When Parents Get Divorced...


How divorce affects the bonds parents have with their kids

Divorce is difficult psychologically, emotionally and financially for adults. It is considered the most profoundly difficult life transition besides the loss of a loved one by death. There is evidence that children experience the effects of divorce even more keenly than adults. This is because, to children, their family's divorce seems to occur suddenly and they have no real control over their situation (Page, 2003).

To preserve the parent-infant attachment bond through divorce, the divorcing partners need to detach themselves from each other and truly put their children first. The divorcing adults need to take the concept of co-parenting seriously and take the necessary steps to educate themselves on how to co-parent properly.

There are numerous online resources and local classes and books dealing with the subject of healthy co-parenting. Online resources are listed in the addendum section of this document. The best case scenario is if both parents cooperate in co-parenting. Sadly, that is not always the case. Sometimes one (or both) partners have an underlying mental illness, such as an addiction, severe depression, or narcissism, that distressed the marriage relationship, and will make cooperative co-parenting difficult (Hannibal, 2007).

What is Attachment?
Attachment is the biologically-based, long-lasting emotional bond between human beings whose purpose is to facilitate safety and security.
Parent-child attachment is the biologically-based, emotional bond between child and caregivers, which endures over space and time. Parent-child attachment is deeply imbedded in human physiology as a means of promoting safety and survival by keeping protecting adults close to helpless offspring.

Secure attachment at the beginning of life is necessary for both physical, emotional and psychological well-being (Karen, 1994). It is noted by multiple researchers that poorly attached babies and children, such as those left to languish in orphanages, have multiple physical ailments and in fact sometimes die, due to failure-to-thrive syndrome (Bowlby, 1982). Poorly attached children grow into adults with high rates of psychological and physical illnesses (Riggs & Han, 2009).

Attachment develops as a result of a reciprocal, interactive process requiring accessibility and responsiveness on a daily basis with the primary caregiver. The pattern of need gratification repeated many times on a daily basis over a long period of time produces trust of care, which is the foundation of secure attachment.

Stability and continuity of care by a primary caregiver is the most important factor in development of the attachment bond in infancy. The baby must be with, see, smell and be taken care of in a responsive, consistent manner by the primary caregiver in order to develop stable psychology and secure emotionality (Bowlby, 1982; Han, 2009).

Infant Attachment
The parent-child attachment bond develops over time in infancy. John Bowlby (1982) defined three phases in infancy related to development of attachment, plus an additional phase occurring at about three years of age. The infancy phases directly relates to the developmental capabilities of the infant.

Phase 1 occurs in the first three months of life. Newborns are born with a mature nervous system and brain. Newborns are actually fetus-like, as they have such limited capabilities. Dr. Harvey Karp (2003) refers to the first three months of life as the fourth trimester. In Phase 1, because infants have fetus-like capabilities, the caregiver initiates attachment behaviors, keeping her baby in close proximity and responding to his needs.
Gradually, as the infant gains more cognitive awareness and more control over his body, there is a gradual move from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Phase 2 occurs roughly from ages three months to six months. Object permanence is developing in this time period. In Phase 2 the infant also initiates attachment behaviors, smiling, cooing, grasping at his caregiver's clothing, and tracking her when she walks across a room.

Phase 3 begins around six to nine months of age. This is when many experts believe an infant's attachment to specific caregivers is consolidated. Stranger awareness develops in this age range. The baby is more selective in choosing with whom to initiate his attachment behaviors.
Many experts consider the age range of six months to 18 months a sensitive period for attachment to develop. Support for the idea of a sensitive period of attachment to consolidate is supported by research which shows older babies tend to more readily approach familiar caregivers and withdraw from unfamiliar people during this time period. In addition, research shows that adoptive babies under 12 months of age tend to form more adaptive attachment bonds then adopted babies over 12 months of age (Dozier & Rutter, 2003; as cited in Marvin & Preston, 2008).

Maternal Attachment and Paternal Attachment – the Research
Regarding attachment to mothers and fathers, research indicates that secure attachment to both figures results in security of exploration, feelings of efficacy, resilience, perseverance, higher self-esteem, higher feelings of positivity, and higher flexibility and adaptability to different situations and people, and less feelings of anger.

There is a general consensus in the research that there is a qualitatively different emotional result from secure attachment to a mother figure versus a father figure, so it is optimal if both parents are emotionally stable enough to participate in co-parenting and do not use their child's body and mind as a battlefield (Grossman et al, 2008).

