every kid is different, and they all show their stress differently, but we know there is ALWAYS stress, and we know that transitions exacerbate that stress.

An article by Angela Phillips (October 17, 2003) in The Guardian cited two typical studies out there, both just say that shared custody is hard on kids and even harder if the parents fight about it:

"New research from a longitudinal study by Carol Smart of the Care, Values and the Future of Welfare (Cava) research programme at the University of Leeds asked children what it actually feels like to be shared. Smart observes: "Even where children had good relationships with both their parents, and where they felt that shared residence was 'a good thing', there were costs for them. They looked forward to a time when they could stop living like nomads. The Cava research found that problems tended to increase as children got older and wanted to make their own social arrangements...'

"Research by Liz Trinder at the University of East Anglia confirms this view. She found that, even in the most harmonious post-divorce families, the children tended to refer to one place as "home" and speak of visiting the other parent. Both researchers found that children are happiest where it is clear that their needs, rather than the needs of their parents, take priority. "If they realised that each parent wanted 50% of them because they could not tolerate the idea that the other parent had more, they did not feel loved so much as like a possession to be fought over," explains Smart.

So after all of that I would say you are right about fewer transitions, but there is no real "proof". Although the two examples you give (not knowing what day it is and not finishing a book) don't really make sense to me -- I assume he travels with whatever book he is reading, and he is always with you on Wed/Th so that would be an easy way to tell what day it is.  But if you hear him complaining about these things (or anything related) that is certainly an indicator, and it also certainly makes sense that two transitions a cycle instead of four would be helpful.

I would probably recommend a therapy or mediation session to work this out with your ex.  I wish you luck!
warmly,
Dr. Laura

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