Co-parenting and visitation arrangements can be challenging. Parental interactions, how far parents live from one another, age of children – all these things, and more, come into play when crafting a plan for parental visitation and custody. The most important consideration, however, is the welfare of the children.
Discord over custody and visitation issues ranks very high on the list of single parent stressors. Additionally, such discord is difficult and upsetting for the children. This article will discuss the various types of co-parenting and parental visitation relationships, as well as problems associated with these arrangements.
For simplicity, we will discuss visitation arrangements in terms of divorced parents, but visitation arrangements may apply to long-term partners with children who have separated, as well.
Physical and legal custody
There are two types of custody – physical and legal. Physical custody is precisely what it sounds like – both parents have a right to have the children live with them for specified percentages of time. Custody can be 50 percent (joint custody, discussed further below) or an unequal percentage such as 70/30 percent.
Legal custody grants the parent the right (and responsibility) to make decisions regarding the upbringing of the child, such as medical care, school, and religion. Sometimes, a visiting parent has no legal custody, but typically, if parents are sharing physical custody, they will share legal custody as well.
What is a "visiting parent?"
A visiting parent can be defined simply as the non-custodial parent. This includes all visitation categories that are not joint custody arrangements.
Different types of visitation arrangements
There are perhaps as many visitation arrangements as there are divorced parents. Every family's needs and circumstances are different, and circumstances do change over time, so adjustments will likely be necessary, especially as the children get older, or as parental situations change.
There are, however, several typical visitation categories. As you can imagine, planning visitation arrangements can become quite complicated. The website co-parenting.com has an excellent free online book of child custody parenting plans. The plans are adaptable to individual needs and provide clear guidelines for drafting both condensed plans and detailed arrangements. Their list of condensed plans (the best place to start) includes situations where there are no overnights, or limited overnights, with shared weekends, full weekends with four-week vacation time, full weekends where holidays do or do not affect rotations, and full weekends where distance is a major factor.
No overnights or limited overnights with "shared weekends" arrangements are often made when the non-custodial parent is required to show responsible behavior before being allowed more time with the child. Reasons for this may include a history of spousal abuse (psychological or physical) or overly stern punishments for the children. Other, more benign reasons, such as a job requiring extensive travel or an inappropriate dwelling for housing a child overnight, exist, as well.
If the situation is severe, such as a history of violence or mental illness of the visiting parent, the court may order supervised visitation until the parent can be trusted to control their behavior when with the child (or take prescribed medication regularly). In this case, the court will usually dictate days and times for visitation with approval from the custodial parent. Visitation can be curtailed if the visiting parent does not improve or comply with the visitation restrictions, and any other court orders. Most of us instantly think of the father first, but a supervised visiting parent can be either mother or father.
Parents who live near one another (or within a reasonable driving distance) often arrange visitation with full weekends, typically on an "every other week" schedule. Full weekend arrangements usually include vacation time (four weeks is typical), and parents must decide whether holidays do or do not affect rotations. Sometimes, parents will "share" major holidays; for example, the child may spend Christmas day from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. with one parent, then return to the other parent for the remainder of the day.
When visitation arrangements are for full weekends, but geographical distance between parents is a major factor, parents will often agree to adhere more tightly to the schedule. Many long-distance visitation parents choose to "meet in the middle" when it's time to exchange the children. If the distance is too great for driving, parents may opt for longer visitation periods, such as a portion of the summer, a week during winter holiday break, visitation during long holiday weekends, or a combination of time periods.
Joint Custody Arrangements
In some, but not a great many, of cases, parents have joint custody, sometimes referred to as "shared" or "50/50" custody. Typically, parents with this arrangement live near one another and are able to coordinate the "kid swap" from week to week (or other specified time period). Parents may agree to rearrange or alter the schedule due to vacations, illness, or special occasions.
Shared custody is a co-parenting situation, since the child spends equal amounts of time with each parent. This can be wonderful for children, as they have access to both parents equally. If the parents are cooperative, shared custody arrangements can work very well. Unfortunately, if the parental relationship is contentious or parents are unable to put their marital differences aside, a "power struggle" can result. Sadly, some parents use their children as pawns in a "war" between one another. This is not only an unfortunate situation, it is incredibly unfair and damaging to everyone, especially the children. An only child may have a worse time in such a position, with no siblings to share their frustrations with. They may also feel at fault for their parents' continued fighting.
