Family Law

Stages of Child Development and Custody Plans

Stages of Childhood

Every child has unique stages of development. Custody and visitation decisions must take into account the age and developmental needs at each stage When proposing a parenting plan to the Court, you must understand the age of the child. So, how do those stages look (a recent CLE describes the stages of childhood as follows):

  • From birth to 18 months, a child’s needs include receiving attention and protection, allowing physical closeness to and nurturing by primary caretakers and beginning to adjust to scheduled feedings and sleep time. During this period, infants do well when they have a routine so it is important to coordinate transitions between parents in a way that does not interfere with normal sleeping and eating times. Infants have short attention spans and frequent and short visits are preferable to frequent transitions from one home to another. The environment for the child should be warm and soothing. Physical attention, nurturing and mental stimulation enhance the child’s development. It is important for the child to be around familiar things such as toys or a security animal or blanket.

  • From 18 months to 3 years, the child is becoming more independent, is learning to maneuver in the world and is starting to have abstract thoughts and to learn about relationships. During this period, the child needs routine and predictability, firm and consistent limits related to safety issues, and attentive monitoring with verbal praise. The child needs to know that both parents can take care of their physical and emotional needs and it may be beneficial to the child to have some form of contact with the other parent while away from that parent, an easy task given the available technology.

  • From 3 years to 6 years, the child is learning to control impulses, the consequences of behavior, how to get along with peers and express feelings. A visitation plan should maintain a consistent schedule that allows the child to participate in activities with other children of the same age. Extended separation from either parent is often difficult for children. They need to be reassured that both parents are available.

  • From 6 years to 10 years, the child continues to learn impulse control, skills to focus on a task at hand, logical thought, understanding the concept of consequences, developing a sense of fairness and empathy and learning how to work independently and with others. During this period, the child needs to spend time with both parents where the parent may be involved in school activities, meals and play time. The child also needs to spend time in their own activities such as sports or art. It is important for the parent to listen to the child, acknowledge the child’s feelings and answer their questions with age appropriate explanations. The child needs to be able to love both parents and should not hear negative comments about the other parent. Likewise, it is important that each parent respect the other parent’s authority.

  • Pre-adolescence. 10 years to 13 years: During this time, the child gains a sense of independence and themselves; they are learning how to manage relationships, developing true abstract reasoning and cause and effect and mastering impulse control. It is important for the child to spend time with their friends and participate in activities. The parents’ involvement with the child tracks the prior period. It is particularly important that the parents have the ability to communicate and support each other to ensure the child’s safety.

  • Teenagers, 13 years to 18 years: The child needs to develop motivation, independence from their parents, sense of values, sexual identity and the ability to formulate goals and a plan to achieve the goal. Parenting plans should be flexible while being consistent with the needs of the respective households; support for the other parent’s authority is critical; both parents need to acknowledge the child’s growing maturity and need to make independent choices. It is important for the parents to be able to set clear boundaries consistent with the child’s maturity. This is the period where the parents need to be attuned to issues that arise at school and among peers that point to the need for professional help.


Proposing a Parenting Plan

Each case is made up of a myriad of distinct pieces that a judge may need to address in a limited period of time. Counsel must be cognizant of the need for the judge to assess the parties within these time constraints. As a consequence, counsel must focus on painting a picture that centers on what is in the child’s best interest, a picture that also strives to be fair to the needs and desires of both parents, and the picture of a plan that has the best chance to bring long term peace to the family.

Rather than begin with the negative, identify the common goals the parents share; identify the common values. Seek to find agreement on how the child is doing in school and the activities the child enjoys. Are the parents aware of the stress of the divorce on the child and do they share a common desire to reduce the stress of the divorce and the experience of moving from one household to another? Where the parties are able to come to a consensus on these basic questions, it becomes relatively straight forward to fashion a plan.

All too often, the parents who appear in court may be in conflict over these basic issues. In that situation, counsel should articulate their client’s perspective without hostile criticism of the other parent or parent's counsel. Be positive not negative; be the one seeking solutions, not advocating “my way or the highway” for the demeanor of both counsel and client is likely to effect the decision.