Complex child custody disputes involve more than just arguments over holiday timesharing and times for exchanges. These types of disputes often involve allegations that the bond between a child and parent is irrevocably broken or was never properly formed in the first place. Further, one parent may object to a proposed timesharing schedule because it will interfere with creating or maintaining an existing bond.
In New Mexico, such allegations are usually investigated by a custody evaluator, or other mental health professional who reports back to the judge presiding over the custody dispute. And one of the common psychological theories investigated by custody evaluators is called attachment theory.
In this context, attachment describes an affectional bond between two individuals. Between a child and a caregiver, the bond is based on the child's need for safety, security and protection. Attachment theory proposes that a child attaches instinctively to a caregiver, or multiple caregivers, out of a need for survival.
According to attachment theory, infants will form an attachment to any consistent caregiver who sensitively and responsively attends to their needs and interacts with them. While the biological mother is often the focus of an infant's attachment, the role can belong to anyone that behaves in a caregiving way over a period of time, which can include fathers or other caregivers.
The purpose of the attachment behavior from the child's perspective is to keep the caregiver in close proximity. By the age of only two months, an infant can start to distinguish between adults and become more responsive to their caregivers. By the age of six months, an infant's behavior will be directed at ensuring that caregivers make the child feel secure. Anxiety, fear, illness and fatigue will cause the child to exhibit stronger attachment behavior.
The challenge in a divorce, or other parental separation, is maintaining the child-parent attachments after that separation. For example, a situation where a child goes from living with both parents to living primarily with their mother and having limited time with their father can be jarring for a child who has become used to seeing his or her father every day.
Thus, experts recommend that parenting schedules for children younger than two or three should focus on ensuring continuity and security for the child and allowing frequent contact with both parents. As the child gets older, they may be able to handle longer periods of time away from each parent, but it is important that both parents still have opportunities for social interactions and nurturing activities, including soothing hurts and anxieties, bedtime rituals, comforting in the middle of the night and the security of snuggling in the morning after awakening.
Unfortunately, in some cases, parents were not willing or able to form an attachment with their child when the child was young and want to begin doing so when the child is older. Such a situation can be incredibly complicated.
Experts generally agree that careful reintegration with the help of one or more treating professionals is necessary to build a relationship between the parent and child. Even with that help, a child may not form a traditional parental attachment to the formerly absent parent, but may be able to form a healthy relationship as they would with other adults in their lives.
Attachment problems are just one of the myriad complications that arise in a custody dispute. Consulting an experienced family law attorney can help parents identify these complications and investigate solutions that work within the legal system.