Which custody arrangement is best for your child?

Which custody arrangement is best for your child?
It may not always be easy to agree on a custody arrangement with your ex, but it’s important to put your differences aside and focus on the needs of your child.

It may not always be easy to agree on a custody arrangement with your ex, but it’s important to put your differences aside and focus on the needs of your child.

Experts agree that, after a separation, children should continue to see both parents. First, because they love both parents. But also because parents complement each other in terms of what they can teach their child, and because it’s good for the child’s development.

The Divorce Act stipulates that children should have as much contact as possible with each parent. “This principle is very important in court,” says family law lawyer Claudia Prémont. “The judge takes it into account when making a decision in a child custody case.”

Access to a mediator

Parents are entitled to five hours of free mediation to agree on child custody and other issues. Social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion highly recommends taking advantage of it. “During a breakup, emotions take over and it can be hard to talk to each other,” she explains.

A mediator helps parents communicate. “In addition to helping parents determine child custody, mediation can also help them sort out other details, such as who’s going to buy the clothes and who’s going to make the doctor and dentist appointments. What happens if your child is at Mom’s place on Father’s Day? Deciding on the small things in advance can help prevent arguments down the road,” says Filion.

When mediation isn’t enough

If the parents cannot find common ground, a judge will decide their custody arrangement for them. “The judge will base her decision on the child’s best interests,” says Prémont. “She will look at various factors, such as the child’s age, health, relationship with each parent, the parents’ schedules and parenting skills, and so forth, and come up with a custody arrangement based on the child’s particular situation.”

Whether or not a child is breastfed will also affect the judge’s decision. “The judge will take into account the fact that the child is breastfeeding,” says Prémont. “That said, a mother cannot use breastfeeding as a reason to keep the father from seeing his child.”

Prémont notes that some parents insist on putting their interests before those of their child. “It’s a shame, because nothing should come ahead of the child’s well-being.”

Shared or split custody?

 There are two types of custody: shared and split. With shared custody, children spend 40 to 60 percent of their time with each parent (146 to 219 days a year). With split custody, they spend more than 60 percent of the year (more than 219 days a year) with one parent.

Contrary to what many people believe, split custody isn’t limited to the traditional “every other weekend at Dad’s and the rest of the time at Mom’s.” Other options include five days with one parent and two days with the other.

Is either custody arrangement better than the other?

What does research say about how a child’s well-being is affected by the type of custody arrangement? “You can’t generalize, because every family’s situation is different,” says Amandine Baude, who reviewed multiple studies on the subject during her postdoctoral fellowship in psychology at Laval University.

According to Baude, the quality of both the relationship between ex-spouses and their parenting has a greater impact on their children’s well-being than the custody arrangement. “Children need parents who are there for them, who listen to their needs, who shelter them from their conflicts, and who support their relationship with the other parent,” says Baude.

Shared custody is becoming increasingly popular, but is it the best option for young children? It’s hard to say: studies on young children are rare, and the few that have been done offer contradictory results. Baude still thinks that shared custody can work if a child has developed a strong bond with both parents. “For a long time, people thought babies only formed this kind of bond with their mother. We now know that babies bond with both their mother and their father if both parents take good care of them.”

Whenever possible, young children should see both parents on a regular basis.

If shared custody is the chosen arrangement, young children shouldn’t be away from either parent for too long because they have no sense of time and their memory isn’t fully developed. “Before the age of three, alternating one week at Dad’s and one week at Mom’s is too long,” says Filion. “It’s better to alternate every two or three days.” This allows young children to grow closer to and create a lasting bond with both parents. In the case of split custody, it’s good for the children to see the other parent often, even if only for short periods.

Changing custody arrangements

As time passes, circumstances change, and children start school, custody arrangements can stop making sense. To establish a new custody agreement, parents are entitled to 2.5 hours of free mediation. If the parents are on the same page, the process is fairly simple. If not, it can get complicated, and they may need a judge to settle the matter for them.

“Amending a custody agreement in court is not easy,” stresses Prémont. There must be a significant change in one of the parents’ situations or in the child’s needs. Proof is also required that the new arrangement is in the child’s best interests—in other words, that it will have a positive effect on him. Things are much simpler when the parents can reach an agreement out of court!


When one parent refuses to be involved

Should you try to maintain the relationship between your ex and your child? It’s better to start by trying to understand why the other parent is bowing out, according to social worker and family mediator Lorraine Filion. For example, one parent may become discouraged and step away if the other has difficulty sharing time with the child or wants everything done a certain way. According to Filion, accepting differences in parenting may encourage the other parent to stick around.

Of course, a parent may refuse to be involved for other reasons. “Sometimes, inviting your ex to come play with your child from time to time can preserve the relationship,” says Francyne Tessier, a psychotherapist at Réseau d’aide aux familles en transition. “It’s important to present the opportunity as an invitation, not an obligation.” Keep in mind that, the more time passes, the harder parents may find it to reconnect with their child.


GettyImages/dariazu (above)
Maxim Morin (center)


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, November 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: François St-Père, psychologist and family mediator