Parenting arrangements for young children

Parenting arrangements for young children:
Messages from research

by Prof. Judy Cashmore and Prof. Patrick Parkinson

Faculty of Law, University of Sydney.  Jan 31st 2012

Courts are required on a daily basis to make decisions in disputes about residence and contact arrangements for young cashmoreOzzchildren when the parents live apart. This article considers the social science evidence both on what parenting arrangements are likely to be optimal for young children at different developmental stages, and on risk factors to be avoided.

In particular, it considers the evidence about when an overnight with the non-resident parent may be beneficial to a young child and when it is contra-indicated. The available research does not ParkinOzzsupport the view that overnight stays for very young children are per se problematic, but rather highlights the importance of considering the overall context of the family circumstances in individual cases. There is also a need to consider what is realistic given the circumstances of the two parents. While appropriate parenting arrangements for young children need to be guided by what is optimal (absent risk factors), this will often have to be limited by what is practicable in the parents’ own situation, and by the need to avoid harm.

A substantial proportion of parents separate before their children have started school. In some cases, the parents have never lived together at all. The Australian Institute of Family Studies, in a 2008 survey of 10,000 parents who separated after 1 July 2006, found that 47% of fathers and 50% of mothers had an only child or youngest child (with the other parent) aged 2 years or younger. A further 19% of fathers and 17% of mothers had an only or youngest child aged 3–4 years. [1] 12% of men and 15% of women reported that they had neither been married to, nor cohabited with, the other parent. [2]
It is not surprising therefore that the family courts are required on a daily basis to make decisions in disputes about parenting arrangements for young children following the separation of their parents. Many more arrangements for such young children are made with the assistance of lawyers, mediators and family consultants. [3]
The aim of this article is to outline the developmental considerations and the findings from relevant research that need to be taken into account when the courts, professionals and parents are faced with making decisions about the appropriate arrangements for young children after their parents separate. This includes the issues when the parents live within a reasonable proximity of one another and when they live a long distance apart. The focus in this article is on young children, and particularly those under the age of 4. Overall, the available research does not support the view that overnight stays for very young children are per se problematic, but highlights the importance of considering the overall context of the particular family circumstances in individual cases. The level of parental conflict, the mother’s willingness to facilitate contact with the father, and the consistency of the care arrangement are particularly important factors.

Developmental considerations

When parents separate, the overwhelming majority of infants and young children in Australia, as in most Western countries, live with their mother, [4]  reflecting the typically greater caring roles of mothers for young children in most intact families.[5] This means that separated fathers of infants and young children are generally non-resident parents who need to set up or maintain a pattern of parenting with their young children that allows them to sustain a meaningful relationship with them. [6]

Whether the parenting arrangements post-separation are determined by parents or by other formal processes, including the courts, it is important that those making those decisions understand the particular considerations in relation to infants and young children that need to be taken into account, based on developmental theory and research. These considerations are children’s developing attachments, their limited sense of time, and their increasing capacity to tolerate separations as they get older.
As with older children, the quality and responsiveness of parenting are vital to young children’s development and their adjustment to changing circumstances. For infants, who are totally reliant on the care and protection provided by their parents and caregivers, these relationships are critical; their reactions and nascent interpretation of the world are mediated by these relationships and there is increasing evidence that ‘even the development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships’. [7]
The primary tasks for infants and young children are to develop trust and attachments to their parents and caregivers who provide them with a secure base, allow them to explore the world and help to interpret it with them.
Infants and toddlers rely on predictable routines and consistent contact with their parents and caregivers to develop these attachments and to build an ‘internal working model’ of how the world works — in particular how others can be expected to respond and what level of control they themselves can exercise in eliciting a sensitive and caring response. These are the building blocks of young children’s development and the key to infants and toddlers learning to understand their emotions and regulate their behaviours.
Infants and young children are not restricted to one primary attachment but are quite capable from the age of about 6 months of developing and consolidating attachments of different qualities with both parents and with the carers or grandparents who care for them in day care arrangements. [8]

While infants and children generally prefer the parent who provides most of their care and seek them out for comfort when distressed, these preferences may change and tend to ‘diminish with age and often disappear by 18 months of age’. [9]  Of course, there are individual differences between children particularly in temperament and wariness and in their reaction to change.
Several other quite obvious aspects of young children’s development are crucial considerations in planning their parenting arrangements; these are their limited capacity to understand what is happening and their sense of time. Until the age of about 8 months, when they develop separation anxiety, infants do not have the capacity to hold in mind people or objects that are not present.
After that, young children continue to live very much in the present, but as Lamb and Kelly outline, at the age of 2–3 years, children’s increasing cognitive skills and language allow them to tolerate ‘somewhat longer separations from their parents without undue stress’. However, ‘their very primitive sense of time prevents them from conceptualizing much beyond today and tomorrow, inhibiting their ability to understand and cope with lengthy separations of several weeks or months’. [10] As McIntosh et al point out, children aged 2–3 years ‘remain highly vulnerable to disruption in continuity’ as these ‘growing capacities in turn make the reality of separation from a parent and understanding of the length of this separation more acute, all at a time when consolidation of the primary attachment relationship is still underway’. [11]

The importance of understanding the research

The main principles derived from developmental theory and research indicate that responsive and sensitive care, consistency, continuity and predictability are all important ingredients in infants’ and young children’s development. So how does this play out in the research findings concerning the impact of various arrangements on infants and young children after parental separation ?
What does the research tell us about how these principles derived from the social science evidence can be applied in circumstances that are not optimal following parental separation? In particular, this includes cases where there are significant logistical challenges to frequent contact, where one parent’s capacity to parent is impaired, or where there is high conflict and little or no parental cooperation.

Three questions are addressed: First, at what age and in what circumstances, is it appropriate for infants and very young children to stay overnight with the non-resident parent? Second, to what extent is it appropriate to make arrangements for substantially shared care between parents of young children ?
Third, what orders should be made if the parents of a young child live a long distance apart or the child’s primary carer wants to move a long way from the other parent ?

The debate about overnight stays

While there is a very substantial body of research over the last four to five decades concerned with the effects of parental separation and post-separation arrangements on children, adolescents, and young adults, there is very little empirical research that is specifically concerned with infants and young children. [12]

A meta-analysis by Whiteside and Becker, published in 2000, was based on only 12 articles that met their criteria for inclusion. [13]  That study and an earlier review by Whiteside [14] found that, as with older age-groups of children, the quality of the father-child relationship was associated with the level of cooperation between the parents, the frequency of the father’s contact with the children, and the level of the father’s involvement with them before the separation. In turn, children who had frequent contact and positive  relationships with their father had fewer internalising symptoms and behaviours (withdrawn, anxious, or depressed). Whiteside and Becker
concluded that:

  • “simply having possession of the child during part of the month is neither positive nor
    negative in its own right. Rather, what transpires between the father and the child
    during that time can influence the child’s adjustment.” [15]

Since Whiteside’s review, there has been a handful of important studies, involving infants and young children and focusing on the structure of the care arrangements. There has also been a vigorous debate between respected researchers and clinicians about the value or harmfulness of infants staying overnight with their father. [16]
The debate about overnight stays was very much focused on children’s attachment relationships. While attachment theory is commonly used to underpin policy and practice in this area, its use and interpretation are contentious. The contentious aspects include the singular focus on maternal attachment by some of the earlier psychoanalytic theorists, the reliance on the ‘strange situation’ as a means of assessing attachment, the need for proper validation of the measures used in attachment research, and the difficulties of making longer term predictions about children’s adjustment on the basis of these assessments. [17]
Kelly and Lamb [18] initiated the debate by being critical of the ‘unnecessarily restrictive’ ‘traditional’ guidelines favouring mother-child attachment at the expense of father-child attachment and relationships, based on the views of early and contemporary psychoanalytic theorists. [19] They argued that these views are out of step with the research that highlights the importance of fathers in children’s healthy development and wellbeing. [20]  Their view is that infants develop multiple,  hierarchical attachments and that those attachments, crucial to children’s social and emotional development, are based on regular and frequent interactions with their parents in a variety of contexts. [21]  They argued that this should include overnight stays with routine care-giving and  bedtime rituals, but, because young children’s sense of time and capacity to tolerate long separations are limited, there should be more transitions between the parents to ensure the continuity of both relationships. Other researchers have been more cautious about overnight stays with non-resident parents.

The research base

The level of disagreement between clinicians and researchers may leave judges and lawyers somewhat confused about the application of the available research evidence to decisions concerning young children. [22] The research therefore rewards close analysis. The first of these studies was by Solomon and George.

Solomon and George

The baseline [23] and follow-up [24] study (in California) by Solomon and George assessed the attachment of 145 infants, aged 12–20 months, to their mother and father. There were three groups of families: 52 children in intact two-parent families (group 1), and two groups of separated families where the father had contact with the child on a regular basis either with overnight stays at least 1 per month (group 2: ‘overnight’ group, n = 44 children) or without staying overnight (group 3: ‘no overnight’ group, n = 49 children). The follow-up study was conducted 12 months later.

In the first study, more infants in the intact families were found to have organised attachments than in either of the two groups of separated families. This is consistent with attachment theory and with other research findings indicating that disruptive events such as parental separation can have a negative impact on infants’ attachments with their parents. The main concern, however, is with the higher than expected proportion of children with disorganised attachments in the overnight group (66%), compared with those in separated families without overnight stays (43%) and those in intact families (35%). Disorganised attachment reflects the child’s confusion when their parent is both a source of comfort and fear. Lee, Kaufman and George define it as the result of ‘persistent patterns of miscuing, insensitivity, and failed responsivity that disrupt, interfere with, and threaten a child’s sense of his or her parent as being the stronger and wiser protective figure in the attachment-caregiving relationship’. [25]  The concern about disorganised attachments is because they are seen to be an indicator of significant disturbances associated with unresponsive, abusive or neglectful parenting and later adverse social and emotional developmental outcomes. [26]

The disproportionately high number of disorganised attachments in the overnight group did not support a ‘simple separation hypothesis’ but ‘a morecontext-sensitive view, in which separation effects are moderated by the conditions of separation and reunion’. [27]  Higher levels of conflict and low levels of communication in the overnight group were associated with more disorganised attachments. Solomon and George concluded that overnight contact was ‘not inevitably associated’ with serious disruptions in the mother-infant attachment (disorganised attachment) but occurred when there was conflict between the parents, poor communication, and the mother was not sensitive to the child’s distress on separation and reunion. Mothers who reported that they adapted the arrangements to the child’s needs and were responsive to their distress on separation and reunion were more likely to have children with secure attachments in both the overnight and no overnight groups. The extent to which mothers communicated with the father about the child was also strongly associated with the security of the child’s attachment to the father in all three groups of families, indicating that fathers may be‘dependent on approval from and communication with the mother to establish a relationship with the child in the early years’.[28]

In the follow-up study conducted 12 months later, families who had had overnight stays at the time of the earlier study (group 2) were compared with a combined comparison group that included those who had had no overnight stays (group 3) and those who were married and living together (group 1). The earlier attachment classification was used to predict mothers’ and children’sbehaviour in several problem-solving and cleanup tasks.[29]  Solomon and George were cautious in their interpretation of children’s attachment behaviours in the context of separation and divorce, and again interpreted their results in terms of the conditions surrounding the overnight arrangements – the level of conflict, the mother’s communication with the father about the child, and the mother’s sensitivity at separation, reunion and in adapting the schedule to the child’s needs. They tentatively concluded that ‘overnight visitation schedules can disorganize the child’s attachment strategies but that such disorganization does not necessarily pervade or reflect the overall quality of the mother-child relationship’. [30]  Solomon later concluded that ‘the prevalence of disorganized attachment relationships in the overnight group is a reaction to’ mothers being unresponsive to the child’s needs as a result of feeling helpless, either because of the realities of her circumstances or because of her perceptions of the father’s behaviour. [31]

Limitations of the study

The prominence of this study in the ‘big debate’ about overnight stays, [32] means that it is important to critically evaluate the study and its limitations.
Lamb and Kelly [33] were critical of basing any recommendations to the courts or to mediators on the Solomon and George study, [34] pointing to the fact:

  • that many of the infants in the divorce/separated group had never lived with their
    two parents, there was no evidence that they had formed attachments to their fathers
    before overnight visits commenced, and an unusually high number of infants had
    disorganized attachments to their mothers. . . . Furthermore, even when there were
    overnight visits, some of the infants ‘experienced repeated and sometimes prolonged
    separations from their fathers’.

In addition to the issues highlighted by Lamb and Kelly, several other sample-related or methodological issues limit or qualify the conclusions that can be drawn from this study and the follow-up. First, all the measures in relation to visitation or contact, conflict, communication between the parents, and the mother’s psychological protection of the child were based on the mother’s report only, and there is good reason for concern about the validity of measures and accounts of family life that are based on only one
‘informant’. [35]
Second, there were significant differences between the two groups of separated/divorced families that need to be taken into account in interpreting the findings. [36] Infants in the ‘no overnight’ group, for example, were more likely to have weekly access to their fathers than those in the ‘overnight’ group, although the total time was less. Some children had repeated and prolonged separations from their fathers and so effectively the fathers had become strangers to their young children. Attachment and other developmental theory would predict that the regularity and frequency of the schedule is as important, or even more important, than the total time together. [37] There were also significant differences between the ‘overnight’ and ‘no overnight’ groups in relation to conflict and hostility, with more restraining orders against mothers and more formal mediation or intervention in the families where children stayed overnight with their fathers compared with those who did not.
Since disorganised attachment was associated with poor cooperation and communication, and with conflict between the parents, the higher levels of conflict and hostility between the parents in the overnight stays group is clearly a confounding factor. Further, those in the ‘overnight’ group were more likely to have joint physical and legal custody than those in the ‘no overnight’ group, despite the higher levels of conflict and hostility. This is significant in the light of other research which has shown that children’s attachments
become less secure in high conflict divorces, and that higher levels of contact where there is serious and persistent conflict between parents have a negative effect on children’s adjustment and attachment to both their mother and father. [38]
Third, the analyses do not indicate how many children had disorganised attachments with both their mother and father, and in what way, if at all, this was associated with the relationship between the parents and overnight stays. Nor do the analyses in the follow-up study differentiate between families in which children were having overnight stays with their fathers both at baseline and in the follow-up study.
These aspects clearly limit the interpretation of the findings. Solomon and George acknowledged that ‘the interpretation of our findings is obviously problematic’, [39] and their conclusions were quite rightly cautious – more cautious than those of others who have cited them.

