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Manual > 9 - Parenting Issues > Developmentally Appropriate

Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Plans

Children need security, continuity, and stability. This is even more important during divorce when children wonder who will take care of them and if they are also divorceable. When parents are in conflict about time-sharing plans, it may help to distinguish between what is fair for them, and what is best for their children. Most parents will say that they want what is best for their children. Unfortunately, for most of us, it is very difficult to distinguish what is best for me from what is best for my child. Most parents take comfort in the role of the "good" parent. As any parent who got up in the night to change messy diapers knows, a good parent makes personal sacrifices and feels good about him or herself in the morning, even when feeling tired and bleary eyed. A "good" parent makes sacrifices. To reach agreement on parenting issues, it is essential to move off your self-interest (what's fair to you) to a place where your goal is to achieve what is in your children's best interests. How does one do this? It is usually helpful for parents to understand what their children are experiencing emotionally and developmentally. Parents can usually understand that children's needs change over time. With some amount of information about what components go into a developmentally appropriate parenting plan, the parent who initially wanted a six-month-old child six consecutive weeks in the summer can see that six consecutive weeks in the summer may be a better plan for a 10-year-old child.

Parents needing help identifying the best interests of their children and reframing their relationship into a parenting partnership may need information to read as well as referrals to child development specialists, parent education centers, and family therapists. What follows is some helpful information for you about the components of a developmentally appropriate parenting plan.

The idea that children pass through different developmental stages as they mature was first introduced by Freud, later refined by Adler and Erikson into psychosocial developmental stages, and expanded by other developmental psychologists into our current understanding of human development.

Erikson's theory is that at each stage of our life, we face the task of establishing an equilibrium between ourselves and our social world. He describes development in terms of the entire life span, divided by specific crises or turning points in life. At these turning points, we have the potential to move forward, that is to achieve successful resolution of the developmental conflict, fixate (remain "stuck" in a stage) or regress because of the failure to successfully resolve the developmental conflict. Usually a child needs support and help mastering these conflicts. The help usually comes from an understanding parent who will not take an adolescent's struggle for differentiation and identify formation as a personal rejection. A child needs a parent who understands what the child is experiencing and can provide the child with the security of their unconditional love.

This next section looks at a child's need for security. Security, stability, and continuity used to refer to a geographical location: the child's home. The maxim was that a child whose parents were divorcing needed "one home." Current empirical research however questions if we have sacrificed a child's relational security for the sake of geography. Security, stability, and continuity may be better provided by the relationship the child has with each parent. In thinking about the developmental needs of children and the need for security and continuity, many contemporary psychologists refer to attachment theory. Attachment theory is a useful contemporary framework to describe the role that enduring affectional bonds have in shaping the life course. John Bowlby developed the theory of attachment to explain the behaviors that infants employ to maintain feelings of security through physical proximity with their primary caregivers. When the distance from the caregiver is too great, a child smiles, cries, follows, and does whatever he or she can until comfortable proximity with the caregiver is reestablished. Crucial to the development of the child's enduring beliefs about the self as worthy of care and support, and others as responsive and caring, is the responsiveness of caregivers to infants.

Attachment researchers hold that children also develop psychological representations of relationships, also known as "working models," through early experiences with their primary caregivers. These representations are stable over time and manifest in later relationships. Alfred Adler believed that during the first three to five years of life, influenced by the family constellation of siblings, values, and emotional atmosphere, and motivated by the desire to find his or her own unique place in the group, a child seeks to create a logical and coherent view of self, others, and the world. These early perceptions lead to the development of an internally consistent schema for viewing the self, others, and the world, which Adler termed the individual's style of life.

In later work, Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby extended the theory of attachment to explain the development of emotional attachments after infancy. Bowlby was interested in the development of the attachment bond and whether attachment formed or not. Ainsworth was interested in the quality of the attachment formed. According to Ainsworth, the quality of an infant's attachment to his or her primary caretaker is dependent on the quality of the interactions the child and caretaker have experienced. The quality of those interactions results in the categorization of infants into one of three basic attachment styles: secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant. In the secure attachment style, the child has learned to depend on the responsiveness of the primary caretaker. "This is someone who I can count on to meet my needs. They will change my diaper, feed me when I am hungry, comfort me when I am cold, tired, or hurt." The insecure-ambivalent style develops in response to the caretaker's inconsistent or arbitrary responsiveness to the child. "This is someone who I can sometimes count on to meet my needs." The insecure-avoidant can be characterized as having relinquished trust in the responsiveness of the caretaker. "I cannot count on this person to take care of me."

In formulating developmentally appropriate parenting plans in a child's best interests, it is important to consider the child's existing attachment bonds and the age of the child. The attachment bond is a developmental task that begins in infancy and continues into a child's third year. A healthy parenting plan should balance between providing the child with his or her secure base (primary caregiver), and the opportunity to expand this secure base to both parents if only one parent has fulfilled this role for the child. A secure attachment bond is created by frequent caretaking contact. Caretaking contact means a parent has time with a child, changes diapers, feeds, clothes, bathes, plays, and holds a child. If only one parent has fulfilled this role for the child, the caretaking contact initially should occur in reasonable proximity to the primary caretaker, or for very short periods of time away from that primary caretaker. Abruptly removing the child from his or her primary caretaker for long periods of time may be a traumatic separation for the child who would wonder "Who will take care of me?" without knowing that the other parent can fulfill that role. Time and experience will help the child feel secure with both parents.

In summary, in younger children, security is provided by their relationship with their parents. Adolescents are learning to develop security in themselves and have a greater need for their peers, their "space," and an opportunity to define themselves as someone other than or different from their parents.

Divorcing Parties Have an Attachment Style

Beyond helping to identify what is best for children in terms of time-sharing plans, attachment theory can help understand different clients' reactions to divorce. Many attachment researchers have found that the attachment system developed in childhood has a major influence on adult relationships and social competencies and may be activated by any close relationship which has the potential to provide or threaten love, security, and comfort. As adult behaviors designed to achieve security become activated in response to perceived stress and loss, it is likely that those behaviors will surface in response to the distress, anxiety, fear, and loss that divorce is for many people.

There are three styles of adult attachment behaviors: dismissing, free to evaluate, and preoccupied. In adult relationships, the secure attachment style is characterized by confidence and composure in emotional relationships. The securely attached style individuals view themselves as happy, trusting, and friendly, and accepting and supportive of their partner despite faults. Individuals of the securely attached style can recognize and acknowledge their distress, appropriately seek support from family members, manage negative feelings such as anxiety and hostility, and engage in constructive problem solving. Individuals of the preoccupied (anxious/ambivalent) style are characterized by neediness, obsession, emotional extremes, jealousy, and desire for reciprocation and union, and have shown high levels of anxiety and hostility. Individuals of the dismissing (avoidant) style are characterized by independence, self reliance, emotional aloofness, fear of intimacy, jealousy and emotional extremes. They do not acknowledge feelings of insecurity, fear intimacy, are more hostile and sensitive to rejection than the other styles.

Another critical piece in developing parenting plans is to discuss the impact of ongoing conflict between parents on the children. Researchers now view conflict, rather than the divorce or residential schedule, as the single most critical determining factor in children's postdivorce adjustment. The children who succeed after divorce, have parents who can communicate effectively and create a respectful coparenting relationship.

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