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Cognitive Development of Children & Access


+ Explaining time to small children

Use of this information to fuel a custody conflict is a misuse of this information!

Each child is different and each parent is different. The amount of time that each parent has been involved with the children and intensity of bonding prior to separation should always be taken into consideration.

Conflict about custody is harmful to children. Conflict about custody may indicate that one or both parents are unable to put their children's needs ahead of the parents' desires for revenge or vindictiveness.

Infants (0 to 8 months old)

Infants can develop attachments to multiple caregivers. Infants form an attachment through the gradual process of having basic needs met by someone who feeds them when they are hungry, changes them when they are wet, comforts them when they are upset, talks to them, plays with them, cuddles them and comes when they cry. Infants begin to either trust or mistrust that their needs will be met and their caregiver provides a safe place. They form attachments to caregivers who satisfy their needs and soothe their discomforts and fears.

Infants this young have limited memories and need frequent contact with their primary caregiver and non-custodial parent. The younger the child, the more frequent the contact from the non-custodial parent is needed. Frequent and shorter contacts can help attachments and are better than longer times spaced far apart. Until attachments are made with the non-custodial parent, visits should remain in the presence of the primary caregiver to avoid distress of the infant.

Toddlers (6 months to 12 months old)

Often at this stage you will see a Toddler cling to their primary caregiver if someone unfamiliar approaches. Separation anxiety can be exaggerated at this stage if the child is not socialized with many people or the non-custodial parent. The loss of a primary caregiver and the loss of a familiar and comfortable environment are the most deep seated fears of a toddler. Toddlers struggle to figure out that someone out of sight can and WILL return.

A regular, frequent visitation schedule is of major importance. Short times of 1 to 3 hours are recommended if frequency is low. If contact is regular and frequent, the child can handle most of a day. Toddlers need predictability and familiarity and contact works best when in familiar places every time.

Toddlers have a better memory than infants and can go longer periods of time without seeing their primary caregiver. Many three year olds tolerate overnight visits away from the primary caregiver, but weekends or long times during summer are hard.

Pre-Schoolers (3 to 5 years old)

Pre-schoolers are learning to talk and can talk about their feelings and needs. They have an understanding of 'tomorrow' and can hold in mind a picture of a parent when they are away from him or her. This means that they can tolerate longer separation times from parents or caregivers.

A pre-schoolers primary fear is of losing parental love. They respond to their parent's tension and need each parent's permission to love and enjoy being with the other parent. They need frequent comforting from parents because they have huge worries about being abandoned.

Pre-schoolers often fantasize about their parents reuniting and many even deny the divorce has happened. Children this age often assume it is their fault and their unlovability that caused the separation. They need intense reassurances that they will not be abandoned, that their basic shelter needs will be met and that they will be able to see the other parent.

School Age (6 to 10 years old)

Children this age need regular, frequent contact with each parent, shielding from parental hositility, involvement of both parents in the child's life and regular school attendance. The schedule should allow the child to maintain contact with friends, school and after-school activities. Many children still require a home base while being with the other parent from 1 to 3 days/week. Many children these days easily adapt to alternating half-weeks or shared custody at each parent's home.

By age 8 (or if the other parent has been highly involved with the child from birth) multiple overnights are usually OK and a full week at each parent's home can usually be phased in by age 8. Children should be encouraged NOT to carry information back and forth between homes. Children should talk directly with each parent about rules in that household rather than playing both parents against each other.

Pre-Teens (11 to 12 years old)

Pre-Teens this age need involvement of both parents and are most content with several contacts a week with each parent. The schedule should be regular and predictable and minimize interference with peer relationships, school and after-school activities. Many children desire one home base with specific evenings, weekends, and activities at the other home. Some children do well with equal contact in each home. Some children prefer less contact, maybe every other week. At this age, children need more flexibility in their visitation schedule.

Some Pre-Teens have already reached the abstract thinking stage of Teenagers and start to question concepts such as love, death, religion, authority, parental intelligence, etc. Parents should be cautious of putting their children in a divorce tug-of-war with children this age. Pre-Teens can easily and readily identify issues around divorce but do not know how to effectively remove themselves from their parents conflict and often need professional guidance to deal with their own emotions. Pre-Teens have the capability to see the destructive behaviours of divorcing parents but don't have the social skills to handle the stress. Parents should remember that any destructive and/or inappropriate behaviours that they do in front of their children over the age of 11 years old will be vividly remembered by their children!

Teenagers (13 to 17+ years old)

From age 13, teenagers are usually able to understand the divorce process and most (but not all) will be able to separate themselves from their parents' actions and reactions. Teens are entering the cognitive stage of abstract thinking and can now start to figure out who they are in relation to friends' and society's rules. They still need parents to provide closeness, concern, and fairness (although some days it seems that they do not want anything to do with the parent).

Teens need some say in planning their visitation schedule. Teens do not need contact of long duration with either parent and flexibility is needed to accommodate their friends and part-time jobs. Both parents may start to feel that their child's friends are more important than they are. At this stage, this may be true.

Contact once or twice each week for an hour or more may be more than enough. Some teens need one home base with regular and predictable evenings, weekends, and activities at the other home.

Teens do well when both parents stay involved with them. Parents should NOT start acting like teens and parents should NOT involve teens in parent worries. Parents should NOT expose teens to parents' sexuality or sexual conquests. Teens need protection, lots of encouragement, recognition of real and honest effort and a sense that they are loved for who they are, not what they do.