“Ask Three Mentors” is a question-and-answer column, produced exclusively for Insights, that highlights the fact that members of AFCC are attorneys, judges, and mental health professionals. Many of our most experienced members are committed to mentoring and passing on the wealth of knowledge they’ve acquired through years of work in the field of family law. Each month we will pose a custody-related question to three members of our panel of exceptionally experienced and widely respected family law experts. Our readers will then have the benefit of hearing the answer from the perspective of a judge, a mental health professional, and a family law attorney. Please submit your questions for our Mentors here. For biographies of our Three Mentors panel members, go to this page.
Below our Mentors answer this question:
If a young child (infant to toddler) cannot see a parent for an extended period due to the need for the parent to self-isolate, what impact might this have on the parent-child bond and what can both parents do to minimize any negative impact?
Commissioner Marjorie Slabach, Retired
As a judge who has been hanging out with clinicians for many, many years, I’m going to assert that when an infant or toddler is unable to be physically with a parent for any extended time, that parent-child bond will be damaged.
In the face of a separation, the burden of mitigating the damage will be on the custodial parent. In a conflictual parenting arrangement, that burden may feel loathsome. I would suggest the custodial parent pretend that the absent parent is a dearly loved partner who has been deployed to a foreign country and all the methods of staying in touch would be applied. This can be, either prerecorded or live using Zoom, Facetime, etc., the absent parent reading a story to the child, playing peek-a-boo, etc. It is always good for the child to hear the absent parent’s voice as well as see the parent. The absent parent can also watch the child having a bath, crawling, taking first steps, etc. and cheer the child on. A picture of the absent parent with the child should be placed near the child’s bed or center of activity. The possibilities are endless if both parents keep the focus on the connection between child and parent.
A Judge’s role is to provide orders that spell out those specific details that provide sufficient guidance to the parents, and to create accountability if there is a failure of cooperation. A general directive to cooperate is not sufficient. The attorney’s role is to help the parents figure out creative methods of maintaining the contact, and offering those detailed methods in the order for the judge to sign.
Dr. Matthew Sullivan
Being one of the mental health professionals Commissioner Slabach has “hung out” with over the years, she is right on target. I’d soften her concern a bit saying there will likely be a negative impact of prolonged separation on a very young child’s bond with their absent parent. I totally agree that the goal for coparents is too work together to mitigate that negative impact. That can strengthen their relationship, which is critical to their child’s healthy long-term development.
Attachment is a reciprocal connection, so the custodial parent supporting the absent parent’s connection as much as possible with the child is important. Sharing lots of information with their coparent about the child each day – activities, routines, milestones – sending lots of videos and Facetiming can keep that parent connected and attached.
For very young children, hearing a parent’s voice sustains attachment to some extent even if the video connection may not have much impact. By toddlerhood and thereafter children can engage meaningfully (though perhaps only for a short period) to a phone or video connection with an absent parent. The custodial parent supporting these connections and talking positively about their absent coparent to the child can also lessen the negative impact of that parent’s absence.
Attorney Leslie Shear
Every few days I video chat for a few minutes with my three-month-old grandson, Eli. Those chats are teaching me what is possible through virtual visitation with babies and toddlers – building on what I have read in the scholarly literature, and learned from other parents and grandparents.
We were just getting into the rhythm of weekly Thursday babysitting when Covid-19 made that impossible. Now a Facetime call comes into my computer, iPad or iPhone and it is a bright-eyed Eli. His parents pick times when he is in a happy mood to call one or two of his five grandparents. In these video chats baby, parents and grandparents are doing the best we can to build our relationships and Eli’s “nurturing domain.” We stick out tongues and he mirrors us, he says “Auooooo” and we “Auoooo” back, his mom sings and he joins in and tries to match her key with his “Auoooo’s.” We show him the dogs and he gets excited.
His mommy and daddy tell us about his day, his growth and each new development. We use his name, we talk baby talk, and we make faces. They tell him that we are grandma and grandpa (or Malarkey doggie and Mulligan doggie).
And sometimes we just watch what he’s doing or looking at. We marvel at how fast he is growing and changing. My gosh, he’s strong enough to sit up in his bouncer (with mom spotting him) and he holds his head up and bounces gleefully. Then he gets cranky, or hungry or wants a diaper change, and it’s time for goodbye.
Our long distance virtual “nurturing domain” touches three critical dimensions of relationships in a family during a child’s first years of life: reciprocal connectedness, parental (and grandparental identity), and childrearing partnerships. Highly motivated parents can strengthen their baby’s nurturing domain in the same ways when one parent can’t provide daily care. Here are some takeaways from research, the experiences of others and our experience.
Reciprocal connectedness (a broader concept than bonding or attachment) is the dynamic relationship where a baby and caretaker learn to read each other and relate to each other. Each of a baby’s reciprocally-connected relationships grows from the experience of caregiving – talking, singing, holding, playing, feeding, soothing, watching. Those intensely familiar relationships with multiple caregivers provide the scaffolding for the baby’s social and emotional development and the caregiver’s attuned and sensitive behavior with the baby through the rapid changes in the first years of life. Separations interfere with all of that intense two-way familiarity.
It turns out that babies and toddlers can relate socially via screen to a human who is interacting with them responsively in ways that a recorded video cannot. Relationships are reciprocal – and that means live, rather than recorded. So the making faces and peekaboo and baby talk that we do with babies and they do back with us appears to be meaningful when it takes place via screen. These social interactions involving mirroring and turn-taking lay the foundation for language. Toddlers, for example, can learn a new verb through videochat with a live human but don’t learn new words watching videos. Babies learn to recognize their own names quite early.
