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How young is too young for week-about access?

October 15, 2013

I asked this question in a chat area for lawyers and mental health professionals on Linked In. With more than 121 comments, the argument swayed back and forth from rights to responsibilities to legislation to child development. Some arguments were nasty and some were eloquent. In the midst, my concern for the children got lost in the shuffle for a while. Interestingly, this all mirrors my experience when asked to wade into this issue having to provide an opinion to the Courts when separated parents cannot settle these matters between themselves. This was not an academic exercise for me. I was truly interested in the opinion of others, seeking a reasonable solution to a conundrum faced by many.

Finally, the 120th comment asked:

So Gary … You have really started a great discussion! Now, since you actually have some expertise in the field, I would be interested in your own thoughts on the question you posed.

My response:

I am amazed by the confluence of ideas and conflicts and while I knew this would be controversial, had no idea just how controversial my question would be.

My question is a real problem and conundrum for many parent, lawyers, mental health professionals and even legislators, but for me, there is a way out of the dilemma. It rests in observing child development under different circumstances and seeing what becomes of children owing to their different circumstances. This does not provide for an exact science, but qualitative measures that speak to probable outcomes.

Thereof, children who tend to fare best come adulthood following parental separation in childhood are those whose parents have low conflict or in view of moderate to high conflict, find ways to mitigate their conflict and keep it from trickling down upon their children.

We also know that children who have at least one stable attachment figure in their life tend to do better in later life than children who either do not have a stable attachment figure or who have multiple yet unstable attachment figures.

Further, in the throes of separation, both parents fear losing a meaningful relationship with their children. I see this as a biological imperative and what I mean by this is that if both parents did not seek a meaningful relationship with their children, children would easily be cast aside and not even survive. Children’s survival therefore depends upon a parent’s willingness to fight for and defend the child through a relationship with the child.

Therefore, this biological imperative, to connect with and want to be with one’s child is protective of the child. This is a strong driving force in and of itself and seems true either in presence or absence of mental health issues. However, the greater the concern for mental health issues, I think the more this imperative can be distorted and/or feel to be threatened.

To have this biological imperative feel to be threatened is an equal gender issue even though it may be actualized differently.

By this I mean that mothers are more apt to concern themselves with direct care and feeding, whereas fathers are more apt to concern themselves with nest-building and caring for the larger safety/security issues. Disrupt either parent in their gender based biological imperative to care for their child and all bets are off with both seeking to carry the imperatives of the other so as not to feel they are falling short on meeting their own. Hence both parents will argue that they can perform the role of the other.

In addition to the above, professional experience has demonstrated to me that the wisdom of King Solomon is lost on some people. King Solomon when asked to decide who was the true mother of an infant between two laying claim to the child, offered to cut the child in half so each may share in ownership. When one stepped forward to save the child from a fate of certain death by denouncing her claim, King Solomon saw her as the real and selfless mother and provided her custody of the child. I work with some people who would have seen the child cut in two.

I work with people who in cutting the child in two, contrive parenting plans that although mitigating further conflict (at least for the moment) derive parenting plans that are intrinsically contradictory to the mental health and even physical health of the child. Hence I see pre-school children and even infants subject to residential arrangements that create separation trauma for the child as they live with one parent to the point of grieving the loss of the other, only to have the situation next reversed to yet grieve the just prior residential parent.

This emotional teasing is tantamount to torture to the child who next surfaces with the physical and behavioral correlates of the distress. Diaper rash, loss of developmental achievements, sleep disturbance, separation anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, eating/feeding problems, inconsolability, digestive disturbances are just some of the ways in which the child’s emotional disturbance surfaces and when these symptoms do surface, each parent blames the other rather than appreciating their joint role in co-creating their child’s distress with an ill-conceived residential arrangement.

In my view, a week-about residential schedule for children of separated parents should be reserved for later childhood, typically no earlier than pre-teens and preferably not until adolescence. There is a reason why summer camps do not offer week-long or month long sleepovers for children younger than about 8 or so years of age. They know that “homesickness” is a powerful force that creates tremendous disturbances in a child of even that age with symptoms similar to the preschooler and infant.

Social science research suggests children do need both stability with a primary attachment figure AND frequency of contact to a secondary attachment figure in order to develop and maintain a sense of safety and security in the world and a long terms attachment to both attachment figures.

Both parents can contribute to this but their contributions may differ. Further and with a developmental approach to the residential arrangement, rather than a one-shot deal, the parenting plan can grow and morph as the child grows and becomes developmentally more capable of greater complexity and time away from either parent.

This may require a Court Order to achieve as with little trust between some parents, one may feel the need to have his or her final arrangement achieved from the get-go, rather than appreciating that is better achieved over the passage of time. The challenge is appeasing the felt biological imperative of all parents and honoring the role of both parents equally although differently such that both can contribute and by the time the child is of adult age, both parents can then continue to enjoy life-long relationships with their then successful adult children.

Find a way to facilitate both parents’ role in the care and raising of the children. Both are equally important, but at the same time can be different qualitatively and quantitatively at different points over the course of the child’s development. This is the lesson to be learned.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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