What a Move May Mean for the Child

In our highly mobile society, the geographical relocation of one parent following separation or divorce is increasingly prevalent. Unless the parents agree to a relocation plan, permission for one of the custodial parents to relocate and the terms and conditions of the subsequent parenting plan become a matter for the courts. Relocation creates a situation in which there is a potential for catastrophic trauma to the affected children from the loss of a parent. The best parenting plans recognize this problem and seek to reduce the risks of serious harm.

Relocation intensifies loss

Freud understood that the source of anxiety for human beings, regardless of culture or century, is the anticipated threat of one or more losses. He described them as:

1. the loss of the person one loves;
2. the loss of the love of that loved person;
3. the loss of physical or social integrity;
4. the loss of self-esteem.
Freud, S. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. London: Hogarth Press (1926). Standard Ed. Vol. XX, 87-174.

Relocation of one parent subjects the child to all of these potential personal catastrophes or losses. The loss or apprehension of loss may or may not overwhelm the child’s capacity to cope. In our experience as custody evaluators, the types of apprehensions of loss children confide to us are dramatic, especially for children across the developmental stages who already are experiencing anxious and depressive feelings. Children confide that they worry that the parent left behind will die or find someone else with whom to share his or her life; however, they also feel afraid of losing the secure base that has been established with the relocating parent.

For a child, divorce results in the loss of the family as the child understands it. That parents of friends have divorced or that home has often been an angry, uncomfortable place does not mitigate the loss of the family as a result of divorce.

The child realizes that the parents have lost their love for each other and fears the same loss for him or herself. When parents are hostile to each other, the child is both scared of the loss of love and the loss of the social or, worse, physical integrity of his or her parents and self.

A common challenge for children is the feeling that they must side with one parent—or that parent will not love them anymore. This is greatly complicated by the parents’ catastrophes of lost love and loss of the love of the loved one. In especially hostile divorces, with vulnerable parents, the child can suffer loss of self-esteem as derived from one parent who distances him or herself as part of the divorce, while suffering the loss of secure feelings from the love of the parent who remains, as the child is now the caretaker to that parent. Although the actual and anticipated losses associated with relocation are always salient, negative emotional experiences, they are not always traumatic losses that lead to psychopathology. Psychological evaluation and input can help to reduce negative impact.

Minimizing the risk

The impact of the relocation of a parent may be exacerbated or mitigated by many factors. The most important factor is the level of attachment of the child to each parent and sibling. It is useful to determine whether the child has an attachment differential between parents and how that relates to the child’s capacity for healthy functioning (cognitively, emotionally, and interpersonally). In addition, assessing attachment levels pinpoints ways to deal with the necessary loss of one parent through geographical distance.

Other factors that mitigate or exacerbate the child’s capacity to cope with relocation include the child’s psychological and developmental needs and capacities and each parent’s capacity to meet those needs. These factors are used as guidelines in the American Psychological Association (APA Guideline I.3. American Psychologist, July 1994) and in the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Practice Parameters for Child Custody Evaluation (1997).

The role of the psychological evaluator in a relocation dispute is to ascertain what is in the best interests of the children. Using the framework embraced by the psychological profession and the ample literature on attachment and developmental needs of children, psychologists can assist with sensitive insights for mitigating losses.

An important—but still controversial—observation of attachment theory and research is that infants seem to have a predisposition to form a single primary attachment. When the infant is under stress, alarmed, ill, or tired, the primary attachment figure is required from the infant’s point of view. This attachment relationship develops over time. Michael Lamb has reported that when infants live continuously with both parents, the child’s preference for one parent over the other may wane (1977), but this research is incomplete. The fact that attachment figures are not interchangeable for children greatly complicates devising time schedules and relocation decisions. J. Soloman and C. George, eds. Attachment Disorganization. NY: The Guilford Press (1999).

There has been much controversy in psychology because of a public policy goal to keep both parents equally involved in raising the children. This goal sometimes substitutes a perceived best interest of the parent for that of the children. It usually is in the best interest of the child to maintain a secure base with the parent who is the primary attachment figure. See L. Gunsberg and P. Hymowitz, eds. A Handbook of Divorce and Custody. NJ: The Analytic Press (2005) (especially chapters 12 and 23).

Psychological evaluations

The inquiry begins by ruling out that either parent is dangerous or unfit, proceeds to the developmental and any special needs of the child, the psychological match between parent and child, and then to the attachment between the child and any siblings and each parent. Complicating factors include stepparents on each side, their psychological condition and relationship to the children, and, of course, the stepparents’ children.

