The immediate and gut reaction to this question which has no doubt been posed by many separated dads is ‘No’. However, as is often the case when dealing with family law and in particular, child arrangements, there is no right or wrong answer. Every case is different, every child is different and what may be right for one child may not be so for another.
Whether your four year old is too young depends very much on the circumstances of your case. If for example there has been a significant break in contact emanating from the separation or the arrangements have broken down, then the starting point would be to deal with the resumption of contact, with a view to progressing the arrangements to longer visits, and then overnight stays.
The key to positive contact that will progress and enhance the father-child relationship post separation and make it a success, will also be in the quality, not just quantity of contact.
There is no rule or law that says age four is too young to stay overnight with dad, nor is there anything that says from age four children should be able to stay overnight with the non-resident parent, often still dad. There will be a number of factors to consider, including for example the attachment the child already has to you and their other parent, the level and frequency of any previous contact, how secure the child feels in ether parent’s care, and any particular needs the child may have.
It is often suggested that with very young children, say babies and toddlers, that frequent visits, maybe of shorter duration, are better for children of that age to enable them to better form an attachment to the non-resident parent through seeing that parent and spending time with them more often, and, at the same time not spending too long a period away from their primary caregiver. That is not to say however that overnight stays should not happen with very young children, as clearly there will be many cases where upon separation dad has played a full and active,’ hands on’ role in meeting the child’s needs up to that point, with a secure bond and attachment already formed. I come across many cases where overnight stays have been happening long before the child’s fourth birthday.
However, in any event, by age three or four, a child’s ability to communicate and therefore communicate their needs is much more developed. This means that they should be much better equipped for spending time away from their primary carer, and as such, spending time with dad on an overnight basis. Therefore, any argument against overnight stays at age four begins to fall away.
In short therefore, the answer is clearly “No”….age four is not ‘too young for overnight stays with dad’ but the arrangements should be handled sensitively.
Tips on making it work
It will be vital to ensure contact progresses that overnight stays start off as smoothly as possible. As such, as is always the case, preparation is key. It is will be important to make sure your child is prepared for the first overnight stay, so for example, make sure they are familiar with where they are staying and with whoever else may be present. That they are aware in advance of when they are coming to stay and when they are going home to see mum again.
That there is communication, if possible, with the other parent about any little routines or habits and that you have everything that they may need.
There are of course cases where any reluctance or anxiety is on the part of your ex-partner rather than child and whilst you may be confident your child will be fine and you can make sure they are happy and well cared for whilst in your care, if your ex-partner is reluctantly agreeing or apprehensive then a little reassurance in that direction may help a lot in the longer term. If your ex-partner is apprehensive then often children will pick up on this and share in the anxiety. This can then lead to assertions that it is “too soon” or “they’re not ready” and whilst this shouldn’t happen, it does, and whatever can be done to avoid or minimise this will benefit in the longer term and avoid the risk of the arrangements breaking down. A lot of this is common sense stuff but can be easily overlooked in the eagerness to get overnight stays up and running or in the midst of fraught relations with your now ex-partner.
The key to positive contact that will progress and enhance the father-child relationship post separation and make it a success, will also be in the quality, not just quantity of contact. In the event of litigation there may well be some CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) intervention and this view is echoed by them.
If in litigation CAFCASS may be asked to give advice to the Court and as can be seen here https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/2909/TimeforChildren.pdf. CAFCASS themselves do not suggest that children as young as four or even three cannot have overnight stays, only that they may find it more difficult and that greater care should be taken with the arrangements.
If you are going to get legal advice or begin mediating then again go prepared. I’d suggest giving thought beforehand to your proposals. These will depend on when you last had contact or staying contact e.g. when should visits turn into overnights, for how long, handover, and sleeping arrangements etc. Essentially have an idea in mind of what arrangements you want to put into place and put forward a well thought out plan. Pre-empt what reasons there may be for opposing your proposals and come up with solutions.
Posted on January 10, 2018