When parties with children go through a separation or divorce one of the most urgent issues to address is the visitation schedule.  Whether one parent has sole custody or the parties have agreed to (or have been ordered to) share physical custody of the children, a child’s scheduled time with each parent must be given careful consideration.

Visitation Schedules

There is no one right or wrong visitation/access schedule.  Parties will ultimately try to agree on a schedule that works best for everyone involved, and every family has its own unique set of needs and challenges.  Typical visitation schedules are as follows:

  1. One week with parent A, one week with the parent B;
  2. 5 days with parent A, 2 days with the parent B (sometimes with a mid-week visit by parent B);
  3. 2 days with parent A, 2 days with parent B, 3 days with parent A;
  4. 3 days with parent, A, 3 days with parent B, etc.

There are a multitude of factors to consider when setting a visitation schedule: the child’s school schedule and location, the parents’ work schedules, the physical location of each parent, the extracurricular activities of the child, etc.  Constructing a visitation schedule for your child is obviously more complicated than simply dividing up the days in a calendar year.

One factor that is critically important to take into consideration when contemplating a visitation schedule for your child is his or her age.  Since the child’s age and his or her needs will change over time, the visitation schedule should be reviewed and revised on a regular basis.

Tips for Age-Appropriate Visitation

Most children follow a similar developmental pattern from birth through their teenage years.  It seems sensible to look at the requirements of children at each phase of their development to help guide us when we are devising a visitation schedule.  Some general age-appropriate visitation guidelines to consider are as follows:

Birth to 2.5 years

  • during this time the infant is building an attachment to one or more primary caregivers – predictability and familiarity are key;
  • long separations from the primary caretaker can impact negatively on the infant as the infant can’t hold the absent parent in mind for long periods of time;
  • in a situation of sole custody, short but frequent time with the non-custodial parent is best;  in a situation of shared custody, frequent daily time with each parent is ideal;
  • overnight visits are not recommended;
  • some parents may consider leaving the child in the same, familiar environment at all times while they come and go from one “home base” (known as “nesting”).

2.5 to 5 years

  • during this time the child is able to hold the absent parent in mind for longer periods of time, and the child is more able to express feelings and needs;
  • children may identify more with the same sex parent;
  • time away from the primary caregiver can increase, and overnight visits introduced if the child’s temperament allows;
  • the child’s ability to handle continual change should be closely monitored.

5 to 8 years

  • the child’s development is now focused on peer and community relationships, a moral sense, and empathy; children develop a concept of themselves while they gain competence and master various skills;
  • consistent contact with friends, school, and extra-curricular activities is important during this period;
  • time away from the primary caregiver can be increased, but the amount must be in line with the child’s tolerances.

9 to 12 years

  • the child’s academic, athletic, and artistic skills are the focus during this period; they are involved in the community and friendships are increasingly important;
  • visits with the noncustodial parent should be within the sphere of the child’s home base as much as possible;
  • children tend to be more agreeable to segments of time away from their activities and friends if they have a notably close relationship with the non-custodial parent.

13 to 18 years

  • during these years the child is very focused on establishing their personal identity and relinquishing dependency on the protection of family;
  • adolescents do not seem to need contact of long duration with either parent;
  • children may seek to have input into the schedule so that it fits with their academic and social life;
  • flexibility and sensitivity are key in arranging a visitation schedule for a teen.

Exceptions to the Guidelines

As with any general set of rules, there are exceptions.  Some instances where the above age-focused visitation recommendations would not be appropriate include:

  1. Significant, ongoing parental conflict;
  2. A parent is chronically late or unreliable;
  3. The noncustodial parent lives far from the other parent;
  4. A sibling is present, especially an older sibling, who can help a younger sibling feel comfortable away from the primary caregiver;
  5. A parent is mentally ill;
  6. A parent is an abuser or is indiscreet about drug or sexual behaviour;
  7. A parent is re-entering a child’s life after a long absence; or
  8. Any unique needs of the child – e.g. a child is highly resistant to change.

As a parent you have to balance innumerable competing needs and demands, but by keeping your child’s age and developmental phase in mind when working out a visitation schedule, you can feel confident that you are doing your best to provide your child with the support and care that he or she needs.  If you have questions about custody, visitation, or any other family law matter, contact Gelman & Associates at (416) 736-0200 or 1-844-742-0200 or contact us online for a confidential initial consultation.