For example, each parent and other caretaker living in the home must be evaluated to rule out problems with impulse control, serious problems with reality testing, and serious distortions of thought. The children must be safe (no physical violence, no distortions concerning sexual roles of children and parents; no psychotic acting out by adults). Psychological testing is useful in ruling out these problems.

Psychological testing and clinical evaluation of adults and children also helps the psychologist understand the psychological match between parent and child. For example, if the child is autistic, the mother is hysterical, and the father is obsessive-compulsive, then the match between child and mother is better. When the autistic child stays in one place repeating behavior over and over, the hysterical mother will break into that psychological space and insist the child interact with her; whereas the obsessive father will intellectually but not emotionally engage the child. However, if the child has a colostomy bag that requires changing, a hysterical mother may be too squeamish to attend to the child’s needs but the obsessive father may be carefully attentive to the child.

Retaining meaningful language and traditional experience becomes an important component when considering the psychological match in families where there is a mixed cultural heritage. We see this frequently in our New Mexico practice where there are strong cultural traditions among Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo populations.

Once the needs of the child and the capacities of the parents are understood, the attachment between child and parent becomes the focus for parenting recommendations. Attachment and the developmental stage of the child typically go hand in hand. Below, we set out the principles of attachment with special emphasis on how the child handles necessary losses. Children with problems of anxiety or depression may need the secure base of their primary attachment figure at older ages than the children who have a normal capacity to cope.

A psychological evaluation provides a clearer picture of the psychological conditions of the children and parents and the respective level of attachment. This makes possible a more accurate estimate of the potential traumatic impact of relocation. It also allows for educational and prophylactic measures to be taken. A baseline is established that is useful in any subsequent evaluations, monitoring the child’s increasing or decreasing capacity to cope and his or her reduced or increased emotional and intellectual capacity.

The skills parents bring to the task of helping a child cope with relocation vary widely. These skills can be improved and expanded, especially once the decision to relocate has been made and the parents embrace the task of working within a framework to enhance every family member’s relationships.

Psychological evaluation pinpoints the psychopathology of either parent to contain its effect on the child. Reducing any incident of attempted suicide or other narcissistic self-involvement on the part of a parent relieves the child and strengthens his or her capacity to cope. Most children use their parents as an emotional barometer for their measure of safety or danger in the world.

The longitudinal research of Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis (21 Psychoanalytic Psychology 3 (2004), 353-70) on the effects of divorce on children establishes two crucial points. First, the level of hostility or amicability in divorce is the factor that offers the worst harm or greatest benefit to the children. Second, the harm parents cause in a hostile divorce is to the child’s capacity to develop and maintain intimate relationships throughout their lives. When the goal in creating a parenting plan is amicable partnering intended to preserve and enhance the child’s feelings of intimacy with both parents, there is a likelihood of ameliorating an inherently damaging situation. Although equal time with each parent purports to address this issue, devising a plan that incorporates the measured level of attachment speaks to a more sanguine outcome.

Parents can be actively involved in minimizing the problems of relocation. Recognizing that the younger a child the more contact is needed, the relocating parent can enhance predictable, consistent contact between the child and the absent parent. Examples include establishing a pattern of saving the child(s) school work or other items that the child can send to the absent parent, including photographs of events the child experiences. With preschool children, it is useful to have a picture of the absent parent in the bedroom. It also is useful for the absent parent to tape-record stories for the child and to send hand-written notes and letters to the child on a regular basis. Both voice and handwriting reinforce the individual, intimate details between absent parent and child. With very young children, a transitional object of somthing the absent parent wore, which smells of the parent and is warm and cuddly, can alleviate some of the stress of loss.

Developmental factors

Along with helpful guidelines for attachment and developmental stages, a determination of physical custody of the child and time-sharing responsibilities must include consideration of the family’s circumstances.

1. When a child is between six months and one year old, visitation that requires an overnight stay outside of the home of the primary parent is psychologically harmful because of the infant’s need for that parent’s physical presence to experience emotional security. In addition to emotional factors, there are cognitive factors, discussed in (3) below, that are not achieved until the child has further developed. Peter Fonagy describes in detail both the delicacy of the attachment process and the research supporting it. Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis, Other Press (2001).

Because of legislative design or parental preference, there may be times when there is an insistence on overnights before age one. In such cases, the best interest of the child dictates that the parties be encouraged to permit the noncustodial parent more frequent or longer visitations during the day, rather than overnight visitations.

2. When the child is one to three years old, if there are coparenting conflicts or little communication between parents, disorganization occurs in the child’s capacity to attach to the primary caretaker, which affects the child’s sense of stability and coherence in development. Visitation with the absent parent must incorporate these considerations. We believe that the empirical research of Judith Solomon, Ph.D. and Susan George, Ph.D. in Disorganized Attachment, cited above, is convincing.

