Robin Thicke & Paula Patton Separation: Deciding Custody of Very Young Children

In Hollywood yesterday, it was announced that singer Robin Thicke and his wife, actress Paula Patton, have decided to separate after nine years of marriage. The couple met and began dating as teenagers. Wed in 2005, the couple have one young child, a son, who is three years old.

When parents separate, it is typical for a temporary (pendente lite) child custody order to be put in place. The order establishes parenting time until the couple reconciles or decides to move forward with divorce (in which case a final child custody order is decided).

What kind of plan might be viewed as best when a child is still a toddler, as is the case with Thick and Patton, or even younger? Deciding custody arrangements for a child demands putting the best interests of the child first. For infants and toddlers, this often means looking at the child’s primary attachment. Has the child, up until the parents’ separation, spent more time with one parent who has acted as primary caregiver? How active is the other parent in the child’s life? What kind of attachment has the child formed with the second parent? Are there any special circumstances that should be taken into account, such as an infant who is still breastfeeding?

Unless exceptional circumstances dictate otherwise, the goal of the custody arrangement/parenting time plans is to make sure the child has access to both his parents. With this said, some examples of parenting time plans for very young children include:

Nesting: In this scenario, an agreement is reached to have the child remain in the family home; each parent then cycles in and out when it’s their parenting time. For example, if one parent has a Wednesday evening dinner and weekends from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, the parent would come to the family home for that time. Depending on the arrangement, the other parent would vacate the premises to allow the child and the parent alone bonding time.

Some psychologists favor this approach because it may help reduce anxiety in young children when visiting the other parent in unfamiliar (for now) surroundings. Celebrity mom Mayim Bialik is using “nesting” in her shared custody arrangement with her ex-husband and has spoken publicly about how this approach has helped her two sons adjust to divorce. Parents may decide to nest when their children are younger and then transition to a more traditional “two home” plan as their children enter their school age years.

Shorter, but more frequent visits: For infants and younger toddlers (two and under), it is sometimes thought best for the child to have access to other parent in very frequent, but shorter visits so as not to interfere with issues such as breastfeeding or sleep patterns. In this scenario, the child’s residence may be primarily with one parent, with the other parent allowed to visit the child at the house every day for several hours, but usually not overnight. In the end, the amount of time the parent spends with the child typically works out the same amount of time as the standard 3 overnights per week. As time goes on and the child grows older, this arrangement can be modified.

Two homes: Because custody really is decided upon on a case by case basis, if the child’s developmental maturity level appears ready to accept a two-parent home, this may be deemed what’s best. In the case of Patton and Thicke, according to reports, their son has traveled with his mother to film shoots (Patton and her son are currently staying in Vancouver, Canada while she works on a movie), and has traveled extensively with both parents around the world. These kinds of experiences may have made their son more adaptable to new situations. Similarly, if the child has a nanny who is willing to travel back and forth between the two parents’ homes, this too may be seen as a reason why a more standard parenting time plan would be be appropriate, even for a three year old.

Whatever plan the pair comes up with, it’s only temporary until they reconcile or move ahead with a divorce. In the event of a divorce, psychologists and other developmental experts may be called to offer expert testimony on what’s best for their son as a final custody arrangement is negotiated.