Attachment and Child Custody for a Two-Year-Old

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Reader’s Question

I have a two-year-old son, and his father and I are in disagreement regarding how visitation affects him.

His visits with his father are very sporadic, sometimes every other weekend, and sometimes months will go by. Recently, his father planned a visit and wanted to take him for three days. Due to circumstances, his father has not had contact with him in seven months. I felt that he should ease back into the visits with just day visits, as I’m unsure how good a two-year-old’s memory is. Finally, I gave in and let him go for the three days, but his father is not allowing me to call and speak to my son, saying it’s his time now.

Does it affect my son at all not having any contact with me for a few days? In my head I would feel as though I was abandoned, and think that if he were to hear my voice on the phone he would be somewhat reassured that everything was okay. I realize it’s only three days, but his father wants to start taking him for a week at a time. Am I just being silly or are my concerns legitimate?

Psychologist’s Reply

I share your concern that this erratic custody arrangement is not in the best interests of your son. As you stated, a two-year-old is not going to remember well (or perhaps at all) someone they last saw seven months ago. For a young child like this, his primary caregiver is his whole world — his source of safety, nurturing, and happiness. Being removed from you for three days without contact, while not too long in adult time, is forever for a small child who doesn’t have the same capacity to fully understand what is happening, why his mommy isn’t there, and if he will actually see her again.

Because his contact with your ex has been sporadic, your son likely has not formed a significant attachment to him; you, however, are his primary attachment figure. An attachment figure is someone with whom a child has a very specific caretaking type of bond. There are four recognized types of attachment styles in young children.

Secure Attachment
Children who are securely attached are able to use their caregiver as a ‘secure base’ from which to explore their world. When left alone or with a stranger they are upset, but are easily comforted by their caregiver. Their caregivers are responsive to the child’s needs and feel attached to the child.
Avoidant Attachment
Children with this style of attachment tend to avoid displays of emotion during play or when distressed. They ignore their caregivers and treat them similarly to how they treat strangers. Their caregivers tend not to be very responsive to the child, even when the child is distressed, other than to discourage crying and encourage more independence.
Anxious/Resistant Attachment
These children are anxious about their caregivers’ inconsistency, and are unable to count on them enough to use them as a ‘secure base’. They may be clingy when with their caregiver, intensely distressed if their caregiver leaves, but ambivalent and angry when the caregiver returns; and they are difficult to soothe. Their caregivers are inconsistent, sometimes responding appropriately to the child’s needs and sometimes ignoring or rejecting them.
Disorganized Attachment
Children who have been abused often display this type of attachment style. In these cases the child is frightened of the attachment figure, who is intrusive, possibly abusive, erratic, and terrifying to the child. These children look odd, engaging in stereotypic behaviors such as rocking in an attempt to self-soothe, as they cannot receive nurturing from their caregiver.

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Based on your brief description of your situation, neither you nor your ex has a firm understanding of how much your son needs to be with a consistent attachment figure. Cutting your son off even from phone contact with his mother is particularly concerning to me, as the ‘my time’ approach to shared custody completely ignores the needs of a very small child to feel safe. I strongly urge you to speak to a family attorney and/or mediator about improving your custody arrangement so that it meets your son’s needs more. Some ideas to consider would include:

  • limiting his visits with your ex to day trips until he has had more time to re-bond with his father;
  • explicitly stating that your son is allowed to call either you or your ex at any time when he is with the opposite parent;
  • identifying attachment objects (blanket, toy, stuffed animal) that will travel with your son between households to help him with transitions;
  • specifying who else will be occupying each household while your son is in residence;
  • discussing what your son will be able to do/see while in each household (for example, do you both agree that he will only see children’s television programs, or only G-rated movies).

Given the scenario you described, I truly believe a more formal, legal approach is your best option here. Custody arrangements affect both you and your son, and while the process can at times be acrimonious, the payoff of having a concrete system in place to safeguard your son’s well-being is well worth the time, money, and effort. Ideally, your son will end up securely attached to both of his parents, which would be a happy ending for all three of you.

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