Kline Pruett, Ebling and Insabella

The study by Kline Pruett, Ebling and Insabella [40] and the follow-up by Kline Pruett, [41]  are important for several reasons. Kline et al examined several aspects of the parenting plan (overnight stays, their timing, the consistency of the schedule, and the number of caregivers for the child, including grandparents and child care). The study involved 161 families with children six and under, filing for divorce in Connecticut; 132 families were involved in the follow-up study 15–18 months later. They used various measures of children’s behaviour and adjustment, [42] based on both mothers’ and fathers’ reports, [43]  rather than relying on mothers’ reports and on measures of
attachment alone. Attachment is an important aspect of parent-child relationships, but as Kline Pruett and her colleagues argue:

  • Attachment tells only a small frame of the entire story of a young child’s life;
    attachment categorizations may change over time. . . . Behavior and psychological
    symptoms represent other important indices in child adaptation that have not yet
    been empirically examined in relation to overnights. [44]

Consistent with other research, Kline Pruett and her colleagues found that the quality of the parent-child relationship reported by both mothers and fathers [45] was the best predictor of children’s adjustment. Conflict between the parents was also important, but importantly the consistency of the schedule and the number of other caregivers were still significant after taking account of inter-parental conflict and the quality of the parent-child relationship.
According to both mothers and fathers, children aged four and older who had a consistent schedule and overnight stays with their fathers had fewer behavioural and social problems than children who did not. [46]  Boys and girls also differed in their responses with boys finding inconsistent schedules more difficult; girls were more likely to benefit from overnight stays. Older children (4–6 year olds) showed positive benefits from overnight stays and there were no significant differences for 2–3 year olds in the follow-up study, except that fathers reported children as more anxious and depressed when they had mid-week overnight stays. Kline Pruett and her colleagues observed that:

  • overnights play an important role in child adjustment in some limited respects and
    by illuminating a larger picture that indicates it is not overnights in and of
    themselves that are most important. Our findings underscore the importance of
    taking into account the circumstances that surround the arrangements and basic
    characteristics of the individual child. As other researchers have concurred. . . the
    context surrounding the parenting plan is critical to the way in which it is
    experienced by the child. [47]

Overnights do matter but what matters more to these children is the context and whether they occur on a regular, unchanging schedule. [48] Kline Pruett and her colleagues concluded:

  • Parents and judges also will want to consider whether the schedule can remain
    consistent across weeks and months, and not be subject to change in accord with
    parental work schedules or other adult needs. Both parents reported identical links
    between inconsistent schedules and internalizing problems and social problems,
    suggesting that such inconsistencies took their toll socially and emotionally on
    children. Alternatively, parents who cannot or choose not to maintain consistent
    schedules may have a more difficult time supporting their children’s social and
    emotional development in other ways as well. These findings underscore the
    importance of parenting plan schedules for young children, but also turn us away
    from the overnights debate toward a fuller evaluation of the broader context of the
    plan. [49]

McIntosh, Smyth and Kelaher

The study by McIntosh, Smyth and Kelaher is important for several reasons. It is the first large-scale Australian study in this area and uses data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to explore the relationship between frequent overnight stays with the non-resident parent, and the psycho-emotional development of young children. [50] It also includes measures of children’s behaviours that go beyond attachment. LSAC does not have data on attachment, but other measures of the child’s emotional and behavioural regulation, including irritability and children’s visual monitoring [51] of their
parent were analysed, as well as several measures of children’s health. All the data were obtained from the parent with whom the child was living most of the time — mostly mothers. Three age groups were analysed: a cohort of infants under 2, the same children as 2–3 year olds, and a group of 4–5 year olds that included this same cohort several years later.
In the under 2 age group, the researchers compared children’s perceived outcomes under four conditions: first, in intact families; second, where the  child rarely if ever, stayed overnight with the other parent but had daytime contact (the ‘rare overnights group’); third, where the child stayed overnight with the other parent 1–3 nights per month, but less than once per week (the primary care group); and finally, a group which they classified as ‘shared care’ involving one or more overnights with the other parent per week. Eleven of
the 55 infants in the ‘shared care’ group were with each parent for 5 or more nights per fortnight. [52]  By far the largest group (n = 396) was the rare overnights group, comprising nearly two-thirds (66%) of children whose parents were living apart. [53]
Infants staying with the other parent (mostly fathers) one or more nights per week were judged by their parent (mother) to be more irritable than those in the primary care group once qualities of the parenting relationship and of the relationship between the parents were taken into account. The infants in the intact families appear, however, to have been judged by their mothers to be about as irritable as those in the overnight contact group. [54]  The findings concerning the extent to which infants monitored their proximity to their mother appear to be quite weak since any differences between children with overnight stays and those in primary care ‘disappeared’ when parenting characteristics were taken into account. [55]
The findings in relation to the 2–3 year olds were somewhat clearer. For 2–3 year olds, ‘shared care’ was defined as at least 5 nights per fortnight with each parent. The 23 children in this group showed lower levels of persistence than the 179 children in the primary care or the 284 children in the rare overnight groups. [56] Their mothers also reported more problematic behaviours reflecting distress compared with those in the primary care group. These were behaviours such as ‘crying or hanging on to the parent when he/she tries to leave; worrying a lot or seeming very serious; not reacting when hurt; often becoming very upset; gagging or choking on food; refusing to eat; and hitting,
biting, or kicking the parent’. [57] In comparison with those children who stayed overnight with the non-resident parent for between 1 night per month and 4 nights per fortnight (itself a broad range), this group of children had lower levels of persistence and more behavioural problems.
The same ‘care arrangement’ categories were used for the 4–5 year olds as for the 2–3 year olds. For this older age group, however, there were no differences in health, emotional regulation or behavioural outcomes associated with any particular care arrangement. Other factors, and in particular, lack of parental warmth and parental disagreement, explained the differences between the groups for these older children.

Limitations of the study

Again the limitations of the study need to be examined. The main limitation concerns the exclusion of a potentially important factor — whether they had ever lived together. Not only is this likely to be important, there was also substantial variation among the groups in all three age groups. [58] For the under 2s, those whose parents had never lived together comprised 58% of the rare overnights group, 28% of the primary care group and 27% of the group of infants who stayed overnight with the other parent 1 night per week or more. [59]
For the 2–3 year-olds, 38% of the rare overnights group, 15% of the primary care group and 13% of the shared care group had never lived together. For the 4–5 year old group, the figures were respectively, 40%, 16% and 5%. Analysis of this variable is important for the debate about overnight stays, since, as Kline Pruett et al found, there is a considerable difference of context between overnight stays which maintain some degree of continuity for infants and young children following parental separation, and commencing overnight
stays with a parent where there has been no prior history of that parent living with the child. The failure to take this difference into account was also one of the criticisms of the Solomon and George study.
There were also quite small numbers in the primary care group of infants (n = 17) and in the shared care group of 2–3 year olds (n = 23). In addition, while significant, the models are not strong. [60] A combination of these issues means that the conclusions that can be drawn are limited. For the infants, given the variability of outcomes between the four groups on the various measures, the small sample size in the primary care group, and the fact that the previous cohabiting status of the parents and the consistency and schedule of
contact were not factored into the modelling, the findings in relation to overnight stays for children under 2 are equivocal. Infants in the primary care group, in any event, stayed overnight 1–3 times per month with the non-resident parent. The study therefore provides little reliable evidence that overnight stays with the non-resident parent for children under 2 are contra-indicated. [61]
Finally, these analyses do not examine the continuity of the care  arrangements for the infant cohort whose subsequent data, as 2–3 year olds and 4–5 year olds, were used in the analyses for these two older age-groups.
It is possible, for example, that the very high level of disagreement between parents of 2–3 year olds in shared care [62] may be a result of these arrangements beginning or increasing at this age. Althenhofen et al (2010) found, for example, that the average age for young children starting overnight stays with their father following parental separation was about 2.5 years of age. [63]
It is also likely that the high level of disagreement between parents in this group in turn affects the behaviour of the children. Clearly, longitudinal analyses are needed to help interpret these interactions.

Summary of research findings

In summary, there is some evidence for an adverse effect of care arrangements that take infants and 2–3 year olds away from their primary carer overnight.
There is also some evidence for an adverse impact of shared care arrangements for children under 4. McIntosh et al’s study in particular highlights the risks associated with shared care arrangements involving 5 or more nights per fortnight with each parent for 2–3 year old children; in this case, nearly all the mothers indicated disagreement with the other parent. For 4–6 year olds, the empirical evidence to date is quite different, and this fits with the developmental principles outlined earlier. McIntosh et al found no evidence of any independent effect of the care arrangements for children aged 4–5, including shared care; Kline Pruett et al found that overnights with their father had positive benefits for 4–6 year olds.
The main finding, however, is that the overall context is crucial. Like the findings of a large body of studies involving older children and adolescents, the context includes the degree of warmth and responsiveness of parents (especially mothers), and the level of  communication and cooperation, and hostility between the parents. In addition, as predicted by developmental theory, Kline Pruett et al’s studies also point to the importance of the continuity and consistency of the care arrangements and the number of other caregivers children have.
The broader context of these findings lies in the assumptions or models that underpin these analyses and interpretations and which are reflected in the views of those deciding on the care arrangement. There appear to be three models. The first assumes that very young children need a secure and stable attachment to their primary caregiver, assumed to be their mother; in this zero sum model, any time away from the mother is seen as a deficit or a risk to this attachment. Much of this research is based on data from mothers only. The
second focuses on the importance of the father, and the value-add of this relationship, challenging concerns about separations from the child’s mother only, and not from the father. The third takes a family system approach and focuses on the child’s behaviours and relationship with their mother, father and other caregivers, based on data from both mothers and fathers.

Much research is based on the first or second competing models — Solomon and George, and McIntosh et al are good examples of the first model. Lamb’s work might be seen as an example of the second, but Kelly and Lamb have focused on contexts involving ‘established attachments to two involved parents prior to separation/divorce’. [64]  Kline Pruett’s work reflects an application of the third model, including responses from both mothers and fathers, as well as the consistency of the schedule, and the number of caregivers in the child’s life.

Implications for parenting arrangements for young children

Given these findings and the guidance from developmental theory and
research, the optimal circumstances for young children following parental
separation are:

• that both parents have a secure and warm relationship with the child before separation;
• that the mother is supportive of the father-child relationship; for the mother, that means giving her emotional permission for the child to be with the father, and expressing positive feelings and reassurance on handover and reunion; [65]
• that the routine is consistent and predictable, and does not separate the child from either parent for more than a few days at a time;
• that any conflict between the parents does not occur in front of the child and does not result in negative feelings about the other parent being conveyed to the child, and
• most importantly, that both parents communicate and monitor the child’s tolerance for the separations; where the father is the
secondary carer, any increasing contact should be gradual with
continuing sensitivity to the child’s behaviours and reactions.

In addition, it is important that both parents are sensitive to the child’s
distress at transitions. Some distress is to be expected, and will vary in terms
of children’s temperament and context; it needs to be managed with sensitivity
by both parents rather than interpreted as a licence to reduce contact. [66] As
Dolby outlines:

  • If the parent is emotionally available to the child at separation and at reunion then
    this positive support can mitigate infant distress and protect attachment security; on
    the other hand, if the transitions are handled in a negative way, then this can cause
    more stress. [67]

And further:

  • It is the ability to repair a disruption that is the essence of a secure attachment, not
    the lack of disruptions. [68] . . . The experience of having a person who ‘walks them
    through’, who assists them back to a calm state when things go wrong, enables
    children to build up a sense of trust in their parent’s availability and ability to help
    them. Over time they internalise the help they have received from their parents
    enough to be able to draw on it on their own. This is how children learn to manage
    their feelings: resolving distress in the context of a safe relationship enables them to
    learn to cope with strong feelings like fear for themselves.

It is important also to put the issue of separations and transitions into perspective. Many mothers of very young children return to work after a period of maternity leave. When mothers work, infants and very young children are left for substantial periods during the day with grandparents, other family members or friends, or in child care centres. Young children seem to manage these quite lengthy daytime separations from the primary caregiver without harm to children’s attachments to their parents, but again the context
and the individual differences between children are important. [69]
Charting the right course Professionals involved in the family law system rarely work with parents where there are optimal circumstances. How then can this body of research be applied in circumstances that are rather less than optimal ? The arrangements that will be appropriate in each case will depend on charting an appropriate course, navigating by the star of what is optimal, taking account of what is practicable, and avoiding, as far as possible, the rocks that might lead to shipwreck.

What is practicable may well fall far short of what is optimal. Even if the relational conditions for successful co-parenting or parallel arrangements are there, the logistical issues may constrain what is practicable. Work schedules, commuting time, the distance between homes, or between home and the father’s work, breastfeeding, and an infant’s sleeping patterns may all constrain the options available.

Travel and distance
Issues concerning travel can be problematic both in Australia’s highly urbanised  environment and in rural areas. For example, contact from 4–7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays may be practicable if the father has a flexible work schedule and can travel without difficulty to visit or collect his child.
However, many full-time employees do not have such flexible schedules, and may commute long distances to and from work.
There are also practical issues about what to do in those 3 hours. Options may be limited in the vicinity where the mother lives, especially if is cold or raining. Taking the child home for a home-cooked meal and a relaxed play environment may not be a problem if the parents live 1 or 2 kilometres apart, but in a large and congested city such as Sydney or Melbourne, even a 15 kilometre journey may be a time-consuming ordeal with young children.
It is not at all uncommon for separated parents to live some distance apart. Separation typically has centrifugal effects on parents, both for financial reasons and as a result of re-partnering. [70] Financial difficulties are particularly common for parents of young children, who are likely to be quite young themselves, and to have had fewer years to accumulate property than parents who are older. [71] The difficulties of travel and distance may therefore make frequent contact very difficult.

