Physical Custody and Visitation

A parent who has sole physical custody has the children most of the time. The other parent has visitation. In some jurisdictions, the term “visitation” is being replaced by the terms “access” or “parenting time.” These newer terms more accurately define the time a parent spends with a child.

Parenting Time

Parenting time comes in many different shapes and sizes. Children often spend every other weekend and one evening each week with the noncustodial parent. Sometimes they spend less time with one parent during the school year and a chunk of time with that parent during the summer. When parents live in different states or far apart in the same state, they may choose a schedule that minimizes the complications of getting from one home to the other. The children may spend the school year in one home, the summer in the other, and half the school holidays with each parent. When a parent and a child share a special interest, they can participate in an activity together and have their time together determined by the activity schedule.

While your energy may be focused on working out a co-parenting arrangement that works for everyone, you shouldn't forget about the former in-laws. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles will want to visit with the children as well.

Parents with emotional problems that make them unstable, parents who have abused their spouse or their children, and parents who have threatened to run away with the children may have their visitation supervised by a third party to protect the children and the spouse. Sometimes the supervisor is a family member; sometimes an agency in the community provides supervision.

Joint Physical Custody

Joint or shared physical custody can take many forms. Some children spend alternate weeks with each parent. Some spend Monday and Tuesday in one home, Wednesday and Thursday in the other, and alternate the weekends. Some divorced parents have the children stay in the family home, and they — the parents — move in and out on an agreed-upon schedule.

When parents live within blocks of each other, get along well, and have well-adjusted children, joint custody works well. However, it can also work under less than optimum circumstances when the parents are motivated to put the interests of their children first.

Shared parenting plans work only when the parents can put their animosities aside and focus on what's best for their children. Obviously, these parents will have frequent contact with each other and will have to work cooperatively to coordinate schedules, locate lost book bags, and make sure one of them picks up the children from activities. They will also need to live fairly close to each other. Obviously, joint custody is not for all parents.

Joint custody is not for all children, either. The children are in emotional turmoil because of the divorce. They may have a hard time remembering a complex parenting schedule and sometimes go to the wrong house, a very traumatic experience. Joint physical custody is usually not a good plan for babies and very young children. Babies and small children are generally bonded to a primary caregiver. This doesn't mean that they don't love both parents, but they usually rely on one more than another. Frequent or lengthy separations from their primary caregiver can lead to all sorts of emotional problems in young children.

Children's Preferences

Children's preferences differ with respect to how much time they spend with each parent. Many prefer joint physical custody. Interviews conducted with adults who were children of divorcing parents are clear in their preference for joint custody. By joint custody, they mean equal time with each parent. The complications created by the logistics of joint custody are much less important to the children than maintaining parental contact. Obviously, if one parent is unfit to provide care to the children, joint custody is not possible even if it would be the children's preference.

Children of divorce who grew up in a traditional custody arrangement where Mom had custody and Dad had visitation often report that they would have liked more time with their fathers. Children appear to have strong relationships with their mothers regardless of the custody arrangement, but they have a need for more contact with their fathers.

For other children, the quantity of time is less important than the quality of time. Many children will thrive and be happy in situations where they see one parent less often than the other. It very much depends on the child and the type of relationships a noncustodial parent is able to forge with her children.

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