Repetition and ritual make these experiences more meaningful – reinforcing the connection and allowing the baby to anticipate what comes next. Rhymes and songs are sticky and fun. Babies recognize familiar songs early, and are soothed when parents sing familiar songs to them. 
Our faces and voices are becoming familiar for Eli, building a foundation for when we come together again. And we watch every little developmental change and personality quirk in these chats, as we talk with his parents. Parents and caregivers living apart can do this too. It takes the caregiving parent having the initiative to place the call at an opportune moment and help keep the baby enthusiastic and engaged. It takes effort on the part of the distant parent to engage the baby, and patience when the baby doesn’t always respond.
One of the key tasks for new parents is developing a strong parental identity and sense of competence. Parenthood is a life transforming experience that changes our sense of self. When parents support and affirm each other’s parenting competence, parental identity is less threatened. An insecure parent may compensate by dominating parenting, engaging in restrictive gatekeeping, and asserting that only he or she can care for this child.
Research on involved fathering, starting with the Fragile Families study, has found that paternal involvement tends to be more contingent on social supports than maternal involvement. Involved fathering is most likely when the child’s mother, work and social circle, and societal institutions actively support involved fathering. Involved fathers far more reliably contribute to children’s economic support.
In countries where fathers get extended paid parental leave, active caretaking of infants and toddlers builds their confidence about parental competence, strong ties with the children, and a better understanding of the other parent’s experience in parenting. Separation arising from divorce or self-isolation interferes with all of those opportunities.
Similarly, lesbian moms who are not the gestational mom frequently report feeling that their parental identity is threatened, and that their ex-partner treats them as less-than or as disposable parents.
When self-isolation or distance prevent hands-on parenting, the other factors for building and sustaining parental identity and involvement are crucial. Everything from being able to log into the baby’s video monitor, to video chats, to virtual participation in each pediatric appointment all help strengthen parental identity and build a foundation for greater involvement in the child’s daily care when separation ends.
From planning family formation onward, prospective and new parents do best when they build a co-parenting partnership. Co-parents who have never or only briefly lived together, have not built a shared history of successful decisionmaking and problem solving with one another, and have not built a shared family culture around childrearing. Thus these parents face greater challenges when self-isolation removes one of them from active participation in the baby’s care.
These parents need help in learning to share information, support one another as parents, and, to the extent feasible, give the absent parent a sense of involvement in the baby’s care. Use of tele-counseling to facilitate this kind of team-building may be vital. The caretaking parent is likely to be overwhelmed with infant care (likely with little respite), the absent parent feels a sense of loss and threat, and everyone is knocked off their equilibrium by the pervasive societal uncertainty and economic stressors.
Grandparents play a powerful role in infant and toddler custody cases. They are often driven by fear that they will be excluded from their grandchild’s lives since the baby’s parents aren’t together. Grandparents are protective of their adult children and may reinforce hostility towards the other parent that might otherwise be transient. Grandparents fund much infant custody litigation. Protecting grandparent relationships at this time, and helping them feel confident that they will have a place in the grandchild’s life, can help reduce the odds of the challenges in developing reciprocal connectedness, parental identities and a co-parenting partnership triggering years of high conflict custody disputes.
Military Families Lead the Way
Military families live in a culture where one parent can be deployed and unavailable for daily care. That culture has strong support for protecting the family relationships in all of these ways for extended periods, and for reintegrating parents upon their return. Their experiences may help us do as much as possible to lay the foundations of reciprocal connectedness, parental identify, and co-parenting partnership during this extended health and economic emergency.
 Divorce is a unique disruption to the nurturing domain. Nurturance is an attitude, an instinct, and a set of observable behaviors. …The nurturing domain surrounds and scaffolds the young child. Unlike the loss of a parent to death, neglect, illness, or separations due to employment-related travel, divorce places the child in a process and context of ongoing cognitive and emotional adjustment in their relationship with each parent. The nurturing domain, while important throughout childhood, is especially salient in the first years of life.
The risk to the child in a divorcing family is that the nurturing domain will be set off its developmental trajectory, placing the child at risk for emotional, behavioral and relational disturbances.
Michael D. Kaplan, M.D. and Kyle D. Pruett, M.D. (2000) “Divorce and Custody: Developmental Implications,” in Charles H. Zeanah, Jr. Ed., Handbook of Infant Mental Health, 2d Ed., Guilford Press: New York, 533 [Emphasis added.]
 Arredondo & Edwards (2000) Attachment, Bonding, and Reciprocal Connectedness Limitations of Attachment Theory in the Juvenile and Family Court J of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts 109 (http://www.ocfcpacourts.us/assets/files/list-751/file-924.pdf)
 Roseberry et al. (2014) Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language 85 Child Development 956 (Roseberry_et_al-2014-Child_Development https://kathyhirshpasek.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2019/06/Roseberry_et_al-2014-Child_Development.pdf?referringSource=articleShare)
 Cirelli, L. K., & Trehub, S. E. (2020). Familiar Songs Reduce Infant Distress. 56 Developmental Psychology 861–868. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000917
 See, for example, William J. Doherty, Edward F. Kouneski, and Martha Farrell Erickson, Responsible Fathering: an Overview and Conceptual Framework, report prepared for the Administration for Children and Families and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, (http://web.archive.org/web/20150318024424/http://fatherhood.hhs.gov/concept.htm)