Confounding factors
There are also other factors that may make it difficult for parents to agree, and
for mediators and lawyers to get agreement to plans that are appropriate for
young children. One issue concerns the views that parents may have about the
appropriateness of shared care arrangements for young children. Where a
father considers that an equal time arrangement will be appropriate for a child
under 3, it may be very difficult for him to accept a parenting plan that does
not offer him anything like that amount of time.
On the other hand, mothers of infants and young children are primed to be
alert to any risks to their child, and mothers’ concern about the safety of their
child in the care of the other parent is one of the main predictors of
disagreement between the parents and dissatisfaction with the parenting
arrangements. [72]
Child support is another confounding factor. If the father has the child
overnight for at least 1 night per week, then he will pay a lower level of child
support than if the child does not stay overnight. [73] This can create an incentive
for a father to seek overnight stays when this may not be in the best interests
of an infant child.

Avoiding the rocks
There may also be a number of other issues that need to be considered in avoiding risks to the safety and emotional wellbeing of young children.
Parents who have an impaired capacity to parent due to mental illness (including chronic depression), alcohol or drug addiction, [74] or a chaotic and dysfunctional lifestyle, present different issues for the courts from those who are able to provide ‘good enough’ parenting, or better. While parenting capacity is important for older children too, it is critical for infants and young children who are so reliant on adequate, and appropriately responsive and sensitive parenting. When the mother’s capacity is impaired, consideration may have to be given to whether the father is better able to provide a safe and nurturing environment as primary caregiver. If the mother remains the primary caregiver, the father may be able to provide a protective role by having a substantial role in caring for the child.
In many cases where one or both parents has an impaired parenting capacity, the kinds of parenting plans that may be desirable where parents are able to provide ‘good enough’ parenting may not be appropriate, and a court must evaluate a range of alternatives to find the best possible arrangement given the strengths, difficulties, and limitations of each of the parents, and with a particular focus on the child’s safety and well-being.
Being realistic about the destination While mediators and lawyers negotiating suitable parenting arrangements between ‘good enough’ parents may have a range of available options that could assist the child in developing a meaningful relationship with both parents, courts often have to focus on what is practicable and what will minimise risk in the circumstances.
One of the difficult issues to confront, in this context, is whether it is realistic to think that the parents can form a co-parenting or parallel parenting relationship for the long-term which will be of benefit to the child.
Section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975 (ie Australia) requires courts to consider the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both parents. However, the law does not assume that benefit. [75] As Bennett J observed in C v G, [76]  ‘the court must evaluate the nature and quality of the relationship to establish whether there is any “benefit to the child” in having or continuing a relationship and whether such relationship is or will be “meaningful” in the relevant sense’.
In addressing these questions, there is a difference between continuing a meaningful relationship and developing one which does not yet exist, in circumstances where there is likely to be significant ongoing conflict between the parents. [77] It is a principle of the Family Law Act, subject to a child’s best interests, that ‘children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents, regardless of whether their parents are married, separated, have never married or have never lived together’. [78] However, when the parents have never lived together or separated before the child was born, the question that arises for the court is likely to be about the options available for the father to develop a relationship with the child, in circumstances where the parents have never shared the parental role, and are in conflict.
If the parents have never lived together and shared life as a family, it may be harder for the parents to cooperate in an aspect of family responsibilities than if they have at one stage made a commitment together to a shared life.
The sociological evidence is that, in the long-term, the father-child relationship tends to be much more fragile and tenuous than if the parents had been married. [79]
For these reasons, in situations where there are significant practical problems, or substantial risks to a young child’s wellbeing, given the circumstances of each parent, and the relationship between them, it is important to be realistic about the purposes for which parenting orders are to be made. It may be too much to expect that a successful co-parenting relationship can be established when the foundations for such co-operation
have not previously existed, where the father does not take easily to the parenting role, and where the mother is anxious or resistant to the child’s contact with the father. In particular, the foundations may be laid for long-term conflict and difficulty if the mother is concerned about the child’s safety with the other parent. [80] Where the children are very young, mothers’ concerns about their children’s safety and well-being and the level of disagreement about child-rearing practices are likely to be exacerbated. [81]

Relocation cases
The need to be realistic about the destination is particularly important when there is a relocation dispute involving a young child. [82] Given the young child’s sense of time, and the limitations of even telephone and webcam communication with very young children, relocation of a young child to a distant location is likely to make it very difficult indeed for the child to maintain a meaningful relationship with the non-resident parent. If the
non-resident parent can move as well, that difficulty can be resolved. [83] In other cases, the question has to be asked whether the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both parents, given the parenting capacity of the father and the level of acrimony between the parents, is sufficient to outweigh the mother’s case for relocation. [84] It is unrealistic and unfair on the child to think that a meaningful relationship with a young child can be maintained by making orders for extensive contact that involves
frequent travel for the child across long distances. The costs of travel, and the burden of travel for young children, must be realistically assessed. [85]

Shared care and young children
In the absence of risk factors, young children are likely to benefit very much from the meaningful involvement of both parents in their lives. Is shared care — defined as 5 nights per fortnight or more with each parent – ever appropriate for young children ?
Apparently, many in the population think so. The Australian Institute of Family Studies’ research indicated that 32% of fathers and 23% of mothers in the general population thought an equal time arrangement for a child under three was ‘totally appropriate’, while only 6.5% of fathers and 11% of mothers thought it was totally inappropriate. [86]  Two per cent of children under 3, whose parents were living apart, were in equal time  arrangements in 2008, but 7.9% in 2009. The corresponding figure for 3–4 year olds was 9% in 2008 and 16.8% in 2009. [87] There may of course be a variety of different equal time arrangements, alternating days, four-three divisions of the week, or week-about arrangements. It is possible that some people may think of an arrangement for frequent day-time contact by a father as being an equal time arrangement.
While it may assist a young child to maintain attachments with both parents by seeing the non-resident parent frequently, young children also need stability, continuity and security with a primary attachment figure. There is no support in the social science literature for parenting arrangements for children under four that involve alternating substantial blocks of time.

The McIntosh et al findings indicate that 2–3 year old children with conflicted parents fare less well when each parent has the care of the child overnight for at least 5 nights per fortnight. While otherwise there is no direct evidence that alternating substantial blocks of time is harmful, the preponderance of expert opinion, based upon what is known about young children’s attachments and sense of time, is that a primary residence with one parent, regular contact with the other parent, and limited periods of separation from both parents are best for young children, and especially those under 4. McIntosh et al also note the ‘higher risks’ associated with families involved in litigation. They observe:

  • In court samples, parents frequently lack the equipment needed for an effective
    shared care arrangement, for example, adequate co-parenting communication,
    conflict management skills, and pragmatic infra-structure. . . ‘shared care’ infants in
    higher risk divorce populations thus may accrue both normative risk through their
    sheer developmental vulnerability, and additional risk through the domino impacts
    of parental conflict, and pre-occupied or otherwise compromised parenting. [88]

There is nothing within the Family Law Act to suggest that a week-about arrangement ought to be seriously contemplated with a young child. When there is, or will be, an order for equal shared parental responsibility, courts must consider the options of an equal time arrangement or an arrangement for ‘substantial and significant’ time. [89] These requirements are not limited to children of school age and above. However, in determining what is reasonably practicable, the court should consider, inter alia, the impact that an
arrangement of that kind would have on the child. [90] Section 60CC(3)(d) refers to the likely effect on the child of any separation from either of his or her parents. These considerations would justify a court rejecting proposals for week-about arrangements involving children who are not yet in school, and to be very cautious about any other arrangements that appear to be driven by an aim to split time approximately equally rather than to meet the child’s developmental need for secure attachments, a stable environment, and a consistent schedule.


Post-separation parenting arrangements for infants and young children are negotiated in a variety of contexts. In many cases, parents have previously lived together and shared the care of the child while their relationship was intact; the child has formed a relationship with both parents in the first months of life or longer, and the challenge is how to maintain and develop that relationship in the often difficult circumstances that exist after separation. In other cases, the parents have broken up during the child’s pregnancy, or never lived together at all. Some children are born to parents who have at one stage made a commitment of marriage, while other children are born to parents who have only had a relatively casual and transient, non-cohabiting relationship.

These different contexts cannot be ignored in working out what is in the best interests of children when parents live apart.
In considering what care arrangements are in the best interests of the child, there are also various risk factors to consider. The level of conflict between the parents, and the extent to which both the mother and father are able to be sensitive to the child’s needs on separation and reunion are both important factors. There may be other risks to the young child’s physical safety or emotional needs arising from impaired parenting capacity, particularly in circumstances where a parent abuses alcohol or drugs, or suffers from mental illness. [91]

The cases that judges typically hear — that is, the cases that cannot be settled—will very often be cases where significant risk factors are present, and where one or both parents has difficulty in understanding and meeting the emotional needs of the very young child.
Furthermore, there are often logistical challenges in working out suitable parenting arrangements. Even when there are no risk factors, the work schedule of the father and the time it takes for him to commute to and from work may make it difficult for him to spend the time with an infant or toddler that would ordinarily be desirable. The straitened financial circumstances of the parents after separation may mean that one or both parents has to move to a lower cost housing area, and this is a major reason why such travel issues
Parents, with the assistance of mediators, family consultants and lawyers, or courts in adjudicated cases, must try to work out what is best for children taking all of these circumstances and issues into account. The social science literature is helpful both in identifying what is likely to be optimal in the circumstances, and in pointing to risk factors. That literature does not support a prohibition on overnight stays for infants and toddlers, but suggests the need for both discernment and caution, particularly in relation to overnight stays of more than 1 night per week for children aged 3 and younger. There is also a major difference between an overnight stay that represents a continuation of pre-separation caring responsibilities, and staying overnight with a biological parent who is, to that child, something of a stranger.
Above all, in this difficult area, there is no room for decision-making that is driven by a concern for parental rights or fairness between the parents. The first 3 years of life are vital to the young child’s cognitive and emotional development. It may often not be possible to devise post-separation parenting arrangements that are optimal for young children, but at least, we should aim as far as possible, to protect vulnerable young children from paying the price for adult notions of justice.


[1] R Kaspiew, M Gray, R Weston, L Moloney, K Hand and L Qu, Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, 2000, pp 24–5. On average, these interviews occurred 15 months after separation: ibid, p 21, n 37.

[2] Ibid, p 25.

[3] Family consultants are social scientists employed in the family courts who engage in non-confidential dispute resolution, and may be required to make a report to the court concerning the issues in a parenting dispute.

[4] J Pryor and B Rodgers, Children in Changing Families: Life after Parental Separation, Blackwell, Melbourne, 2001.

[5] J Baxter and D Smart, Fathering in Australia among Couple Families with Young Children, 2010, at <; (accessed 14 April 2011).

[6] For ease of reference, and given the typically gendered patterns of care with young children, the primary caregiver is assumed to be the mother in this article, and the non-resident parent is assumed to be the father.

[7] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Young children develop in an
environment of relationships, Working Paper No 1, 2004, p 1. Retrieved from
<;; also J R Schore and A N Schore, ‘Modern attachment
theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment’ (2008) 36
Clinical Social Work Jnl 9.

[8] M E Lamb and J B Kelly, ‘Improving the quality of parent-child contact in separating families with infants and young children: Empirical research foundations’ in R M Galatzer-Levy, L Kraus and J Galatzer-Levy (Eds), The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions, 2nd ed,Wiley, Hoboken, NJ, 2009, pp 187–214. On attachment, see also M Main, E Hesse and S Hesse, ‘Attachment Theory and Research: Overview with Suggested Applications to Child Custody’ (2011) 49 Family Court Review 426. This article also reviews some of the relevant research studies on parenting arrangements for young children after separation.

[9] M Lamb, ‘Critical analysis of research on parenting plans and children’s well-being’ in L Drodz and K Kuehnle (Eds), Parenting Plan Evaluations: Applied Research for the Family Court, Oxford University Press, New York, forthcoming.

[10] Lamb and Kelly, above n 8.

[11] J McIntosh, B Smyth and M Kelaher, Parenting Arrangements Post-separation: Relationships between Overnight Care Patterns and Psycho-emotional Development in Infants and Young Children, Report to the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department, Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra, 2010, at (Research on Shared Care Parenting and Family Violence) (accessed 14 April 2011) p 149; J N Hartson, ‘Children with two homes: Creating developmentally appropriate parenting plans for children ages zero to two’ (2010) 23 American Jnl of Family Law 191. 238 (2011) 25 Australian Journal of Family Law.

[12] Only 5% of the effect sizes derived from the 63 studies included in Amato and Gilbreth’s meta-analysis, for example, involved children under 5: see P Amato and J Gilbreth, ‘Non-resident fathers and children’s well-being: A meta-analysis’ (1999) 61 Jnl of Marriage and the Family 557. Moyer commented that ‘Little data are available on the effects of custody arrangements on children of different ages’: S Moyer, Background Paper Child  Custody Arrangements: Their Characteristics and Outcomes, Department of Justice, Canada, 2004.

[13] Whiteside and Becker located 131 English-language articles published between 1970 and 1994 that included information on children who had experienced parental separation by age 5; only 12 of these, however, met their criteria of containing measures relating to either fathers’ contact with children under 6 or the quality of the interaction between parents, and zero order correlations for this age group: M Whiteside and B Becker, ‘Parental factors and the younger child’s post divorce adjustment: A meta-analysis with implications for parenting arrangements’ (2000) 14 Jnl of Family Psychology 5.

[14] M Whiteside, ‘Custody for children age 5 and younger’ (1998) 36 Family and Conciliation Courts Review 479.

[15] Whiteside and Becker, above n 13, p 20.

[16] The articles in this debate were all published in the Family and Conciliation Courts Review (or the Family Court Review, as it was renamed) between 2000 and 2002.

[17] P Ludolph, ‘Answered and unanswered questions in Attachment Theory with implications for children of divorce’ (2009) 6 Jnl of Child Custody 8.

[18] J Kelly and M Lamb, ‘Using child development research to make appropriate custody and access decisions’ (2000) 38 Family and Conciliation Courts Review 297.

[19] J Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 1951; Goldstein, Solnit and Freud proposed that children involved in contested divorces should remain in the care of one primary caretaker, their psychological parent, without overnight stays with their non-resident parent until later toddlerhood, about the age of 3: J Goldstein, A Solnit and A Freud, The Best Interests of the Child: The Least Detrimental Alternative, Free Press, New York, 1996; W Hodges, Interventions for Children of Divorce: Custody, Access, and Psychotherapy, John Wiley, New York, 1991.

[20] See e.g. M Lamb, K Sternberg and R Thompson, ‘The effects of divorce and custody arrangements on children’s behavior, development, and adjustment’ (1997) 35 Family and Conciliation Courts Review 393, and see now, M Lamb (Ed), The Role of the Father in Child Development, 5th ed, Wiley, New York, 2010.

