The Taconic Counseling Group
Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D.The High Contact Child
The world of children and families has changed drastically over the past three decades; some are enthusiastic about these changes while some feel trapped by them. We as parents have to face choices and challenges each day to help our children not just survive but hopefully thrive in this busy, active, complex and increasingly confusing world. Today's children frequently experience multiple transitions during the course of each day. These transitions are a consequence of being exposed to several caretakers, play groups, early enrichment classes, school and in some instances two homes to alternate between. As young children move through their day, clearly more adjustments and challenges are presented to them as they must react to many different people and places. These children, who must negotiate with many individuals and situations, we call High Contact Children.
There are several sources of social change that have contributed to this new developmental universe for children First, the women's movement has changed the definition of traditional sex roles and has contributed to the increased number of women in the work place. This has added to the need for infant and child care for more than fifty per cent of all children. In addition, rapidly changing economic forces have pushed women into the job market. As a result, the number of children in need of early child care can now be estimated to be in the millions. The result for these children is more contacts with more people in more settings.
A second major trend has been the rise in the divorce rate. Fifty percent of all marriages today, and for at least the past decade end in divorce. A large number of these failed marriages involve children and a high proportion of divorced parents with children remarry, often to other divorcees with children. Young people face two homes, new parents, new siblings, new rules, new child rearing instructions, and new relationships. They undergo more transitions from family to family and from place to place.
A third more recent trend is the increasing endorsement of early education and the emphasis on super babies and super children. Children are pushed into learning and mastering sports and other activities earlier, producing again, more contacts with more people and more stress.
Is this new world forcing children to demonstrate independence, achievement and social competence before they are ready and thereby undercutting the development of self-confidence? How can we as parents and professionals help children negotiate their complex and demanding world so that the outcome can be a positive one?
In our clinical work with children and families, Dr. Maria Alba-Fisch and I attend to the following issues confronting high contact children and their families.
We help families become aware of the multiple transitions or contacts a children may experience in a day.
We work with families to develop ways to have the parental blanket of love and security continue to be with children even though the parent may not be physically there.
We encourage the use of specific strategies to help children negotiate all the necessary shifts in each day.
The two most frequent family situations we encounter in our clinical work are dual career families and divorced and remarried families. Of course, all families are unique and many variables impact both the dual career and divorced families. Although each of these situations has it's own inherent difficulties, it is likely that these families have high contact children. As in all families the parents share a common central concern; the need to help their children feel protected under the umbrella of parental love, concern and authority even when they are apart. It is this umbrella that enhances a child's ability to withstand the many stresses of childhood. Knowing that parents remain intimately involved in his life contributes to his development of self-confidence.
In our work with parents, we might suggest that for young children in child care parents can enhance the child's sense of security by being actively involved with the child care person. Bringing your child into the child care setting and talking to the baby-sitter or teacher in the presence of your child both demonstrates your relationship with the baby-sitter and pro- vides an overlapping bridge to help your child make the transition from your arms to theirs. Encouraging your child to bring a toy, keeping family pictures or toys at school promotes another link between his two worlds. Learning at the end of the day the events that occurred and letting your child know that you know can foster his sense of your ongoing involvement. This is equally important for an ordinary occurrence like the arrival of a new sandbox as for a problem that may have arisen. Visiting your child during his day, and, if possible showing your child where you work rein- forces the link to you. These all build interlinking bridges between your separate lives.
In families facing a separation and divorce, we stress the simultaneous need for parents to separate as individuals yet to stay connected as parents. The ability of divorced parents to cooperate and communicate regarding their child remains key to their child's sense of security. Children of different ages have different needs from their divorced parents. For example, very young children need similar routines in the two separate households, such as similar meal time and bed time. Permitting children to bring favorite transition toys or blankets and frequent contact with both parents are important. The needs of children change as they mature and the challenge to divorced parents is to help their high contact child best adjust to the multiple adults and children, the multiple homes and the multiple rules.
To help promote a sense of self confidence and inner security in our children, each parent can think about and develop his or her own unique protective umbrellas to better help children negotiate the many transitions from person to person and from place to place.