The Marital Bond and Secure Infant Attachment
A harmonious marital relationship during pregnancy predicts a more secure attachment. And, parents with better functioning relationships generally have children who develop more secure attachments than those growing up in households where the parents have less happy relationships.
In general, research indicates that good social support, including a supportive husband and extended family members, during pregnancy and postpartum improves the quality of maternal mental health and, thus, the development of a healthy infant attachment bond (Howes & Spieker, 2008).

Practical Parenting Through Divorce
On a practical level, maintaining the attachment bond with both mother and father is important for the baby to develop into a well-rounded child, as mother and father both contribute to the emotional development of the child's experience.
The consensus of research literature indicates it is the conflict between divorcing parents which causes disruption to the attachment bond plus development of anxiety, depression and other maladaptive emotions and behaviors in children, not the divorce itself (Hannibal, 2007).
Co-parenting with both parents involved is possible if both parents are emotionally healthy enough to commit to creating a reasonable co-parenting atmosphere.

Practical Parenting of an Infant Through Divorce
Generally, in Phase 1 of attachment, an infant 0 to 3 months of age should not be involved in overnight visitations with the non-custodial parent. The newborn, the fourth trimester infant, needs to be contained in a secure atmosphere of continuity so as to develop an attachment bond with the primary caregiver. In order to build a foundation for a secondary attachment, the noncustodial parent should have frequent, short visitation so he can get to know the baby.

In Phase 2, the baby grows in awareness. He is the process of developing the reciprocal attachment bond in the entire first year of life with his primary caregiver. It is of the utmost importance to preserve the developing baby's feelings of security and experience of continuity. During this period, frequent visitations by the non-custodial parent is advisable to develop and sustain the attachment bond with multiple caregivers in the baby's life.

It is especially crucial to maintain frequent visitation during the sensitive period of consolidation of the biological and psychological attachment bond which occurs in the six to eighteen month period of life.

However, overnight visitations should be carefully introduced and the baby's reactions carefully monitored for distress over separation from his primary attachment figure. Some babies can adapt to being away from his/her primary attachment figure for longer periods of time than others. The baby's well-being should be paramount. The baby should not be part of a triangulated situation where by the adults are getting their emotional sustenance from the baby. Rather, the adults need to take care to create a stable atmosphere for the baby. Some children cannot tolerate an overnight separation from their primary caregiver until after the second or third year of life, others are more able to adapt (Haiman, 2011).

A creative way to sustain a continuous atmosphere for babies is to maintain one residence where the baby lives all the time, and the adults switch to this residence at different times. This is called “nesting.” If nesting doesn't appeal to you, and you freely reject this idea, then take away from this a sensitivity to your child's emotions when he has two homes, yet has no way to reject this way of living.

So, the attachment bond is a proven, biological need and is the basis of emotional stability. It is created during infancy, it is possible to nurture and preserve the attachment bond, even through divorce. It takes education and committed, conscious and intentional parenting by emotionally healthy parents.

Belsky, J. and Pasco Fearon, R. M. (2008). Precursors of attachment security. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment theory research and clinical applications (2nd ed., pp. 295 - 316). New York: the Guilford Press.

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Grossman,K., Grossman, K.E., Heinz, and Kimmerman, P. (2008). A wider view of attachment and exploration: The influence of mothers and fathers on the development of psychological security from infancy to young adulthood. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment theory research and clinical applications (2nd ed., pp. 857 - 879). New York: the Guilford Press.

Marvin, R. S., and Preston, a. B. (2008). Normative development: the ontogeny of attachment. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment theory research and clinical applications (2nd ed., pp. 269 - 294). New York: the Guilford Press.

Hannibal, M. E. (2007). Good parenting through your divorce. Philadelphia: Perseus Books.

Haiman, P. E. (2011). Protecting a child's emotional development when parents separate or divorce. Retrieved June 8, 2011 from http://www.peterhaiman.com/articles/protecting-a-childs-emotional-develo...

Karen, R. (1998). Becoming attached: First relationships and how they shape our capacity to love. New York: Oxford University press.

Karp, H. (2003). The happiest baby on the block. New York:Bantam Books.

Page, T. and Bretherton, I. (2003). Representations of attachment to father in the narrative of preschool girls in post-divorce families: Implications for family relationships and social development. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, (20,2), 99 – 122.

Riggs, S. A., & Han, G. (2009). Predictors of Anxiety and Depression in Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 16(1), 39-52.

Howes, C. and Spieker, S. (2008). Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment theory research and clinical applications (2nd ed., pp. 317 - 332). New York: the Guilford Press.

Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.