[21] See also R Warshak, ‘Blanket restrictions: Overnight contact between parents and young children’ (2000) 38 Family and Conciliation Courts Review 422. As Dolby points out, ‘attachments grow in the ordinary moments when children and their caregivers have time to240 (2011) 25 Australian Journal of Family Law . . . . concentrate on each other’: R Dolby, ‘Children’s attachments: The importance of relationship repair’, paper presented at Australian Family Court Judges’ Conference, Sydney, 11–12 November 2005.

[22] For an earlier discussion of this evidence, see T Altobelli, ‘Rethinking contact arrangements involving young children’ (2005) 19 AJFL 29.

[23] J Solomon and C George, ‘The development of attachment in separated and divorced families. Effects of overnight visitation, parent and couple variables’ (1999) 1 Attachment and Human Development 2.

[24] J Solomon and C George, ‘The effects on attachment of overnight visitation in divorced and separated families: A longitudinal follow-up’ in J Solomon and C George (Eds), Attachment Disorganization, Guildford Press, New York, 1999, pp 243–64.

[25] S M Lee, R L Kaufman and C George ‘Disorganized attachment in young children: Manifestations, etiology, and implications for child custody’ (2009) 6 Jnl of Child Custody 62 at 64.

[26] D Davies, Child Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, 3rd ed, Guilford Press, New York,2011; M H van Ijzendoorn, C Schuengel and M J Bakermans-Kranenburg, ‘Disorganizedattachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae’(1999) 11 Development and Psychopathology 225.

[27] Solomon and George, above n 23, p 4. For further explanation of the views of Solomon and George on whether infants should go on overnight stays, see their interview with Dr J McIntosh: C George, J Solomon and J McIntosh, ‘Divorce in the Nursery: On Infants and Overnight Care’ (2011) 49 Family Court Review 521.

[28] Ibid, p 26.

[29] Solomon and George, above n 24.

[30] Ibid, pp 260–1.

[31] J Solomon, ‘An attachment theory framework for planning infant and toddler visitation arrangements in never-married, separated, and divorced families’ in L Gunsberg and P Hymowitz (Eds), A Handbook of Divorce and Custody: Forensic, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives, Analytic Press, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 2005.

[32] See above n 16.

[33] M E Lamb and J B Kelly, ‘Using the empirical literature to guide the development of parenting plans for young children’ (2001) 39 Family Court Review 365.

[34] Lamb and Kelly also discounted the findings on the basis of the contextual and other differences between the three groups. ‘They commented that Solomon and George observed no difference between the proportions of secure infant-mother attachments in the groups of infants who did and did not have overnight visits with their fathers’: above n 33, p 368. While they were correct in relation to the overall log linear paired comparison analyses reported on page 14 (p = .10), Solomon and George did comment further that (above n 23, p 15):  “Looking at the adjusted standardized residuals (shown in Table 3) it is clear that the Overnight group was distinguished from the Married and No overnight groups by lower than expected numbers of secure classifications and higher than expected numbers of disorganized classifications.”  The proportion of secure attachments among intact families was also lower than expected at only 37% in this sample compared with about 2 out of 3 in middle class American families generally: see J Kelly and M Lamb, ‘Using child development research to make appropriate custody and access decisions’ (2000) 38 Family and Conciliation Courts Review 297 at 302.

[35] W Cook and M Goldstein, ‘Multiple perspectives on family relationships: A latent variables model’ (1993) 64 Child Development 1377; M Hetherington, ‘Social support and the adjustment of children in divorced and remarried families’ (2003) 10 Childhood 217; J Warin, Y Solomon and C Lewis, ‘Swapping stories: Comparing plots: Triangulating individual narratives within families’ (2007) 10 International Jnl of Social Research Methodology 121.

[36] It should also be noted that since the parents in these groups self-selected into these groups, one of the conditions for causality – initial equivalence, often based on random allocation – was not met.

[37] While Solomon and George indicated that there were no differences in attachment with either parent associated with any ‘particular characteristic of the visitation arrangements themselves, including their number, duration, patterning’ or the age at which they began, they did acknowledge that this may have been a result of the ‘limited variability’ in their sample and the restriction on more complex analyses because of the sample size: see above n 3, p 25.

[38] J McIntosh and R Chisholm, ‘Cautionary notes on the shared care of children in conflicted parental separation’ (2008) 14 Jnl of Family Studies 37; M Hetherington and J Kelly, For Better or for Worse: Divorce reconsidered, Norton, New York, 2002; P Amato and S Rezac, ‘Contact with non-resident parents, inter-parental conflict, and children’s behaviour’ (1994) 15 Jnl of Family Issues 191; M Cox, M Owen, V Henderson and N Margarid, ‘Prediction of infant-father and infant-mother attachment’ (1992) 28 Developmental Psychology 474; J Johnston, M Kline and J Tschann, ‘Ongoing post divorce conflict: Effects on children of joint custody and frequent access’ (1989) 59 American Jnl of Orthopsychiatry 576.

[39] Solomon and George, above n 24, p 260. Solomon and George have since commented on the 244 (2011) 25 Australian Journal of Family Law misuse of their work by other commentators. Prof George said: ‘Our study is used in a variety of different ways, including some ways that I do not agree with, or that the data do not support’ (above n 27 at 521).

[40] M K Pruett, R Ebling and G Insabella, ‘Parenting plans and visitation: Critical aspects of parenting plans for young children interjecting data into the debate about overnights’ (2004) 42 Family Court Review 39.

[41] M K Pruett ‘The Collaborative Divorce Project: Helping parents co-parent when young children are involved’, Paper presented at International Conference on Children and Divorce, Norwich, England, July 2006.

[42] Although young children have limited language until they are 3 or 4 years old, they have a number of ways of signalling their distress. In addition to crying and fretful withdrawal, these include disturbances in sleeping and eating, irritability, and difficult behaviours such as tantrums, clinging, and regression to earlier behaviours such as thumb sucking. S Burke, J McIntosh and H Gridley, Parenting after separation: A literature review, Melbourne, Australian Psychological Society, 2009.

[43] Parents completed the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL).

[44] Kline Pruett et al, above n 40, p 41.

[45] This was measured by ‘Maccoby, Mnookin, and Depner’s (1993) 10-item, 5-point Likert measure of the parent-child relationship. Parents reported on changes in the emotional distance in their relationship with their child, as well as changes in expectations for the child, play time, patience, consistency, and the child’s compliance since parental separation’: Kline Pruett et al, above n 40, p 42.

[46] The relationship between overnights and measures of internalising and externalising behaviours was non-significant for the 0-3 age group. Kline Pruett et al, above n 40, at p 9.

[47] Pruett et al above, n 40, p 53.

[48] Ibid, p 56.

[49] Ibid, p 55.

[50] McIntosh et al, above n 11.

[51] Visual monitoring is a measure of ‘infants’ efforts through gaze and gesture to monitor’ and maintain contact with the attachment figure and an indicator of their anxiety about ‘their caregiver’s emotional or physical availability’: ibid, p 115 (citing Bowlby and Ainsworth).

[52] Ibid, pp 112, 120.

[53] Ibid, p 120.

[54] The graph, ibid, p 133 indicates little difference between the infants in intact families and those in the overnight group but the children in intact families were not included in the regression analyses (p 130).

[55] Although McIntosh et al (see above n 11) claim that ‘Shared care at 1 night per week or more was associated with an added degree of vulnerability relative to primary care’ in relation to ‘greater monitoring of proximity of the primary carer’ (p 144), this does not align with the reporting of the results in the report. See p 133 where this difference was not significant when parenting characteristics and socio-economic status were taken into account. The only difference that was significant was between ‘rare overnights’ and ‘overnights more than once per week’; that difference ‘became significant’ once aspects of the parenting and inter-parental relationships were taken into account.

[56] The researchers reported that this effect was also significant when 2–3 year olds were in the care of the non-resident parent for 1 night per week or more (above n 11, p 136), but no data on this was given. Such a group would comprise a broad range from 1 night per week to 7 nights per fortnight with the father, so caution is needed in relation to any conclusions about the suitability of overnight stays for 1 night per week.

[57] See McIntosh et al, above n 11, p 17. There were no significant differences in parents’ concerns about their infant’s global health, learning, development and emotional functioning.

[58] For the 2–3 year olds, 38% of the rare overnights group, 15% of the primary care group and 13% of the shared care group had never lived together. For the 4–5 year old group, the figures were respectively, 40%, 16% and 5%.

[59] Ibid, p 121.

[60] The models generally explain between 13 and 21% of the variance, leaving a great deal unexplained.

[61] Lamb, above n 9, also concluded that the findings from this study were ‘ambiguous’ for the infants but indicated some possible behavioural problems for 2–3 year olds.

[62] 95% of the 23 parents in this small ‘shared care’ group indicated disagreement with the other parent. The disagreement figures for the ‘shared care’ groups in older and younger children were 56% for the infants under 2, and 61% for 4–5 year olds. None of the parents in the other care arrangements across the three cohorts reported such high frequencies of disagreement with the other parent.

[63] S Altenhofen, K Sutherland, and Z Biringen, ‘Families experiencing divorce: Age at onset of overnight stays, conflict, and emotional availability as predictors of child attachment’ (2010) 51 Jnl of Divorce & Remarriage 141.

[64] Lamb and Kelly, above n 8.

[65] M K Pruett, L Arthur and R Ebling, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle: Maternal gatekeeping after divorce’ (2007) 27 Pace University L Rev 709; L Trinder, ‘Maternal gate closing and gate opening in post divorce families’ (2008) 29 Jnl of Family Issues 1298; Solomon and George above n 23, p 26.

[66] Lamb and Kelly, above n 8.

[67] Dolby, above n 21.

[68] Quoting R Marvin, G Cooper, K Hoffman and B Powell, ‘The Circle of Security Project: Attachment-based intervention with caregiver-young child dyads’ (2002) 4 Attachment & Human Development 107 at 109.

[69] NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, ‘The effects of infant child care on infant-mother attachment security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care’ (1997), 68 Child Development 860; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, ‘Factors associated with fathers’ caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children’ (2000) 14 Jnl of Family Psychology 200; C Howes and S Spieker, ‘Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers’ in J Cassidy and P R Shaver (Eds) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, 2nd ed, Guildford, New York, 2008, pp 317–32.

[70] J Cashmore, P Parkinson, R Weston, R Patulny, G Redmond, L Qu, J Baxter, M Rajkovic, T Sitek and I Katz, Shared Care Parenting Arrangements since the 2006 Family Law Reforms: Report to the Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department, 2010, p 140.

[71] Whiteside, above n 14.

[72] Cashmore et al, above n 70; Kaspiew et al, above n 1.

[73] See generally, P Parkinson, ‘The future of child support’ (2007) 33 UWALR 179.

[74] Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies on parenting after separat7ion found that about half of the mothers and around one-third of the fathers indicated th7at mental health problems, use of alcohol or drugs, gambling or other addictions were apparent prior to separation. Kaspiew et al, above n 1, p 29: parents were ‘not asked which family member exhibited such problems’ given the likely reluctance of parents to acknowledge their own problems.

[75] P Parkinson, ‘Decision-making about the Best Interests of the Child: The impact of the two tiers’ (2006) 20 AJFL 179.

[76 [2006] FamCA 994 at [68].

[77] Lamb and Kelly, above n 8, p 198.

[78] Family Law Act 1975 s 60B(2).

[79] M Maclean and J Eekelaar, The Parental Obligation: A Study of Parenthood across Households, Hart, Oxford, 1997; M Carlson, S McLanahan and J Brooks-Gunn, ‘Co-parenting and non-resident fathers’ involvement with young children after a non-marital birth’ (2008) 45 Demography 461; P Amato, C Meyers and R Emery, ‘Changes in non-resident father-child contact from 1976 to 2002’ (2009) 58 Family Relations 41; L Tach, R Mincy and K Edin, ‘Parenting as a “package deal”: Relationships, fertility, and non-resident father involvement among unmarried parents’ (2010) 47 Demography 181; J Cheadle, P Amato and V King, ‘Patterns of non-resident father contact’ (2010) 47 Demography 205.

[80] J Cashmore and P Parkinson, Understanding Contact Disputes. Report to Federal Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Government, 2010, at < > (accessed 14 April 2011).

[81] Further analysis of the data in the Cashmore et al study (see above n 70) indicates that mothers of children under 5 were significantly more likely than mothers of older children to have concerns about the children’s safety (p = .005), to say that they disagreed with the child’s father about child-rearing matters (p = .032), that the arrangements were working less well for the children (p = .005), and that the children were not happy with the arrangements (p = .014).

[82] See generally, J Kelly and M Lamb, ‘Developmental issues in relocation cases involving young children: When, whether and how?’ (2003) 17 Jnl of Family Psychology 193. Lamb and Kelly note that a range of factors need to be evaluated in determining a relocation case. However, they consider that if a relocation is necessary, it should ideally be postponed until children are 2 or 3 years old in order to allow the relationship with the non-resident parent to be developed to the point that a long-distance relationship can be sustained.

[83] U v U (2002) 211 CLR 238; 191 ALR 289; [2002] HCA 36; BC200205110; M Weiner, ‘Inertia and inequality: Reconceptualizing disputes over parental relocation’ (2007) 40 UC Davis L Rev 1747.

[84] See generally, P Parkinson, Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011, Ch 7.

[85] P Parkinson, J Cashmore and J Single, ‘The need for reality testing in relocation cases’  (2010) 44 Family Law Quarterly 1; P Parkinson, ‘The realities of relocation: Messages from judicial decisions’ (2008) 22 AJFL 35.

[86] Kaspiew et al, above n 1, p 116. See also B Smyth and R Weston, ‘The attitudes of separated mothers and fathers to 50/50 shared care’ (2004) 67 Family Matters 8.

[87] Kaspiew et al, above n 1, p 119; L Qu and R Weston, Parenting Dynamics after Separation: A Follow-up Study of Parents who Separated after the 2006 Family Law Reforms, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, Dec 2010, Table 5.2, p 58.

[88] McIntosh et al, above n 11, pp 156–7.

[89] FLA s 65DAA.

[90] FLA s 65DAA(5)(d).