3. When the child achieves object constancy—the ability to cognitively and emotionally internalize the primary caretaker—at about age three, the child now has an inner capacity to comfort self with the understanding that the primary caretaker is absent but has not abandoned the child. More flexibility is available for visitation at this point. However, for children between three and seven, other variables must be considered, including:

  • the capacity of the child to integrate an understanding of time in order to cope with separation.

  • the degree of the child’s emotional lability; that is, whether the child is susceptible to momentary changes and has a harder time recovering from upheavals.

  • the capacity of the child to reason and use logical thought. Until age seven, the child has a hard time using words to get a clear understanding of his environment.

4. After age seven, there are many more possibilities for creative visitation arrangements, depending on the level of anxiety and depression the child experiences.

5. Most children during adolescence reexperience separation issues in a more volatile way than between six and twelve years old.

Recent psychological literature has proposed that attachment concerns of younger children are different than those of adolescents. As a child grows and individuates, attachment needs to the primary attachment figure continue, but at a lesser urgency as the child better internalizes the parents and develops the capacity to cope more autonomously.

Adolescent separation

It is at this stage that we typically see a greater desire of the teenage child to maintain peer, school, and extracurricular activities. However, adolescent separation issues can be intensely experienced, depending on the child. A healthy teenager’s desire and request not to relocate with the primary attachment figure because the child has successfully individuated, has a comfortable relationship with the parent not relocating, and has developed plans to maintain sufficient contact with the relocating parent is an acceptable parenting plan. However, we do not believe that a child attaches to place over person; rather, the child has sufficient psychological resources to flourish in the chosen environment with one parent and maintain a positive long-distance relationship with the other parent.

Dealing with the complexity of siblings at different developmental stages is challenging. It usually is better to keep siblings together because they provide continuity in a family, even when parents are separate. The needs of the younger children usually are more urgent than those of older children. Balancing the internal needs of the younger children and the internal and external needs of the older children (including peer relations, educational aspirations, and other activities) must be considered.

To every extent possible, loved ones should continue to be a source of affection and emotional support for the child. In the end, the final test of our work with children in relocation disputes is the degree to which we have worked out arrangements that assure the children that their fears of loss are, if not unjustified, at least greatly exaggerated. The child should have a high level of self-esteem and feel that no important person has been lost, that no important person’s love has been lost, and that parents have provided for the child a sense of social and physical integrity.

Standards for permitting relocation are not uniform throughout the country. Some courts consider reasons given for the move and its potential interference with the other parent’s visitation before determining the best interests of the child. But in New Mexico, for example, the best interests of the child is directly linked to the determination of which parent is the primary attachment figure.

There can be psychological reasons to deny a relocation request. A child may be too vulnerable to suffer the additional stress of moving. For example, a child who has already developed phobias and nightmares and who is significantly distracted at school could be devastated by a major life change. In such a case, relocation should be reconsidered once the child reaches psychological equilibrium.

When a child, because of constitutional or environmental circumstances, has a tenuous capacity for attachment, the psychological consequences of relocation must be considered. For example, children with autism or Asperger’s disorder attach to only a few people and breaking any relationship makes a major difference for them. Relocation compounds this difficulty.

Another type of situation in which denial of relocation should be considered is when one parent has barely enough capacity to parent. Examples are a parent who suffers emotional storms, periods of serious depression, frequent hospitalizations, or frequent times when the parent cannot take care of the child because the parent is overwrought. This parent needs the other parent to share the burden of care. A review of how often the first parent asks the second parent for help is one way to begin to analyze the child’s best interest in this kind of circumstance.

When the judge denies a relocation request, the parent petitioning to relocate must make a choice, a choice that significantly affects the family. The capacity of both parents to personally and interpersonally cope with the consequences of that choice greatly affects the child’s experience of loss.

An order denying relocation usually does not anticipate what the petitioning parent will do next. If judges and lawyers want to control the next step after denial, one practical way is for both parties to present parenting plans for either contingency. The judge then may order a new parenting plan as part of the denial. If the parent is going to relocate whether or not the children go with that parent, then the psychological and practical considerations and the recommendations of the evaluator may be presented to the court in a more timely manner.

Accordingly, the initial custody evaluation regarding relocation should be ordered to present alternatives that take into account the range of decisions available to the court. The goal is to help buffer the children against the disappointments of the petitioning (or responding) parent. The custody evaluation will have already sorted out each child’s specific needs in terms of gender and age-related factors, in addition to the specific psychological makeup of the individual child.

Samuel Roll, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. Candace Kern, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Published in Family Advocate, Volume 28, No. 4, Spring 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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