Wanna talk high-stakes in divorce? Let’s talk about custody schedules. Child custody is arguably the most loaded of all issues in divorce. Emotions can cloud decisions, making crucial changes for the family fraught with serious conflict. What are the options? Parents can either work together to carve out the best options for themselves and their children, or the courts can step in to make the decision for them.
Because so much hangs in the balance when when setting custody schedules, the less the courts are involved, the better, says Brooke French, family law attorney at Boyd Collar Nolen & Tuggle. Stephanie Weiland Knarr, Ph.D., a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and relationship expert in the D.C. area, agrees. “In my opinion, courts, psychologists, attorneys and parents should not assume that there is any one schedule that is best for any child. Every family and child should be looked at uniquely.”
Courts and Parenting Schedules
When the court makes a decision about parenting time, it sets hard-and-fast rules. What the court cannot see are the subtle nuances in the parenting and parent-child relationships. The court also doesn’t know when or how parents celebrate holidays or when family reunions occur. If the court sets the parenting schedule, the child may miss out on these important events.
“Parents together can be creative and come up with something much better than the court can,” says French.
That said, if one one home provides a healthier space for the children than the other, the courts can be necessary when making some of the custodial decisions.
“In my opinion, courts and psychologists should be determining which parent is more functional, and which household is more functional,” says Knarr.
For example, if a child is tardy for school 15 times in a semester while she is at Dad’s house, but not tardy while she is at Mom’s house, it’s an indication that Mom’s house is more functional and something is preventing the child from being on time to school while at Dad’s house.
Therapy can also help determine the functionality of one home over another, and in a custody review situation, a therapist may serve as an expert witness to the court.
“[In therapy, we would] have the child show what a typical routine is at Mom’s house and Dad’s house,” according to Knarr. In one case, the child might indicate that Dad spends time with the child, doing homework, having dinner together and being involved in an evening routine where they read and play together. Conversely, Mom is visibly depressed, watching television on the couch and talking on the phone—totally detached from the child. A session like this would provide a red flag that Mom’s house might not be very functional and that Dad’s house is a safer place for the child to be.
Parent Work Schedule
Parents’ work schedules can also play a part in custody schedules, especially when one parent works odd hours.
“It might be better for Dad to have a week on, then a week off because he has to travel,” says French. “Or if Dad works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., it’s hard for him to get the kids on the bus in the morning, but easy for him to pick them up in the afternoon.”
Parents need to talk to one another about work schedules and make arrangements to ensure the children are taken care of.
When Parents Don’t Get Along
If the co-parenting relationship is volatile, conversations about parenting schedules can be stressful and counter-productive. In these cases, a flexible schedule might not be the best option, because it could be more easily manipulated to benefit one parent. For example, if the current parenting schedule is flexible and Dad asks Mom, “What day will I see her this weekend?” Mom should be ready with an answer. If the answer is too often, “I’ll let you know,” Mom may be attempting to control the issue and the schedule to her own benefit, leaving dad feeling taken advantage of.
“Flexibility is based on the situation, and hopefully parents are flexible on day-to-day things and can work together when it comes to big things,” asserts French.
Don’t forget that you can choose your battles. Does being flexible cause you or your child to miss an important event? How much does it really impact your life? If the answer is “No,” or “Not much,” then maybe you should save the argument for another day. You’re not just avoiding an argument, you could be keeping yourself out of court.
In cases like these, it’s typically best to work with attorneys to create a schedule that will work for both parents and aim for court to be the final step, and only if absolutely necessary.
Age of the Child
“What a two- to three-year-old is able to do versus what a teenager wants to do is different,” says French. “And what may work for them at two or three years old may not work for them later.”
And while news reports and studies show the trend moving toward equal, 50/50-time with both parents, exceptions are often made in the case of very young children and their primary caregiver.
“As a rule of thumb, very young children shouldn’t go more than two nights without seeing a primary caregiver,” according to French. “Visits should be frequent and relatively short in duration because the child has a short attention span.”
As the child gets older, parents should look at how well a child does while away from one parent or the other. “If both parents are very involved, it’s hard for a child to be away from either parent for an extended period of time,” she says.
Input from the Child
While some parents want children to have input regarding where they want to live, French maintains that parents and courts should use caution when consulting children about where they want to live.
Having conversations with younger children about their preferences, French notes, opens the door to having your child make a decision they shouldn’t have to make at a young age.
Older teens can be more flexible with their schedules, because they have more independence. Parents can take them out to dinner and do little things with them during the other parent’s “time.”
“The child shouldn’t have the ultimate say in a custody situation, especially a younger child. But from a mental health perspective, when people have a voice in their life, at least some of their wishes are being heard, it can help them feel like they have a say in the transition,” suggests Knarr.
There is no cookie-cutter approach to how to work out a custody schedule. There are as many options out there as their are divorcing parents, but ultimately time spent with your children should be focused on quality over quantity.
“To build and maintain a relationship, it’s about spending time together and parents need to remember that,” says French. “Rather than being caught up in the number of days, think about the quality of time you’re spending with your child and enjoy that part of it.”