[91] Kaspiew et al, above n 1; Qu and Weston, above n 87.




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Shared parenting in Sweden and elsewhere

Shared parenting in Sweden and elsewhere –  are kids different ?

By Dr Malin Bergström

elvisAPresentation to the 2nd International Conference on Shared Parenting,     Dec 2015. Organised by International Council  for Shared Parenting, Bonn, Germany

Data from: Centre for Health and Equity Studies (CHESS)

 CHESS is a collaboration between Stockholm University and Karolinska Institutet (for previous publications by Dr Malin Bergström see Appendix 1).

Mental health and well-being in children in shared parenting and other living arrangements

Aim of the Elvis–project

elvis1To study the well-being, mental health and social situation in pre-schoolers, children and adolescents with shared parenting.




Definition of shared parenting and joint physical custody (JPC)

Children live alternatively and approximately equally much in each parent’s home after a separation.

In Sweden the share of residence time with each parent is 50/50.

SP SwedenThe proportion of children living with separated parents as well as being in joint care for; Australia; UK; Norway; Canada; Netherlands; Denmark; and Sweden, are shown above.

Parental leave

  • elvis3Swedish law has been gender neutral since 1974
  • Legal right to stay home until child is aged 18 months old
  • 16 months paid parental leave
  • 8 for one parent, 8 for the other
  • 2-3 months exclusive for each parent
  • Legal right to work part-time until child age 8 years
  • Sick leave until child age 12 years



  • 500,000 (i.e. 25%) of Swedish children have separated parentselvis5
  • 14% of these children are aged 5 years
  • 14% of parents in mediation
  • 2 % custody disputes in court



The majority of children live with both parents (%)


Ref: Bergström M, Modin B, Fransson E, Rajmil L, Berlin M, Gustafsson PA, Hjern A. ‘Living in two homes-a Swedish national survey of wellbeing in 12 and 15 year olds with joint physical custody.’ BMC Public Health. 2013 Sep 22;13:868.


Co-parenting as the norm









Satisfaction in Swedish parents with children aged 0-18 (sample N=1,444).


Child level


elvis15BJablonska B & Lindberg L. ‘Risk behaviours, victimisations and mental distress among adolescents in different family structures. Soc. Psychiatry Pychiartr. Epidemiol. 2007 Aug: 24(8): 656-63. Epub 2007 May 23.
elvis16BNote:  SDQ is theStrengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’ (SDQ) used as a brief behavioural screening questionnaire for children aged between 3-16 year olds. It exists in several versions to meet the needs of researchers, clinicians and educationalists. Each version includes between one and three of the following components. All versions of the SDQ ask about 25 attributes, some positive and others negative.  These 25 items are divided between 5 scales:

Swedish epidemiological studies

Jablonska & Lindberg 2007:

  • More 15 year olds in JPC families have been drunk than in intact families
  • Risk behaviours (smoking, drugs, alcohol, victimisation), same in JPC families and intact families [but more in ‘single parent families’, see below – Ed]
  • More risk behaviours in single parent families

Carlsund et al. 2013:

  • More smoking and drinking in non–intact families
  • Single care but not JPC have higher risks for conduct problems and sexualised behaviour



Children in shared parenting arrangements rate their relationship to parents as about the same as those in nuclear families. Especially the relationships to their fathers are particularly good.


Shared parenting for the youngest – our next step

Preliminary analyses of 2-7 year olds

  • Study population 2,767 Nordic children aged between 2-7 years.elvis19
  • Shared parenting 3.7% sample size n=99 (22 were aged 2-3 years)
  • Single care 6.8%, sample n=187
  • Nuclear family 89.7%, sample n=2,767
  • No statistically significant difference in mean SDQ scores between nuclear and shared.
  • Single care – more problems.





Appendix 1


Previous publications by Dr Malin Bergström:

  1. Bergström, M. (2012). Barn med växelvis boende. I Berlin, M (red) Skolans betydelse för barns och ungas psykiska hälsa – en studie baserad på den nationella totalundersökningen i årskurs 6 och 9 hösten 2009. Socialstyrelsen. (In Swedish)
  2. Bergström, M., B. Modin, E. Fransson, L. Rajmil, M. Berlin, P. A. Gustafsson and A. Hjern (2013). “Living in two homes-a Swedish national survey of wellbeing in 12 and 15 year olds with joint physical custody.” BMC Public Health 13(1): 868.
  3. Bergström, M., E. Fransson, A. Hjern, L. Köhler and Wallby, T. (2014). “Mental health in Swedish children living in joint physical custody and their parents’ life satisfaction: A cross-sectional study.” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 55(5): 433-439.
  4. Låftman, S. B., M. Bergström, B. Modin and V. Östberg (2014). “Joint physical custody, turning to parents for emotional support, and subjective health: A study of adolescents in Stockholm, Sweden.” Scand J Public Health.
  5. Fransson, E., L. Folkesson, M. Bergström, V. Östberg and P. Lindfors (2014). “Exploring salivary cortisol and recurrent pain in mid-adolescents living in two homes.” BMC Psychology 2(46).
  6. Bergström, M., E. Fransson, B. Modin, M. Berlin, P. A. Gustafsson and A. Hjern (2015). “Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children?” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
  7. Fransson, E., Turunen, J. Hjern, A., Östberg, V. and Bergström, M. (2015). “Psychological complaints among children in joint physical custody and other family types: considering parental factors.” Scand J Public Health (e-pub ahead of print).
  8. Fransson, E., Hjern A., Bergström M. (2015). “Barn I växelvis boende-en forskningsöversikt”. CHESS, Stockholms Universitet & Karolinska Institutet. (In Swedish)
  9. Bergström, M., Hjern, A., Fransson, E. (2015). Växelvis boende – ett socialt experiment eller tryggast för barnen? Länsförsäkringsbolagens Forskningsfond. (In Swedish)
  10. Fransson, E., Sarkadi, A., Hjern,, A., Bergström, M.(under review at Journal of child and family studies).“Why should they live more with one of us when they are children to us both?” – Parents’ experiences and practical solutions of equal joint physical custody for children 0-4 years of age.
  11. Fransson, E., Brolin Låftman, S., Bergström, M., Hjern, A., & Östberg, V. (Manuscript). ”Children’s living conditions in joint physical custody – the Swedish example”.
  12. Turunen, J., Bergström, M. & Fransson, E. (Manuscript). “Children’s self-esteem in relation to living arrangements after a parental separation.”
  13. Bergström M, Hjern A, Fransson E. (Manuscript) Children with two families-psychological problems in relation to living arrangements in Nordic 2-7 year olds.
  14. Bergström, M, Sarkadi, A, Hjern, A, Fransson, E. (Manuscript) “We also communicate through a book in the diaper bag”- separated parents´ways of arranging shared parenting for their 0-4 year olds

Ref. source:



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Shared Custody: evidence it benefits most children

Shared Physical Custody: Does It Benefit Most Children ?

By Prof. Linda Nielsen,

 Professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology, Wake Forest University.


I.  Introduction

One of the most complex and controversial issues in family law and custody legislation is: What type of parenting plan is the most beneficial for the majority of children after their parents separate?

More specifically, are the outcomes any better for children who continue to live with each parent at least 35% of the time than for children who live primarily with their mother and spend less than 35% of the time living with their father? In other words, is it in most children’s best interests to live in shared physical custody? More important still, is a shared parenting plan beneficial to children when their parents communicate poorly, have high levels of conflict, or have ended up in court or in prolonged legal negotiations in order to resolve their disagreements over the parenting plan?

Put differently, do parents have to be cooperative and communicative and “voluntarily” both agree to this plan from the outset for shared parenting plans to benefit the children ?

A. Definition of Social Science Terminology

The term “parenting plan” is now often used interchangeably with the term “physical custody.” And the newer term “shared parenting” (sometimes referred to as “shared care”) refers to those families where the children continue to live with each parent at least 35% and typically closer to 50% of the time.

In shared parenting plans, neither parent’s home is considered the “primary” residence nor is neither parent relegated to being the “non-residential” parent. Most parents with shared physical custody agreements also share the legal custody so that neither parent has sole legal decision making responsibility for the children.

In contrast, the traditional “one size fits all” parenting plan where children live primarily or exclusively with only one parent – 90% of the time with their mother – is now referred to as “sole” residence or a “primary care” plans. In these sole residence plans, children typically spend alternate weekends year round and a few weeks during summer vacation with their non-residential parent – amounting to roughly 20% of the parenting time with their father. In the present paper these parenting plans will be referred to as “sole” or as “mother” residence plans.

Since shared legal custody has become the preferred standard in most [US] states’ custody laws, the controversy has largely become focused on how much parenting time the children will be allowed to receive from each parent in the parenting plan.

B. How Popular Is Shared Parenting ?

As fathers have become more heavily involved in the daily activities and the physical care of their children, and as more mothers have resumed working full time in the children’s pre-school years, shared parenting after the parents separate has become more common worldwide. For example, in Wisconsin one third of the parents who divorced in 2007 had a 50-50 shared parenting plan and one-fourth had a 25% time share. 1

It is especially noteworthy that in these families there were nearly as many infants and toddlers (42%) as there were six to ten year olds (46%) in shared parenting. 2 Moreover, after custody laws were revised to be more favorable to shared parenting, the number of parents who both hired lawyers to settle their custody disputes decreased from 53% to 40%. 3

Likewise, in 2008 in Washington State among 4,354 parenting plans, almost half of the children were living at least 35% with each parent. 4 In Arizona nearly 30% of the parents who separated in 2008 had a shared parenting plan, compared to only 15% in 2002. 5 In contrast, in Nebraska in a random sample of 392 custody cases state-wide from 2002 – 2012, only 12% had shared physical custody. 6


  1. 1 Maria Cancian et al., Who Gets Custody Now? Dramatic Changes in Children’s Living Arrangements After Divorce, 51 DEMOGRAPHY 1381 (2014).
  2. 2 Id.
  3. 3 Id.
  4. 4 Thomas George, Residential Time Summary Reports Filed in Washingtonfrom July 2007 to March 2008, Washington State Center for Court Research (2008).
  5. 5 Jane C. Venohr & Rasa Kaunelis, Child Support Guidelines, 43 FAM.CT. REV. 415 (2008).
  6. 6 Michael Saini & Debora Brownyard, Nebraska 2002-2012 CustodyCourt File Research Study (Dec. 31, 2013), available at

Further illustrating the differences among the states, one shared parenting organization’s recent “report card” of states’ custody laws gave twenty-three states a “D” and only eight states a “B” in terms of how well their custody laws supported shared parenting and encouraged maximum parenting time for both parents. New York and Rhode Island ranked lowest with an “F.” 7

Since the Census Bureau has never collected data on custody arrangements, no nationwide statistics exist. Still, it is apparent that shared parenting is on the increase in the United States and in other countries. For example, shared parenting has risen in Belgium to 30%, Denmark and the Netherlands, 8 and France, 9 to 20% and to nearly 50% in Sweden. 10

Public surveys and revisions in custody laws also reflect changing attitudes towards shared parenting. For example, in a survey of 367 people who had been summoned for jury duty in Arizona, 70% said they would have the children live half time with each parent if they were family court judges.

On the other hand, only 28% believed that judges would grant shared parenting. 11 In yet another study in Arizona, 90% of the people who were polled favored equal time sharing, 12 as did 85% of the citizens in Massachusetts who voted in favor of shared parenting on a non-binding ballot. 13  Female and male adults, including many who are grandparents, have expressed their support for legislation that is more supportive of shared parenting through organizations such as the National Parenting Organization, 14 as have social scientists who created the International Council on Shared Parenting. 15


  • 7. Donald Hubin, National Parents Organization, 2014 Shared Parenting Report Card (2014), available at 2014_Shared_Parenting_Report_Card%2011-10-2014.pdf.
  • 8. An Katrien Sodermans et al., Post Divorce Custody Arrangements and Binuclear Family Structures of Flemish Adolescents, 28 DEMOGRAPHIC RES. 421 (2013).
  • 9. Laurent Toulemon, Two Home Family Situations of French Children and Adults, Inst. Nat’l Demographics, Paris, France (Jan. 25, 2008),
  • 10. Asa Carlsund et al., Risk Behavior in Swedish Adolescents: Is Shared Physical Custody a Risk or a Protective Factor?, 23 EUR. J. PUB. HEALTH 3-7 (2012).
  • 11. Sanford L. Braver et al., Lay Judgments About Child Custody After Divorce, 17 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y & L. 212 (2011).
  • 12. Sanford L. Braver et al., The Court of Public Opinion, AFCC Annual Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia (2008).
  • 13. Fatherhood Coalition, Shared Parenting Ballot Initiative Election Results. Fatherhood Coalition, Boston (2004).
  • 14. See generally National Parenting Organization (2015), http://www.national
  • 15. See generally International Council on Shared Parenting (2014),

And one group of Canadian lawyers have formed an organization called “Lawyers for Shared Parenting.”16

Changes in attitudes are also reflected in surveys of lawyers, judges, and custody evaluators. For example, in 245 custody cases in North Carolina in 2007, 20% of the court ordered plans granted 50% or more of the parenting time to the father – more fathering time than in plans that were mediated (5%) or negotiated through lawyers (10%). 17 In stark contrast, in a poll of 800 judges conduced fifteen years ago, only 6% believed in shared physical custody. 18  And in another 2002 survey of 149 judges in four Southern states, 40% believed that women were better parents than men. 19

Currently, however, twenty states are considering changes in their custody laws that would be more favourable to shared parenting, while at least ten states have already done so. 20 The present legal debates focus primarily on whether custody laws should be revised so that shared parenting with a minimum of 35% shared time becomes the “rebuttal presumption.”

But in whatever ways each individual state eventually revises its new custody laws, there is clearly a shift away from the “one size fits all” plan where every other weekend and summer Vacation with dad is considered in children’s best interests. 21 The primary questions about parenting plans have now become: How much are children benefitting from shared parenting, if at all ? Is there anything that sets these parents apart from those whose children live with their mother and only live with their father on alternate weekends ? Can children benefit if the shared parenting plan is court ordered or if the parents do not have a friendly, low conflict, co-parenting relationship ?


