This is one in a series of four articles, in a collaboration between Law Office of Lisa A. Vance founder Lisa Vance and Dr. Becky Davenport, founder of the San Antonio-based Institute of Couple and Family Enhancement, looking at parenting plans in divorce decrees from a child’s perspective.
Bexar County’s standing orders – which judges often adopt by default when hearing divorce cases – don’t adequately account for what children need from their parents at different age levels, especially after divorce. We’re addressing four different age groups in order to help parents going through divorce think about what their children need.
By age three, the Texas Family Code determines that the parenting schedule given to the parents by a judge, or agreed to by the parents, applies until the child turns 18 or graduates from high school. In reality, many parents find they need to modify a parenting plan as their children get older and do more activities.
But the period from three to six years of age – in which children are transitioning into school, into more and more interaction with other children, and becoming more and more aware of themselves as people – is especially critical for a child’s development.
The thing that that most parents don’t have an appreciation for, and certainly the courts don’t have an appreciation for, is that at this particular age range, there’s really no such thing as self-regulation. Children are learning how to regulating their emotions, their physiology, their sleep, their appetite, but everything is still regulated in relationships with people to whom they feel connected.
Because of this, it’s especially important for children to experience as much consistency as possible between the two homes. When parents have decidedly different parenting styles, it can prove very confusing for children who are beginning to learn more and more about the world and how they function within it. It can also create stress, as children operating under one set of rules at Daddy’s house then go to Mommy’s house, where a different set of rules come into play.
Children in the three-to-six age range really need their parents to adapt to them. Parents should not expect children to adapt to their parents, especially if there’s a big difference in parenting styles, and they’re getting continually mixed signals on how and how not to adapt to their settings.
The key here, as is it with so many things between parents who have divorced, is good communication. While it’s not a reasonable expectation to have every household rule be the same in both houses, you should talk about keeping consistency where you can – especially with schedules and with issues like bedtime routines, limit setting and guidance strategies, food choices and screen time expectations.
You also need to be mindful of the fear and anxiety your children might experience in these age ranges. This is the first time when children become really aware of real and imaginary dangers in the world, and they’re not really sure of what’s real.
Parents should make sure they’re emotionally responsive and helping their children navigate these new emotions. It’s definitely a time where children should be allowed to have a nightlight if they express a fear of the dark, and where they shouldn’t be punished for coming into your room at night because they think there’s a monster under the bed.
While it’s a fascinating time to be a parent, and you’ll see your child make great leaps and bounds in development, it’s still an age where children benefit greatly from parents who are on the same page as much as possible. It can be challenging for divorced parents to get there, but it’s important – for your kids’ sake – to make the effort.