Some Brief Comments on Child Custody and Visitation issues from the Perspective of “Relationship-oriented and Context-sensitive Family Therapy”

The following comments are rather “Meta-comments” that hopefully suggest for parents some useful frames of thinking about Child Custody and Visitation issues. They come from my years of therapeutic work with couples and families. I am not suggesting specific “solutions” how the Child Custody and Visitation Issues in any particular case should be decided and by whom.

  1. How to understand what is at stake for the child/children:

    There is no perfect solution for the children of separated/divorced couples:

    “The best interest of the child” would be served if the parents were together in a loving relationship.

    We should, therefore, look for “The Least Detrimental Alternative” for the child/children.

  2. What we can learn from “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (CDC):

    This Study by the Centers for Disease Control suggests that among much more severe forms of trauma, also the split, i.e. the separation between parents during the early childhood years, can contribute to health problems and social issues decades later.

    Early childhood trauma refers to adversity experienced during a critical developmental period in a child’s life spanning from conception to the age of five, which is a most critical period. Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on lifelong physical and mental health and emotional well-being.

    New research shows that even witnessing traumatic events can impact the physical or psychological development of a child.
  3. What are the “least detrimental alternatives” for a child or children when parents are separated?
    What level of cooperation by the parents is essential?

    Simply put: What is needed is the parents collaborating in taking care of their children; learning to be civil and respectful to each other when communicating (frequently) about the child, esp. in joint custody situations, regarding visits, reporting to each other about their children’s experiences, wellbeing or illnesses, sharing medical reports etc.; celebrating important milestones like birthdays or graduations.

    This collaboration may have to start with the support of a Court appointed mediator or a family therapist mediator, well-trained in collaborative divorce and mediation.

    The Goal is always: to find “the least detrimental alternative” for the child/children who will no longer be living with both of the parents.

    That goal requires continuity of care: The continuity of the child’s relationship with both of her/his parents is universally essential to her/his well-being.

    The parents’ ability and willingness to continue to collaborate in taking care of their child or children leads to a relationship of continuity of care between them that can be experienced by the child: From the earliest days of the child’s life the child is at the center of both parents’ continuity of care because they have a relationship to each other that centers on their care for their child, even as separated and divorced.

    That caring relationship between the parents and the child/children is different from the relationship between the parents as a separated/divorced couple. I consider this “the least detrimental alternative” to the parents living together.
  4. How healthy Attachment can develop:

    It is crucial that the growing child forms a lasting attachment to both parents. If not possible to both, then at least to one parent.

    The child’s attachment to both parents does not have to be the same strength, it can be stronger to one parent than the other; the attachment can change in intensity as the child gets older, but always:

    The child’s ability to form an attachment, at least to one parent-caretaker, is the basis for any later attachment. In other words, the child’s ability to grow attached to the other parent who was less involved during her/his early childhood is rooted in the strength of the attachment to the parent who took care of her/him during those early years. The same is true regarding the child’s relationship to other family members, to friends and, eventually, regarding the child’s attachment to her or his partner in their adult relationships.

    Without attachment to at least one parent, it is very difficult for the growing child to form attachments to the other parent, to other family members, to friends, teachers, etc.

    The attachment can be significantly strengthened by the separated parents’ collaboration; for example, towards the child getting accustomed to some similar routine in both households.

    The time in each household, with each parent, and the, hopefully, predictable and regular changes in visitation schedule should take a child’s changing sense of time into account. The experience of time is different between a toddler and a 7 y/o child and the visitation schedule with each parent should take this difference into account, especially when parents notice the child’s reaction.

    It helps, if the environment at each parent’s home is somewhat similar or if each parent at least respects that some things may be done differently in the other’s home.

    Particularly significant for forming lasting attachments are adult teachers and children with whom the child became familiar during the years of Daycare, Pre-school, in Kindergarten, and in their Elementary School. In that way, the child’s friends are already known to the child at the beginning of each school year.

    Please, note: According to NJ law it is not legally possible to switch a child between two different public schools while switching between the two parents’ households.
  5. What may be resources for a child’s resilience in a case of separated or divorced parents:

    The experienced continuity of the parents’ collaborative relationship as joint caretakers of a child or children is the most significant resource for children.

    The children’s experience of their parents’ relationship taking care of them is helping them to develop psychological resilience that in turn reduces the effects of any early childhood trauma originating in the separation/divorce of the parents.

    Even though the parents are separated or divorced, they can through their collaboration create a continuum of support and care and, therefore, maintain “the least detrimental alternative” for the child or children by supporting the development of psychological resilience in their child/children.

    In addition: Any stable and predictable presence of other caring adults in the child’s life can be counted on as significant resource, i.e. grandparents or other family members or teachers in daycare or pre-school.

Goldstein, J., Solnit, A.J., Goldstein, S., and the Estate of Anna Freud (1996). The Best Interests of the Child. The Least Detrimental Alternative​. New York (NY): The Free Press.
Wallerstein, J.S., Blakeslee, S. (2018). Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade after Divorce. 3rd Edition with New Forewords. Houghton Mifflin, New York: NY.