  • 17. Ralph A. Peeples et al., It’s the Conflict, Stupid: An Empirical Study of Factors that Inhibit Successful Mediation in High Conflict Custody Cases, 43 WAKE FOREST L. REV. 505, 508 (2008).
  • 18. Marc J. Ackerman & Linda J. Steffen, Child Custody Evaluation Practices: A Survey of Family Law Judges, 15 AM. J. FAM. L. 12 (2001).
  • 19. Leighton E. Stamps, Maternal Preference in Child Custody Decisions, 37 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 1 (2002).
  • 20.  Ashby Jones, Big Shift Pushed in Custody Disputes, WALL ST. J., Apr. 16, 2015, available at
  • 21.  J. Herbie DiFonzo, From the Rule of One to Shared Parenting: Custody Presumptions in Law and Policy, 52 FAM. CT. REV. 213 (2015).

C.  Have You Been Woozled by the Research ?

Before addressing these questions, it is important to understand how judges, lawyers and the mental health workers involved in custody issues are too often bamboozled or “woozled” by the research in ways that lead them astray. The process of relying on faulty, limited, partial, or misinterpreted research has been referred to as “woozling” and the myths and misperceptions that consequently arise are called “woozles.” Recognizing this problem, the American Psychological Association’s guidelines explicitly state that professionals who are offering expert opinions should not rely only on a few of the available studies to support a point of view – which is one of the most common ways of “woozling” data. In essence, the A.P.A. is telling expert witnesses: Don’t be woozlers. Social scientists have also pointed out that the research data are too often misrepresented to family court professionals.22 Likewise, judges and lawyers have been warned not to put too much trust in custody evaluations because too many well-intentioned evaluators hold beliefs that are based on distorted, inaccurate, or “woozled” research.23 The process of woozling and its impact on child custody decisions have been extensively described elsewhere, especially as woozling relates to parenting plans for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.24 To summarize briefly, the words “woozling” and “woozles” come from the children’s story, “Winnie the Pooh.”25

In the story the little bear, Winnie, dupes himself and his friends into believing that they are being followed by a scary beast – a beast he calls a woozle. Although they never actually see the woozle, they convince themselves it exists because they see its footprints next to theirs as they walk in circles around a tree. The footprints are, of course, their own. But Pooh and his friends are confident that they are onto something really big. Their foolish behavior is based on faulty “data” – and a woozle is born. Though data in any field can be woozled, the term “woozle” was first used by the sociologist Richard Gelles in regard to how the research on domestic violence was being distorted and misused by advocacy groups.26


  • 22. See Judith Cashmore & Patrick Parkinson, The Use and Abuse of Social Science Research Evidence in Children’s Cases, 20 PSYCHOL., PUBLIC POL’Y & L. 4 (2014); See also Janet R. Johnston, Introducing Perspectives in Family Law and Social Science Research. 45 FAM. CT. REV. 15 (2007); Sarah H. Ramsey & Robert F. Kelly, Assessing Social Science Studies: Eleven Tips for Judges and Lawyers, 40 FAM. L.Q. 367 (2006).
  • 23. See Joan B. Kelly & Janet R. Johnston, Commentary on Tippin’s and Whitmann’s Empirical and Ethical Problems with Custody Recommendations”: A Call for Clinical Humility and Judicial Vigilance, 43 FAM. CT. REV. 233 (2005); See also Joel V. Klass & Joanna L. Peros, Ten Signs of Questionable Practices in Custody Evaluations, 11 AM. J. FAM. L. 46 (2011).
  • 24. Linda Nielsen, Being Mislead by Data Related to Child Custody and Parenting Plans, J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE (forthcoming 2015) (on file with author); See also Linda Nielsen, Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans and Family Court, 20 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y & L. 164 (2014).
  • 25. A. A. MILNE, WINNIE THE POOH (1926).
  • 26. Richard Gelles, Violence in the Family: A Review of Research in the Seventies, 42 J. MARRIAGE & FAM. 873 (1980).

Three common ways to woozle people are to present only a few of the existing research studies that support one particular point of view, to frequently repeat and to publicize these few studies while exaggerating and sensationalizing the findings, and to fail to mention the serious flaws in the studies while making sweeping generalizations about their importance. Woozles are more likely to take hold when they confirm beliefs that people already hold – an effect referred to as “confirmation bias.”27

That is, we are more likely to accept those studies or to adopt without question those beliefs that confirm what we already believe. This means we are overly critical and dismissive of data or ideas that contradict our existing beliefs. As the British philoso pher, scientist, and statesman, Francis Bacon, wrote in 1620 in his treatise The New Scientific Method: : “For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes.”28


  • 27. David A. Martindale, Confirmatory Bias and Confirmatory Distortion, in PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING IN CHILD CUSTODY EVALUATIONS 31 (James R. Flens & Leslie Drozd, eds. 2005).

Or as a more recent idiom puts it: “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Once these beliefs take hold and become full-fledged woozles, they become accepted as “what the research shows.” But like Winnie the Pooh and his friends, we are misled too often by the woozles and oblivious to the facts. Judges, lawyers, and forensic psychologists have written amusing yet thought provoking essays acknowledging the impact that woozling can have on child custody decisions: “Have you woozled a judge?,”29 “Child custody lore: The case of the runaway woozle,”30 “Psychozoology in the courtroom: Dodo birds, woozles, haffalumps and parenting,”31 and “A short treatise on woozles and woozling.”32 Throughout this paper a few examples of woozles will be presented to illustrate how easily we can be led astray by distorted, limited, and flawed data.

Keeping in mind the dangers of woozling, the present paper will briefly summarize all of the studies that have compared the outcomes for children in shared parenting families to children in sole residence families. The general limitations of these studies will also be mentioned, though it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of the forty studies. Finally, both the negative and the positive outcomes of shared parenting will be presented.


II.  Low Conflict, and Co-operative Co-parenting: A Prerequisite for Shared Parenting ?

To put the findings from the forty studies into perspective, one question first has to be addressed: Are most parents with a shared parenting plan a special group who have little or no conflict and communicate well as a co-parenting team, and who voluntarily agreed to this parenting plan from the outset – a choice they made “freely” without pressure from mental health professionals or from mediators, lawyers, or judges? If that is the case, then it is possible that these children are doing well for reasons unrelated to the shared parenting arrangement itself. Especially if their parents are highly educated with high incomes, these children might have equally good outcomes even if they had only spent every other weekend with one of their parents.

Moreover, if most shared parenting couples voluntarily and eagerly agreed to share from the outset, then there would be reason to wonder whether children would benefit from shared parenting that is “forced” on one of the parents. “Forced” might mean that a reluctant parent was coerced or persuaded by lawyers or mediators into “agreeing” to share rather than risking the expenses and possible outcomes of taking the dispute to trial. Or “forced” might mean that a judge ordered shared parenting over one of the parent’s wishes. “Forced” can also be interpreted to mean that in those states where custody laws are the most supportive of shared parenting, parents are more likely to feel pressured into accepting shared parenting plans because they believe the judge would probably order it if the parents cannot reach a decision.

The far reaching impact of custody laws, even on those parents who agree on all custody issues, is referred to as “bargaining in the shadow of the law” – meaning that a state’s custody laws have an impact on all separating parents, not just on the 5% -10% who end up having to go to court to resolve their custody disputes.33

So are low conflict, friendly, communicative co-parenting relationships necessary for children to benefit from shared parenting ? And does shared parenting only benefit children when it is voluntarily chosen from the outset by parents who have very little in common with those who are embroiled in litigation or end up in court to resolve their custody plans ?


  • 33. Robert H. Mnookin & Lewis Kornhauser, Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: The Case of Divorce, 88 YALE L.J. 950 (1979).
  • 34. Howard H. Irving & Michael Benjamin, Shared and Sole Custody Parents, in JOINT CUSTODY AND SHARED PARENTING 114, 119 (Jay Folberg ed. 1991).
  • 35. Muriel Brotsky et al., Joint Custody Through Mediation, in id. at 167; Judith Cashmore et al., Shared Care Parenting Arrangements Since the 2006 Family Law Reforms, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales (May 2010), available at ; Jessica Pearson & Nancy Thoennes, Child Custody and Child Support After Divorce, in id. at 114.
  • 36. Marsha Kline et al., Children’s Adjustment in Joint and Sole Physical Custody Families, 25 DEV. PSYCHOL. 430 (1989); Deborah Anne Luepnitz, A Comparison of Maternal, Paternal and Joint Custody: Understanding the Varieties of Post-Divorce Family Life, in JOINT CUSTODY AND SHARED PARENTING, supra note 34, at 105.

 Table One

Linda_Table1CNotes: legend

  1. = Equal: All children lived 50% with each parent
  2. Not equal: Children lived anywhere from 35% to 50% time with each
  3. $ C  study controlled for parents’ incomes ($) or levels of conflict (C)
  4.  X  Some data came from instruments/procedures with no established validity or reliability
  5. * The sample sizes varied widely on the different measures

A. High Conflict: Can These Children Benefit from a Shared Parenting Plan ?

Those people who believe that shared parenting plans only benefit children when the parents are cooperative co-parents may be surprised to learn that the children in shared parenting families had better outcomes than those in sole residence even when there was high conflict or where one of the parents had been “forced” to share. As Table One illustrates, in eleven of the forty studies (marked with “+”) the researchers specifically stated that their sample included high conflict and litigating parents.

And in sixteen of the studies (marked with a “C”), the shared parenting couples either had as much conflict as those with sole residence parenting plans or, after controlling for conflict, the outcomes were still better for the shared parenting children.

As for being “forced” into sharing, according to the seven studies that gathered this information, the number of shared parenting couples who had not initially wanted to share ranged from 20%,34 to 40%,35 to 50%,36 to 82%. 37 Given the results of these seven studies, it is unlikely that in the other thirty-three studies, almost all of the couples with shared parenting plans willingly and enthusiastically agreed to share from the outset.

Although it is true that 85% – 90% of shared parenting plans are “agreed to” without having a custody hearing, this is also true for 85% – 90% of sole residence parenting plans. And even though most couples with shared parenting plans do have less intense conflict than other parents at the time they separate, it would be a mistake to assume that the level of conflict is the major factor that sets them apart from the parents who have sole physical custody parenting plans, as we will see later in this article.



First, in those studies that asked about the conflict over the parenting plan, most of those with shared plans were in conflict over the plan at the outset.

One of the parents initially wanted a sole physical custody parenting plan. Second, we will see that most of these couples do not have a conflict free or exceptionally friendly, “co-parenting” relationship and do not necessarily have less conflict than parents with sole residence plans. With the exception of conflict that reaches the level of physical abuse or violence, the conflict between sharing and non-sharing parents is often not as different as we might expect – especially not in the most recent studies. Ten of the forty studies compared the conflict levels or the quality of the parents’ co-parenting in the shared parenting versus the sole residence families.

Beginning with the oldest study back in the late 1980s, the researchers collected data over a four year period from 1,100 divorced families, 92 of which had their children living at least a third of the time with their fathers. It is worth noting that 82% of these mothers were initially opposed to sharing the physical custody – which means these parents were in conflict over the parenting plan. The majority did not have less conflict or communicate better than the parents with sole residence plans. In fact the researchers concluded: “Parents can share the residential time even though they are not talking to each other or trying to coordinate the children rearing environments of their two households”. 38

Four smaller studies from the 1980s with a total of 117 shared divorced couples also found that most of those with shared plans did not have an especially low conflict, friendly, collaborative relationship where they worked together as a parenting team. 39 Most of their relationships were distant and business-like – a relatively disengaged arrangement that has come to be known as “parallel” parenting in contrast to “co- parenting” which suggests that the parents are working cooperatively as a friendly, low conflict team. 40


  • 38 Id. at 292 (emphasis added).
  • 39 MACCOBY & MNOOKIN, supra note 37, at 292; Pearson & Thoennes, supra note 35, at 185.
  • 40 Rachel Birnbaum & Barbara Jo Fidler, The Emergence of Parallel Parenting Orders, 24 CAN. FAM. L.Q. 111 (2010).

More recent, larger studies also show that most parents with shared parenting plans are “parallel” parenting, not “co-parenting.” For example, in Wisconsin data were collected three years after divorce from a large representative sample of 590 shared residence and 590 sole residence families. 41 Roughly 15% of the couples in both groups described their relationship as hostile. Most shared parenting couples did not have a conflict free relationship.

In fact, they were more likely to have conflicts over childrearing issues (50%) than couples whose children lived with their mother (30%). Why?  The researchers suggested it was because these fathers were more involved in their children’s lives, unlike the other fathers who were restricted to weekend visits or who had dropped out of the children’s lives completely.

International studies confirm these American findings. In a Dutch study, conflict for the 135 couples with shared parenting and for 350 with sole residence were similar four years after their divorce, although the conflict was initially less for those with shared plans. 42 Likewise, in a large nationally representative Australian study, 20% of the 645 shared parenting couples had on-going conflicts and distant relationships even three years after their divorce. 43 And in a smaller Australian study with 105 shared parenting and 398 sole residence couples, only 25% of the sharing and only 18% of non-sharing couples said they had a friendly relationship. 44


  • 41 Marygold S. Melli & Patricia R. Brown, Exploring a New Family Form – the Shared Time Family, 22 INT’L J. L., POL’Y & FAM. 231, 231 (2008).
  • 42 Ed Spruijt & Vincent Duindam, Joint Physical Custody in the Netherlands and the Well-Being of Children, 51 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 65 (2009).
  • 43 Rae Kaspiew et al., Evaluation of 2006 Family Law Reforms in Australia, Austl. Inst. Fam. Stud., Canberra, Australia (Dec. 2009), available at
  • 44 Jodie Lodge & Michael Alexander, Views of Adolescents in Separated Families, Austl. Inst. Fam. Stud. (2010).

In a very small study with twenty British and fifteen French fathers, the majority did not have cooperative, communicative relationships with their children’s mother. 45 Overall then, most couples with shared parenting plans do not have an exceptionally friendly, cooperative relationship with little to no conflict where they are comfortably communicating and actually “co-parenting” as a team. Instead, most have a “parallel” parenting arrangement where they run households and parent the children as each sees fit, minimizing the interactions and the need for much communication between the parents.

As already documented, a number of these parents agreed to a shared parenting plan even though that was not their initial preference. Still shared parenting couples are very unlikely to have conflicts that ever reached the level of physically injurious abuse or violence. And as we will later see, they tend to be somewhat better educated and have higher incomes than other separated parents, though those differences appear to be shrinking. But, as we will now see, the impact of conflict on the children and the relationship between conflict and whether the parents end up with a shared parenting plan is not as direct, or as straightforward or as significant as many people might assume.

