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Divorce in California: Can a parenting plan protect a child’s mental health?

A thoughtful parenting plan is an important step when parents decide to part ways. Not only does it address practical matters like custody schedules, but it can also play a significant role in safeguarding a child’s mental health during this challenging transition. In California, where divorce laws can be complex, parents can help advocate for their child’s mental health by tailoring a parenting plan to their family’s needs to better support the child’s well-being. Three steps to help achieve this goal are discussed below.

Step one: Become familiar with basic legal definitions

Any parent who is getting divorced will encounter a myriad of legal terms. Some of the more common to recognize include the following:

  • Legal custody: This refers to the authority to make major decisions about the child’s life, such as education, healthcare, and religion. Parents can share joint legal custody or have one parent with sole legal custody.
  • Physical custody: This determines where the child lives. It can be joint (shared physical custody) or sole (one parent has primary physical custody).
  • Visitation: In California, visitation applies to the parent who has the children for less than half the time. In some cases, the state may award supervised visitation if needed to ensure the child’s safety and well-being.

You will likely use these terms when putting together your parenting plan.

Step two: Know the role of the parenting plan

Effective parenting plans consider the child’s age, developmental stage, and emotional needs. Here are suggested schedules for different age groups:

  • Infancy to 3 years old: Young children generally benefit from frequent, short visits with both parents to maintain attachment. It is helpful to have consistent routines for stability and to focus on nurturing and bonding.
  • 3 to 5 years old: As the children age, they can benefit from gradually longer visits with both parents. Predictable schedules still help to reduce anxiety. It is also important at this age to begin to encourage open communication about feelings.
  • 6 to 11 years old: During the elementary school years, it is good to have regular visits with flexibility for school and extracurricular activities. At this age, parents can encourage their children to have age-appropriate involvement in decision-making.
  • 12 to 18 years old: It is helpful to provide older children with age-appropriate independence. Respect their social life and preferences while keeping the lines of communication open.

It is also important to make sure the plan takes holidays and school breaks into account. Some families choose to alternate major holidays (e.g., Thanksgiving, Christmas) and share time during school breaks each year. It is wise to plan ahead. This helps reduce conflicts with the parents and provides the children time to prepare for a change in schedule.

Step three: Reviewing the plan while keeping the child’s mental health in mind

It is important for parents to prioritize the child’s emotional needs when possible. Tailoring the parenting plan with these needs in mind is the first step towards setting you child and their mental health needs up for success while you transition into post divorce life. A parenting plan tailored to your family’s needs can positively impact your child’s mental health during this challenging time. Collaborate with empathy, and always keep your child’s best interests at heart.