There is also the matter of personal possessions. As one child of divorced parents put it, "I have Mom's 'my clothes' and Dad's 'my clothes.'" Often, what she wanted to wear to school was at the other house, and her parents were strict about keeping clothing at the "proper" home, so there would be a supply in both places. It sometimes caused her a great deal of distress, particularly as she grew older. Additionally, toting one-of-a-kind items between households can be trying for both children and parents.
For extremely committed, cooperative parents, a unique, fully child-centered approach to co-parenting is "Bird's Nest" co-parenting. In this arrangement, parents maintain the family home and the children live there full-time, while the parents move in and out. This arrangement requires a great deal of communication between parents and a firm commitment to the welfare of the children. In an article for Psychology Today (07/16/13), Edward Kruk, Ph.D. states a bird's nest arrangement can be semi-permanent or permanent, and is much less disruptive for the children, allowing them an easier transition into a divorced family lifestyle. However, the arrangement only works if the parents stay in close proximity to one another. Parents must work to separate parenting issues from previous marital struggles, and need to agree on, and abide by, clear house maintenance and ground rules. (Rules can be mutually altered over time as situations dictate.)
Challenges to bird-nesting include the expense of maintaining three separate residences; however, costs can be cheaper, as the need for two homes with enough space for the kids and two sets of clothing, toys, and toiletries (one for each residence) is eliminated. If the parents have a good post-divorce relationship, they may even opt to rent only one additional living space and take turns living there during their "off time".
Perhaps the biggest challenge to bird-nesting is the lack of privacy for the parents, particularly if the alternative residence is being shared. For example, what happens when a new partner enters the scene? Having "the ex" so prominently and continuously present can be very difficult for a third party, not to mention tough on your post-divorce relationship. If one parent (or both) becomes involved with a new partner, the bird-nesting arrangement will very likely have to be changed, perhaps ended, and more "traditional" custody arrangements made.
Clearly, bird-nesting takes two very cooperative, dedicated, selfless parties, but if it can be accomplished, it provides a more stable environment for the children.
Custody and Visitation Changes
This brings up the question, "Is there ever a point where joint custody becomes unfeasible, even if it's not a bird's nest arrangement?" In many cases, yes. For example, a parent might be required to move out of the area for employment, or one parent may become unable to care for the child due to illness.
Visitation changes can occur any time, for a variety of reasons. As mentioned previously, supervised visitation can either become unsupervised visitation, continue as supervised, or be curtailed depending on the situation. A move out of the area or prolonged illness can also cause the need for permanent or long-term changes in visitation schedules. One of the biggest "game changers," however, comes from the children themselves – puberty! Unless parents live literally in the same neighborhood or continue bird-nesting until the youngest child is an adult, once puberty hits, your now-alien teenager will want to participate in extra-curricular activities, hang out with friends, or go to a study group at the library or a friend's home. Weekends are no longer for Mom or Dad. If a parental living situation means a commute and reduced time to be with friends, chances are your teenager will opt to spend more time with the parent who lives where the "action" is. Don't take this personally – teenage years are for exploring on one's own; it's quite natural for their need for Mom and Dad to change.
It is the responsibility of the parents to be mature and communicative with one another. Parents are advised to be extremely mindful of expressing conflict in front of the children. If relations are too contentious between parents, they are advised to seek mediation or counseling. If one parent refuses to cooperate, the other must "take the high road" and, for everyone's sake, learn to manage their own responses to challenges. In some cases, legal counsel may be needed, or existing court orders may need to be adjusted.
In the best-case scenario, relations between divorced parents are amicable, and both parties manage their emotional issues well. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This section will discuss various types of hostile or inconsistent non-custodial parents and possible resources. This information applies specifically to divorced parents.
Court-ordered parenting plans and mediation
Parenting plans, or parenting time orders, are typically court-ordered and set up by a family law court with the input of the parents and/or their attorneys. Parenting time orders/parenting plans detail the time agreements for visitation and access to the child for the non-custodial parent. As such, continual or serious violations of parenting time orders leave the violating parent open to "contempt of court" charges. To initiate this action, the custodial parent files for contempt of court; whether or not the charge stands is up to the court to decide. Charges can also be filed for unpaid child support. Contempt of court penalties may include fines, further limitation or termination of visitation privileges, and/or responsibility for all legal fees. Jail time is also possible, but is rarely ordered by the court.