B. The Conflict over Conflict: The Tail that Wags the Dog ?

As the sixteen studies in Table One demonstrate (those marked with a “C’ for conflict), children benefitted more from shared parenting than from sole residence even when their parents had a conflicted relationship and even when the levels of conflict were factored in as a possible cause for the better outcomes.

This is not to say that witnessing intense conflict or frequently being dragged into the middle of the conflicts has no negative impact on most children. But this is to say there are many reasons why conflict, even if it has been described as “high,” should not be the pivotal factor in determining whether shared parenting will benefit the children. It is not in the best interests of children for decisions makers to let the conflict “tail” wag the parenting plan “dog.”


  • 45 Alex Masardo, Managing Shared Residence in Britain and France: Questioning a Default Primary Carer Model, in SOCIAL POLICY REVIEW 21: ANALYSIS AND DEBATE IN SOCIAL POLICY 197 (Kirstein Rummery et al. ed. 2009).

One of the first questions is whether children whose parents cannot resolve their custody conflicts without going to court can possibly benefit from a shared parenting plan. Aren’t these the parents whose conflict is so intense, so intractable and so pervasive that their children will inevitably be damaged – and will be even more damaged by continuing to live with each parent at least a third of the time? To my knowledge, there is only one study that has actually explored the impact of legal conflict on the children. 46 There were 94 formerly married parents with one child between the ages of four and twelve participating in the study. On standardized measures of the children’s well-being, two kinds of conflict had no impact on the children’s well-being.

One was the legal conflict over custody issues. The other was “attitudinal” conflict, which meant feeling angry and hostile and disliking one another’s parenting styles, but not acting out that conflict in front of the children. The third kind of conflict, interpersonal conflict, meant the parents acted on their angry feelings and exposed their children to their arguments. It was only this kind of conflict that had any negative impact on the children.

Based on their review of the empirical data, these researchers conclude that there is no empirical evidence that legal conflict is linked to worse outcomes for children. In another study, all 728 parents had been designated “high” conflict in family court and all were litigating over parenting time or other custody issues.

With an average age of thirteen, the 141 children who gave their parents high ratings for being good parents had fewer behavioural problems than those who gave their parents poor ratings. But the more important finding was this: only when the children spent more than eleven nights a month with their father were the high parenting ratings linked to fewer behaviour problems. In other words, in this very high conflict sample of litigating parents, only when the children were actually living with their father at least one-third of the time did their high opinions of his parenting have an impact on their behavior. 47

There are a number of possible explanations why parents’ conflicts and poor communication with one another generally did not override or cancel out the positive impact of children’s continuing to live with each parent at least one third of the time.


  • 46. Irwin Sandler et al., Relations of Parenting Quality, Interparental Conflict, and Overnights with Mental Health Problems of Children in Divorcing Families with High Legal Conflict, 40 J. FAM. PSYCHOL. 1 (2013).
  • 47. Id. at 18.

Many of these reasons have been pointed out by social scientists who urge us not to overemphasize the importance of conflict – even conflict that involves isolated incidents of physical anger at the time of separation – in making decisions about parenting plans. 48

First, the intensity and the nature of the conflict is often difficult to determine. Conflict according to whom ? Conflict in what situations and over what issues and how often and how intense and how recently? How often do the children actually witness or get dragged into the middle of the conflict? With the exception of physical abuse or violence, the terms “high” and “conflict” cover too wide a range of behaviours to be of much practical significance in regard to decisions about parenting plans. The term is used by parents and by family court professionals to describe anything from ongoing feelings of anger and distrust, to frequent disagreements limited mainly to child-rearing issues, to harassing verbal abuse.

To complicate matters further, conflict is highest during the time of separation and litigation. And conflict generally declines within the first year or two after the separation. This means the conflict that most lawyers and judges witness may not be a reliable predictor of future conflict – or of the kind of conflict that will have an impact on the children. It is also possible that parents who litigate in court have conflicts that last longer or have a worse impact on children than parents who reach an agreement without having to go to court.


  • 48 See Edward Kruk, DIVORCED FATHERS: CHILDREN’S NEEDS AND PARENTAL RESPONSIBILTY (2011); See also Kari Adamsons & Kay Pasley, Coparenting Following Divorce, in HANDBOOK OF DIVORCE 241 (Mark A. Fine & John H. Harvey eds. 2006); Robin Deutsch & Marsha Kline Pruett, Child Adjustment and High Conflict Divorce. in THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF CHILD CUSTODY DECISIONS, 353 (Robert M. Galatzer-Levy et al. 2009); William Fabricius et al., Custody and Parenting Time, in THE ROLE OF THE FATHER IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT (Michael Lamb ed., 2010); Joan B. Kelly & Michael P. Johnson, Differentiation Among Types of Intimate Partner Violence: Research Update, 46 FAM. CT. REV. 476 (2008); Michael Lamb & Joan B. Kelly, Improving the Quality of Parent Child Contact in Separating Families with Infants and Young Children, THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF CHILD CUSTODY DECISIONS, supra, at 187; Marsha Kline Pruett & Tracy Donsky, Coparenting After Divorce, COPARENTING RESEARCH 124 (James P. McHale & Kristin M. Lindahl, eds. 2011); Irwin Sandler et al., Quality of Maternal and Paternal Parenting Following Divorce, in PARENTING PLAN EVALUATIONS: APPLIED RESEARCH FOR THE FAMILY COURT 200 (Kathryn Kuehnle & Leslie Drozd, eds. 2012); Richard A. Warshak, Parenting by the Clock: The Best Interest of the Child Standard and the Approximation Rule, 41 U. BALT. L. REV. 85 (2011).

But no study has addressed this question, so it would be a mistake to make that assumption. Then too, litigating parents too often exaggerate or provoke conflict, making it difficult to assess whether the children are actually living in a high conflict environment Even though being dragged into their parents’ ongoing conflicts is not beneficial for children, verbal conflicts are not necessarily harmful.

This is especially true when the conflict stems from a sincere desire by two loving, fit parents to maintain an active role in their children’s lives. Moreover, conflict has the least impact on children when they have good relationships with one or both of their parents. And educational programs or carefully designed, detailed parallel parenting plans can reduce the conflict for most parents. For example, having the parents pick up and deliver the children at school rather than at the other parent’s home reduces conflicts at the time they are most likely to occur – the “switching” hour. Finally, it must be remembered that conflict – especially over childrearing issues – is inevitable for all parents – some of which is intense, ongoing, and never fully resolved even though they never separate. Separated parents, therefore, should not be held to a higher standard by being expected to have little to no conflict in order “earn” parenting time or to “qualify” for shared parenting.

Several recent studies illustrate that higher conflict and poorer communication are not necessarily linked to worse outcomes for the children. In a nationally representative, three year study with 3,784 separated parents whose children were seven to nineteen years old, the children with high conflict parents did not have any worse outcomes on eight measures of adolescent and young adult well-being: emotional problems, grades, liking school, self-esteem, life satisfaction, substance use, having sex before age 16, having several different sexual partners as teenagers, marrying or living with someone before age 20, and feeling close to their mother. Misbehaving at school, getting into trouble with the police as teenagers and having closer ties to their fathers as young adults was only weakly related to high conflict. 49 After reviewing the available studies, these researchers – one of whom, Paul Amato, is one of the most widely published researchers in the field – conclude: Although it is widely believed that cooperative co-parenting is linked to better outcomes for children, almost no studies have actually tested this assumption.

Similarly in another study with 270 parents in a court ordered parenting education program, the children were no more likely to have behavioural or emotional problems when their parents had uncooperative, conflicted relationships. 50 These researchers agree with Amato and his colleagues that the actual benefits of cooperative co-parenting are basically unknown.

In other words, having a good parent-child relationship and having at least one parent with good parenting skills may be more beneficial than having parents who get along well in a low conflict, cooperative relationship. Although intuitively it may seem that children would benefit greatly from having parents who get along well together after they separate, the data suggest that the impact of this factor is less robust than other factors such as the quality of the child’s relationship with each parent.

For many reasons then, conflict should not be the “tail that wags the dog” in terms of denying children the probable benefits of a shared parenting plan – unless the conflict involves abuse or violence or other serious dysfunctions such as substance abuse that were damaging to the children even when their parents were living together. These children need parenting plans that protect or distance them from their dysfunctional parents.

It is estimated that only 10%-15% of parents fall into this latter category. In light of the more positive outcomes linked to shared parenting plans in the forty studies, we should be guided by factors that go beyond how much conflict exists between the parents – primarily, the children’s having a good relationship with each parent and each parent’s being a fit and loving parent. Especially if the conflict is generated by one parent’s trying to marginalize the other’s participation in the children’s lives, high conflict and a poor co-parenting relationship should not be the excuses for restricting the children’s time with one of their parents – or for asserting that a shared parenting plan cannot be in these children’s best interests.


  • 49 Paul R. Amato et al., Reconsidering the “Good Divorce,” 60 FAM. REL. 511 (2011).
  • 50 Jonathon J. Beckmeyer et al., Postdivorce Coparenting Typologies and Children’s Adjustment, 63 FAM. REL. 526 (2014).

C. Shared Parenting: Only for the Well-to-do and College Educated ?

Two factors that do set many shared parenting couples apart from other separated parents are their level of income and education and their previous marital status. But here again, the differences are not as large as might be assumed and they appear to be shrinking.

It goes without saying that both parents must have the kind of work schedules that make it possible for their children to live with them at least one third of the time throughout the year. The more well-educated parents generally have more flexible, family friendly work hours and higher incomes which enable them to hire lawyers to negotiate for shared parenting and to provide two adequate homes for the children.

They are also far more likely to have been married and raising their children together before separating. Consequently, they are more likely to have shared parenting plans. 51 This does not mean, however, that most shared parenting couples are college educated or financially well off. Most are not. 52 Also being well educated is not always linked to being more likely to have a shared parenting plan. For example, for 758 Canadian families in a national survey, the mothers without high school degrees and he clinically depressed mothers were more likely to have a shared parenting plan. 53 It may be that the more poorly educated mothers wanted more child-free time to finish their educations or that the depressed mothers felt less overwhelmed when the parenting was more equally shared.

Shared parenting plans are also becoming more prevalent in middle class families. For example, in Wisconsin shared parenting has increased more for middle income than for higher income families in recent years. 54 In this study with 1,180 separated families, in the shared parenting families the average father’s income was $40,000 (30% college graduates) compared to $32,000 (25% college graduates) in the sole residence families.

The mothers’ incomes and educational levels were virtually the same, $23,000 versus $22,000 with only 25% of mothers in either group having a college degree. Still, the highest income parents were more likely to share the parenting, with 55% of the parents sharing when they had a combined income of at least $120,000.

Interestingly too, in contrast to the past where young children lived almost exclusively with their mothers, younger children were no less likely than older children to be living in a shared parenting family. Finally, the child’s gender appears to play a role in parents’ decisions to share the parenting.

Sons are slightly more likely than daughters to be living in a shared parenting family. 55 This may be because mothers feel less confident about raising sons on their own. Or it may be that fathers and sons feel more comfortable living together than fathers and daughters. Then too, fathers and sons generally have a closer relationship than fathers and daughters both before and after the parents separate. 56


  • 51 Heather Juby et al., Sharing Roles, Sharing Custody, 67 J. MARRIAGE & FAM. 157 (2005); Ragne Hege Kitterod & Jan Lyngstad, Untraditional Caring Arrangements Among Parents Living Apart in Norway, 27 DEMOGRAPHIC RES. 121 (2011); Lodge & Alexander, supra note 44; Pearson & Thoennes, supranote 35, at 185.
  • 52 Cashmore & Parkinson, supra note 22, at 707; Luepnitz, supra note 36, at 105; Masardo, supra note 45, at 197; Melli & Brown, supra note 41, at 231.
  • 53 Juby et al., supra note 51, at 157.
  • 54 Stephen T. Cook & Patricia Brown, Recent Trends in Children’s Placement Arrangements in Divorce and Custody Cases in Wisconsin (May 2006), available at
  • 55 Timothy Grall, Custodial Mothers and Fathers, in CURRENT POPULATON REPORTS 60-230 (2006); Juby et al., supra note 51, at 157; Kitterod & Lyngstad, supra note 51, at 1; Jennifer McIntosh et al., Post-Separation Parenting Arrangements: Patterns and Developmental Outcomes, Austl. Inst. Fam. Stud. (2010), available at; Melli & Brown, supra note 41, at 231; Katherine Stamps Mitchell et al., Adolescents with Nonresident Fathers: Are Daughters More Disadvantaged than Sons?, 71 J. MARRIAGE & FAM. 650 (2009); Spruijt & Duindam, supra note 42, at 65.

 III. How Trustworthy and Reliable Are the Forty Studies?

 A. Overall Description of the Forty Studies

As Table One illustrates, to date there are forty studies that have been published in peer reviewed, academic journals where children living in shared parenting families were compared to those living with their mothers and continuing to spend varying amounts of time with their fathers. Dissertations were not included since these studies have not undergone an anonymous peer review process where experts in the field judge whether the study merits publication in an academic journal. The forty published studies were not about the impact of father “absence” because the fathers in these studies were still spending time with their children after the parents had separated.

Some studies only included parents who had formerly been married and then later divorced, while others included never married parents who sometimes separated soon after the children were born. These differences in the samples will be noted in the description of the studies. The exact amount of time that the children who lived with their mothers were spending each month with their fathers was not designated. The most common pattern in mother residence families historically has been every other weekend and several weeks during the summer. So it would be logical to assume this was the typical pattern in most of these mother residence families as well.

As illustrated in Table One, in 24 of the 40 studies, the shared parenting children lived 50% time with each parent. In the other 16 studies, the children lived with their each parent anywhere from 35% to 50% of the time.

The studies were found through a key word search of the major data bases in the social sciences: Psyche Index and Social Science Index, using the terms: shared or joint custody, physical custody, parenting plans, overnighting, shared parenting and shared care. Fifteen of the 40 studies included children under the age of six. But only six studies focused exclusively on children under the age of five which is why their findings will be presented in a separate section. In sum, the studies included 31,483 children in shared parenting families and 83,674 children in mother (sole) residence families. The studies were conducted during the past 28 years.

