When determining the best interests of a child for purposes of determining issues of custody and parenting time, the court considers the intimacy of the relationship between the parent and the child and the interaction and interrelationship of the child with the parent. Minn. Stat. § 518. 17, Subd. 1(a). While the term attachment is not legally defined in the statute, the concept remains relevant in custody and parenting time decisions. When performing a custody evaluation, an attachment framework is considered. This approach focuses not only on the parenting quality, but also the child’s experience, which is evaluated through their behavior. A child’s expression of attachment evolves across the different stages of development.
During the early stage of a child’s life, they are unable to verbalize and communicate their feelings. These children are at an age where their attachment styles are beginning to form so it is crucial to gain attachment-informed data to support and protect their caregiving relationships. During infancy, attachment can be observed through a series of separations and reunions to activate the infant attachment system. The interactions between the infant and caregiver are observed, evaluated, and categorized as either secure or insecure. Even though the children cannot speak, their behavior patterns are categorized in a way that gives insight into the parent-child relationship.
When children enter their toddler phase, behavior and emotional expressions are influenced by the child’s emerging sense of self and individual will. Because of these developments, the focus of attachment is based on the ways children use a parent as a resource for exploration and to manage frustration. Typical methods of observation between the caregiver and child include problem-solving tasks. During these assessments, the child and parent participate in free play, cleanup, and problem-solving tasks that challenge the child. The assessment is based on the overall quality of the parent-child interaction, how the parent supports the child when they are frustrated, and how the child makes use of the parent to cope with the challenge.
As children grow older, they can verbally express their feelings and preferences. Attachment assessment for this age group can include sentence completion and narrative storytelling. These verbal activities include sentence stems and prompts that are designed to elicit responses related to their relationships. Through these activities, the children can identify positive and negative feelings and provide insight into the dynamics of their relationships.
Being able to understand a child’s attachment style can ensure that the child remains in a reliable caregiving environment. Parenting time schedules can be built to reflect the child’s attachment style and specific characteristics. For example, alternating days or weekend schedules may create stress for a child that may initially be perceived as a reaction to the caregiver, but rather is due to the stress of the unstable schedule. Better schedules are created by understanding the child’s attachment style, temperament, circumstances, and needs. These factors can provide valuable context for best serving the child’s developmental needs and fostering positive caregiving relationships.
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