In a contentious or difficult divorce, negotiations may take some time and/or require mediation. Court-ordered mediation is used in cases where child custody or visitation issues need to be decided. Several places in the U.S. have mandatory court-ordered mediation requirements for all divorces involving children, while others use court-ordered mediation when divorcing parents cannot agree. Typically, court-ordered mediation is reserved for issues of child custody/visitation only, while private mediation also deals with issues of finances and property. Private mediators typically charge a fee, while court-ordered mediation is predominantly cost-free (although there are exceptions). Court-ordered mediators are usually required to report their findings to the court; typically, private mediation remains confidential. (Again, there are always exceptions!)
Courts always make parenting or visitation schedules with the best interests of the child in mind.
Inconsistency or unreliability in the behavior of the non-custodial parent causes great stress for everyone, especially the child. While an adult may see a last-minute change in plans as a disappointment or annoyance, to a child waiting to see Mom or Dad, last-minute alterations in plans, especially if habitual, are devastating.
Non-custodial parents who continually disappoint their children run the risk of alienating the children completely, or having their parental rights taken away. Unfortunately, some individuals feel their own interests must always come first, regardless of the needs of the children, or possible repercussions of their actions. Many of these individuals feel perfectly justified in dropping in and out of their children's lives, blind to the damage they are causing. Some do it out of selfishness, some out of apathy, and some simply wish to exercise control over and manipulate the situation. No matter the reason, inconsistent parenting time, broken promises, and manipulation are damaging -- and can result in loss of access to the child.
The completely absent parent
It may seem odd for a lesson on difficulties with visiting parents to have a section on absent parents; however, this does fit, because of the difficulties it causes. A totally absent parent situation requires its own explanations and has its own difficulties. Your children may ask where the missing parent is, or why they left or abandoned the family. It is important to explain the situation to children without judgment or blame to the other party – after all, no matter what they are to you, to your children, it's their mother or father you are describing. (Our discussion will focus on absent parents still living.)
How much a parent divulges to a child regarding the absent parent depends greatly on the age of the child. Younger children need to be given simpler (and sometimes kinder) explanations. For example, one mother told her 4-year-old that his dad was "working," when actually he was in prison (prior to the child attending public school, the mother disclosed what "working" actually meant in this case). The father was in jail on a drug-related charge, which was described to the child as a serious mistake Dad had made and had to "pay" for by being in prison. It was difficult for the child to hear, but better from Mom than from classmates at school.
Let's return to our previous example of Bruce and Linda. To Linda's credit, despite Bruce's unstable behavior and mental illness, Linda never badmouthed him to their child. When asked why her dad didn't keep his scheduled visitation appointments. Why he sometimes vanished for months, or even years, or why he was still so angry with mom, Linda simply explained that Bruce sometimes made poor decisions and was currently unable to see her. Linda always made sure to let their child know her dad loved her even if he couldn't be with her. As their daughter grew older, she began to ask more detailed questions about her dad's behavior. Linda was always careful to answer honestly, but again, she was also careful not to badmouth her child's father.
Lest you think Linda is some kind of saint, rest assured she had help. She had excellent support, not only from family and friends, but professional help, as well, for both herself and her daughter. When her daughter was not present, Linda definitely vented her frustrations to members of her support network! Having a good network enabled Linda to express her frustrations and upset, while maintaining a neutral objective stance when discussing him with their daughter.
The mentally ill non-custodial parent
Unfortunately, there are cases where the non-custodial parent is found to have a serious mental illness. Chances are, symptoms of the illness participated in the destruction of the marriage. Many times, neither partner will know about the mental illness (or suspect a problem, but have no diagnosis) until after the relationship dissolves. In Linda's case, it was her and Bruce's participation in court-ordered counseling that revealed Bruce's mental illness. During the few, brief sessions Bruce attended, it became clear to the therapist that Bruce had serious mental issues and was prone to violent outbursts. In a private session, the therapist determined Bruce was suffering from antisocial personality disorder. He was so violent and angry during the private appointment, the therapist feared for her safety.
