It is widely accepted in the court that children under a certain age meet their milestones and are happier healthier children when they live with the person with whom they have their primary attachment. In other words, the person with whom the child is most bonded, and to whom the child looks to meet the child’s needs. Whilst a child does often have a primary attachment with their mother, it is not necessarily the case that a young child’s primary attachment is their mother – it could be their father or another person.
As it is almost always the case that the person with whom the child has their primary attachment, is also the person they live with the most, I will call that person ‘the primary carer’.
What the experts tell us is that young children do not cope well when they are separated from their primary carer for extended periods of time. Young children need to have a primary base, with the primary carer and spend frequent but relatively short periods of time with the other parent.
All children are different but as a general rule, when children are under the age of three, they may not cope well with being away from their primary carer overnight. They are better able to cope with regular consistent periods of daytime with the other parent.
Every child will differ also as to when they would cope with a period of overnight away from the primary carer. With some children, it could be after the age of three but with other children, it might not be until the age of five or even later. It is very important to work with the pace of the child, if children are not ready to spend overnight time then it can be traumatic for them to do so. Parents can also help their children by acknowledging that time with the children is about quality, not quantity; and in particular to understand that you get more out of spending daily time with your child while he or she is awake and active than while they are asleep.
As a very general rule, this is commonly what the courts might say about overnight time for children of different ages:
Under the age of two, no overnight time;
- Between 2 and 3 years of age, a child might cope overnight if he or she has a solid relationship with the other parent (the one with whom they will be staying overnight) and the surroundings are familiar.
- Between the ages of three and five or six, when a child starts school – 1 to 2 overnights per week
- In the early primary years, and if there has been a pattern of overnight time already in place, a child of between the ages of six and 12 would cope better with two nights to 3 nights with the other parent.
- A week about or shared care arrangement in general terms works better for children who are older, late primary and into high school. I cannot stress enough that each child is different and this is a very general guide only.
What can parents do to help their child settle into overnight time with the other parent?
First, and most importantly, is to remove your child from any conflict between you. Be aware, that children pick up on more than just the language used. They will notice body language, and the tone used, even if they don’t quite understand the language used.
Again what the experts tell us is it is not so much the separation that affects children but the conflict associated with it. If parents can do their utmost to make any interaction between them that involves the child, as pleasant an experience as possible, they will be doing their child a great service.
It will also be very helpful to your child if you can have a discussion with the other parent about the child’s routine and try to have consistent ideas about what food your child will eat, what time their bedtime should be, what their routine is for bedtime, and so on. A child who has a favourite toy should be allowed to have that toy when they stay overnight.
Something I’m commonly asked is whether you should allow your child to call the other parent if they’re having an overnight with you. The parent having overnight is obviously concerned that if the child is upset and wants to speak to the other parent, by doing so, the child will then want to return home to that parent.
That might very well happen. But wouldn’t it be better, to demonstrate to your child that he or she can trust you that if they are really upset and just want their mum/dad, you will allow that to happen? Knowing that their needs will be met and that they will not be left feeling distressed or anxious, will give a child much greater trust in you. It’s just a fact of life that some children suffer anxiety being separated from their primary carer and it is best to help the child through this as best you can rather than resist it.
It will also build greater trust in the other parent for you to let them know that the child is distressed and give them an opportunity to settle the child.
So my advice is, to let the child have a phone call at bedtime to the other parent, let them have a photo of the other parent if that’s what they want, let them have their familiar toys and clothes and try to follow the routine they have at home. All of this will go a long way towards an enjoyable overnight experience.