The Mayo Clinic defines antisocial personality disorder as a chronic mental illness where a person's manner of thinking and interpersonal relations are destructive and dysfunctional. Typically, such individuals have no regard for rules or laws. They often care nothing for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others. They are often antagonistic, manipulative, and controlling. They may punish the children in an overly harsh manner, or lose their temper frequently over even minor issues. Once Bruce was diagnosed, his prior behavior toward everyone, especially his wife and child, made a great deal more sense. Linda was then able to work with therapists and the courts to protect her child from danger while still obeying court orders to allow Bruce access to the child.
Other types of serious mental illness include schizophrenia, mood disorders, psychosis, or various personality disorders.
As you may have guessed, courts try to not suspend parental rights or visitation. Some states in the U.S. are very strict about allowing a non-custodial parent access to the child; proof of continued abuse of visitation orders, danger for the children, or inappropriate behavior are often required before some courts will even consider suspending parental rights. The reappearance of a negligent visiting parent will most likely require a return to court and the structuring of new parenting orders. Such situations can be very distressing and taxing for the custodial parent. Always remember to make decisions in the best interest of the children, and engage in self-care. (We'll cover this in Lesson 9.)
Parenting your grandkids with your adult child in the picture
A less common, but increasing, situation is a grandparent having custody of their grandchild. Often, this occurs when a sole-custody or single parent dies, leaving only a grandparent to care for the child. Sometimes, however, the grandparent must parent the child, because their own adult child cannot properly do the job.
Unless the new-parent role is a result of death of the adult child, the main reason for a grandparent becoming the primary caregiver for a grandchild is the adult child's inability to parent. This can be either a temporary or permanent situation brought about by mental illness, incarceration, drug addiction, or abandonment of the child.
According the U.S. census, seven million grandparents had grandchildren under 18 living with them in 2010, of which 2.7 million were the primary caregivers (responsible for basic needs, such as food and housing). Grandparents parenting grandkids have many challenges. A now-parent grandparent may feel isolated in their new role, unable to engage in social activities or cut off from extended family or friends. They may fear interference from the legal system (removing the children and placing them in foster care), or the return of the child's parent (demanding to regain custody of the child). As mentioned in a previous lesson, if a grandparent does not pursue and obtain legal custody, both scenarios are possible.
Grandparents may also fear they'll be physically unable to "keep up" with the children, or properly provide for their needs, due to poor health or limited resources. They may doubt their ability to return to the parent role.
Parenting grandparents may also feel anger or grief at the loss of their "grandparent" role. Often, the anger or grief is followed by guilt over such feelings. This is quite normal, as being a grandparent suddenly thrust into the parent role and caring for children (again!) is an emotional situation. Routines have been disrupted, expectations altered. Feeling off-balance, upset, and resentful is understandable. The key is to diffuse anger and frustration appropriately.
How does one cope with the challenges of "the other parent?" Sometimes, it can feel as though you're waging a battle with your contentious spouse or adult child. Lesson 9 will go into greater detail on coping with anger and frustration. Here, we will focus on resources for the single parent. Remember, every situation is different, so what follows are general guidelines. Single parents (or parenting grandparents) are encouraged to check their local regulations regarding visitation and custody rules.
If possible, parents should always work together to ensure the children's best interests are being considered. That should be first and foremost. Unfortunately, in contentious breakups, opinions on what constitutes "the child's best interests" can vary greatly, often in a self-serving manner. In such cases, legal proceedings may be necessary. Websites like nolo.com provide general legal definitions, forms, and suggestions. Universities, such as Cornell Law, provide excellent information regarding federal child custody and visitation statutes. Although there are federal statutes regarding custody and visitation, each state will have its own list of guidelines; perform an Internet search to obtain guidelines for your state or area.
As mentioned previously, grandparents who expect to care for the child long-term may wish to seek legal custody to protect both themselves and the child. Even if the parent abandons the child at "grandma's" or "grandpa's" house, if the grandparent does not have legal custody, the parent can return and remove the child, despite the wishes of anyone else.
The most important resource, particularly for a grandparent, is a support network. Local support from family, friends, extended family, and church goes a long way toward alleviating feelings of isolation and stress. Therapy is also helpful, but unaffordable for many, making a support network even more important.
There are also many online communities, magazines, and articles that address single parent concerns. Some areas have community outreach programs tailored to single-parent or single-grandparent needs; often these programs offer resources for child-minding, or activities specifically geared toward specific social groups.