B. Limitations of the Forty Studies

Trying to determine what impact shared parenting has on children has been difficult for at least two reasons. First, children whose parents have higher incomes or have the least conflict may have the better outcomes after their parents separate, regardless of the parenting plan. So unless the study controls for income and level of conflict, this leaves open the possibility that it was not the shared parenting per se that made the difference. Unfortunately, only 16 of the 40 studies included income and conflict as controls, as noted on Table One. Still, as already discussed, a number of studies found no significant differences in income or in conflict between sharing and non-sharing couples. 57

A second limitation is that the parents’ characteristics and marital status are not the same in all the studies – and those differences can affect the outcomes for children independent of the parenting plan. For example, the majority of parents in some studies were not married or living together when their children were born – a situation that often goes hand in hand with higher rates of poverty, incarceration, physical abuse, and substance abuse. Along the same lines, some studies draw their conclusions from extremely small, non-random samples while others have impressively large, random samples. As each study is presented, the unique characteristics of the sample and the samples sizes will be noted.

A third limitation is that while most of the researchers used standardized instruments and valid procedures, others used measures that had no established validity or reliability. Sample sizes also varied greatly. Describing the methodological details and naming the many standardized tests used in each study is beyond the scope of this paper. But the limitations of each study and whether the data came from standardized measures will be briefly noted as a way of acknowledging that the findings from some studies merit more weight than others. Despite these limitations and despite the differences among the studies in terms of their methodology and rigor, they have reached remarkably similar conclusions.


  • 57. See CHRISTY M. BUCHANAN & ELEANOR MACCOBY, ADOLESCENTS AFTER DIVORCE (1996); Cashmore & Parkinson, supra note 22, at 707; See also Kline et al., supra note 36, at 430; See also An Katrien Sodermans et al., Characteristics of Joint Physical Custody Families in Flanders, 28 DEMOGRAPHIC RES. 821 (2013).

C. The Outcomes that Were Measured

The 40 studies were identified by searching the databases in Psyche Index and Social Science Research Index. The key words used in the search were: shared parenting, shared care, joint or shared physical custody, shared or dual residence, and parenting plans. The findings of the studies were grouped into five broad categories of child well-being as presented in Table One:

  • (1) academic or cognitive outcomes which includes school grades and scores on tests of cognitive development such as language skills;
  • (2) emotional or psychological outcomes which includes feeling depressed, anxious, or dissatisfied with their lives;
  • (3) behavioural problems which include aggression or delinquency, difficult or unmanageable behaviour at home or school, hyperactivity, and drug or alcohol use;
  • (4) physical health and smoking which also includes stress related illnesses such as stomach aches and sleep disturbances; and
  • (5) quality of father-child relationships which includes how well they communicate and how close they feel to one another.

IV. Does Shared Parenting Benefit Most Children ?

The first section below begins by summarizing the positive outcomes in the shared parenting families in the forty studies that included children between the ages of one and twenty-two.

The six studies that only included children under the age of five will be presented in a separate section. The next section turns to the negative outcomes for children in shared parenting families.

A. The American Studies

Beginning with the oldest studies, the Stanford Custody Project collected data from 1100 divorced families with 1,386 children randomly chosen from the county’s divorce records. At the end of four years, the 51 adolescents in the shared parenting families made better grades, were less depressed, and were more well-adjusted behaviourally than the 355 adolescents who lived primarily with their mother. The data came from interviews with the adolescents, parents’ questionnaires, and a battery of standardized tests measuring depression, anxiety, substance use, antisocial behaviour, truancy, cheating, and delinquency. The shared parenting children were better off on these measures than the other children of divorce. The quality of the parent-child relationship and how often they felt caught between their parents was also assessed through interviews. The shared adolescents were less likely to be stressed by feeling the need to take care of their mother.

Moreover, having closer relationships with both parents seemed to offset the negative impact of the parents’ conflicts in those families where the conflict remained high. Importantly, this study controlled for parents’ educations, incomes, and levels of conflict, used standardized measures to assess the children’s well-being, used a randomized sample, followed the children over a four year period, and gathered data from both parents and the children. 58

Five smaller studies conducted in the late 80s and early 90s also found equal or better outcomes for the shared children. The first study included 35 shared parenting and 58 sole residence children ages three to eleven with white, college educated parents. 59

Standardized tests were used to measure the parents’ anxiety and depression and the children’s social, emotional, and behavioural problems, in addition to clinicians’ observations of parent-child interactions. Although there were no differences in the children’s social or behavioural adjustment scores, the shared children were better adjusted emotionally. Having a depressed mother, having parents in high conflict (which was similar in both types of families), or the child’s having a difficult temperament was more closely linked to the children’s well-being than was the parenting plan. In another study of similar size, three years after the divorce, the 62 shared parenting children were less depressed, less stressed, and less agitated than the 459 children in sole residence based on standardized tests completed by the mother about the child’s mental states and behaviours. Especially important is that all of the children had similar scores three years earlier when their parents divorced, suggesting that the shared parenting was indeed having a positive impact. 60 The other study by these same researchers should be viewed more speculatively since there were only 9 children in shared parenting families compared to 83 children living with their mothers.


  • 60 Pearson & Thoennes, supra note 35, at 185.
  • 58 Buchanan & MacCoby, supra note 57, at 1
  • 59 Kline et al., supra note 36, at 430.

Using a standardized child behaviour checklist, the two groups of mothers reported no differences in their children’s depression, aggression, delinquency or somatic complaints. And in another very small study with only 11 shared parenting families and 16 sole mother and 16 sole father families four years after divorce, the parents reported no differences in how well adjusted the children were on standardized measures of their well-being and based on researchers’ interviews with the parents and the children. 61 In yet another study with small samples, high conflict parents who had volunteered for free counselling to resolve their co-parenting issues reported, at the end of one year, the 13 shared children were better off in regard to stress, anxiety, behavioural problems, and adjustment than the 26 sole residence children. Notably, the children whose parents needed the most intensive counselling at the outset to make the shared parenting work ended up faring as well as the children whose parents initially got along best.

The data were derived from clinicians’ assessments of the children on standardized measures, interviews with both parents, and feedback from teachers and day care workers at the time of separation, then again at six months and one year. It is worth noting that the shared parenting children ranged in age from one to ten and that in both types of families children under the age of four were better adjusted than the older children. 62 In a larger study in Toronto only one-third of the 201 parents with shared parenting plans said their parenting plan worked out well from the outset. Despite this, at the end of one year, 91% of these parents said their children were happy and well adjusted, compared to only 80% of the 194 couples without shared parenting plans. 63

Overall then, even though the sample sizes were small in these studies, the findings were consistent with the larger studies in regard to the benefits of shared parenting.


  • 61 Luepnitz, supra note 36, at 105.
  • 62 Brotsky et al., supra note 35, at 167.
  • 63 Irving & Benjamin, supra note 34, at 114.

More recent studies with far larger samples that gathered data from both parents have reached similar conclusions. In a large, randomized sample in Wisconsin, the children in the 590 shared parenting families were less depressed, had fewer health problems and stress related illnesses, and were more satisfied with their living arrangement than the children in the 590 sole residence families. 64 The data came from both parents’ answers to a series of questions asked in telephone interviews. Ranging in age from one to sixteen, the shared children were 30% less likely to have been left with babysitters or in day-care. Nearly 90% of their fathers attended school events, compared to only 60% of the other fathers. And almost 60% of the mothers said the fathers were very involved in making everyday decisions about their children’s lives. In fact 13% of the mothers wished the fathers were less involved. In a smaller study with ten to sixteen year olds, the 207 shared children were more likely than the 272 in sole residence to have parents with authoritative parenting styles, which was linked to less anxiety and less depression as measured by standardized tests. 65 In a very small study with six to ten year-olds, the 20 children in shared parenting were no more aggressive and had no more behavioural problems than the 39 children in sole residence after controlling for parental conflict and the quality of the mother-child relationship. 66

Studies with college age children have also found better outcomes for those from shared parenting families. In the oldest study, the 30 American college students from the shared parenting families reported having better relationships with both parents than the 201 who had lived with their mothers. In fact, they rated their relationships with their fathers higher than the students from intact families. 67 Similarly, 105 Canadian students from shared parenting families gave their mothers higher ratings than the 102 students from intact families and rated their fathers almost as highly. 68 In an even larger study, the 337 shared parenting students reported having closer relationships with their fathers than the 686 who had lived with their mothers.


  • 64 Melli & Brown, supra note 41, at 231.
  • 65 Kathryn L. Campana et al., Parenting Styles and Children’s Adjustment to Divorce, 48 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 1 (2008).
  • 66 Moyee Lee, Children’s Adjustment in Maternal- and Dual-ResidenceArrangements, 23 J. FAM. ISSUES 671 (2002).
  • 67 William Fabricius, Listening to Children of Divorce, 52 FAM. REL. 385 (2003).
  • 68 Hallie Frank, Young Adults’ Relationships with Parents: Marital Status, Conflict and Post Divorce Predictors, 46 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 105 (2007).

What was especially important was that the quality of their relationships was linked incrementally to how much overnight time the fathers and children had spent together. That is, as the actual amount of overnight time they spent together during adolescence increased from 1% up to 50%, the young adults’ positive ratings of their relationships with their fathers also increased. Even the worst relationships got higher ratings when the father and child had spent more time together during the teenage years. 69 Similarly in a very small study, the five college students from shared parenting families reported better relationships with their fathers and felt that their parents were equal in terms of their authority compared to the other 22 students with divorced parents. 70

The young adults’ ratings of their relationships with their parents in all of these studies came from questionnaires created by the researchers. And, as was true in the studies with younger children, 75 young adults who had lived in shared parenting families had fewer health problems and fewer stress related illnesses than the other 136 students with divorced parents. 71

B. International Studies

Studies from other countries have yielded similar results to those in the United States and Canada. Seven studies were conducted in Sweden, using national data from standardized tests and national surveys. In the first study, 441 shared parenting children had more close friends and fewer problems making friends than the 2,920 children in sole residence, and were no different in regard to being aggressive or violent, using drugs and drinking. 72


  • 69. William Fabricius et al., Parenting Time, Parent Conflict, Parent-Child Relationships and Children’s Physical Health, in PARENTING PLAN EVALUATIONS: APPLIED RESEARCH FOR THE FAMILY COURT 188. (Kathryn Kuehnle & Leslie Drozd, eds. 2012).
  • 70. Michelle Janning et al., Spatial and Temporal Arrangements: Young Adults’ PostDivorce Experiences, 51 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 413 (2010).
  • 71. William Fabricius & Linda Luecken, Postdivorce Living Arrangements, Parent Conflict and Physical Health for Children of Divorce, 21 J. FAM.PSYCHOL. 195 (2007).
  • 72. Beata Jablonska & Lene Lindberg, Risk Behaviors and Mental Distress Among Adolescents in Different Family Structures, 42 SOC. PSYCHIATRY & EPIDEMIOLOGY 656 (2007).

In the second, the 17,350 shared parenting adolescents rated themselves higher on seven of the eleven scales of wellbeing than the 34,452 in sole residence. 73 The shared children were better off in regard to: their emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing, peer relationships and social acceptance, and physical health. Interestingly too, the fifteen year-olds were even more similar than the twelve year-olds to the 112,778 children living in intact families, suggesting that the benefits of shared parenting may become more pronounced after several years.

More important still, the shared parenting teenagers felt the most comfortable talking to both of their parents. In the third study, the 270 shared adolescents fared better than the 801 in sole residence families in regard to: smoking, having sex before the age of 15, getting drunk, cheating, lying, stealing, losing their tempers, fighting, bullying, and disobeying adults. 74 And in the fourth study, the 888 shared children reported being more satisfied with their lives, feeling less depressed, and having fewer stress related health problems.

Importantly, after controlling for their parents incomes and educations, the shared children were not significantly different from the intact family children in regard to having stress related health problems and feeling comfortable talking to their parents about things that bothered them. 75 In the next study the 225 ten to sixteen year-olds who lived equal time with each parent were less stressed than the 595 who lived primarily with one parent.

Trained interviewers administered a questionnaire to the children as well as interviewing both the parents and the children. Importantly this study took account of parental conflict, socio-economic status, and the quality of the parent-child relationship.

Interestingly too, regardless of family type, the amount of conflict that the parents reported was not linked to the amount of stress their children reported. 76 In yet another study with 736 high school students in sole residence and 324 in shared parenting, the shared teenagers were equal to the 2,076 from intact families in terms of mental health, quality of the relationships with their parents, and their overall feelings about the quality of their lives. 77


  • 73 Malin Bergstro¨m et al., Living in Two Homes: A Swedish National Suvey of Wellbeing in 12 and 15 Year Olds with Joint Physical Custody, 13 J. EPIDEMIOLOGY & COMMUNITY HEALTH 868 (2013).
  • 74 Carlsund et al., supra note 10, at 318.
  • 75 Asa Carlsund et al., Shared Physical Custody: Implications for Health and Well Being in Swedish Schoolchildren, 102 ACTA PAEDIATRICA 318 (2013).
  • 76 Jani Turunen, Shared Physical Custody and Children’s Experience of Stress, Families and Societies Working Paper Series #24 (2015), available at .
  • 77 Marie Wadsby et al., Adolescents with Alternating Residence After Parental Divorce: A Comparison with Adolescent Living with Both Parents or with a Single Parent, 11 J. CHILD CUSTODY 202 (2014).

And in the one study that looked at 323 teenagers in blended families, these teenagers turned to their parents for help and advice less often than the 1,573 teenagers in the shared parenting families. Turning to parents for advice was then linked to feeling less sad and afraid and to having fewer stress related physical problems like stomach aches and insomnia. 78 Similar results have emerged in Norway and in the Netherlands.

In the Norwegian study, although the 41 shared adolescents were no less likely to drink or use drugs than the 409 adolescents in sole residence, they were less likely to smoke, to be depressed, to engage in antisocial behaviour, or to have low self-esteem. The study used standardized tests and controlled for the father’s educational level. 79 In the Netherlands, for 135 children aged ten to sixteen, the shared girls were less depressed, less fearful, and less aggressive than the girls in the 250 sole residence families, as measured by standardized tests. There were no differences for the boys. Moreover, both the boys and the girls in the sharing families reported being as close to their fathers as the children from intact families, even though the sharing parents had similar levels of conflict and the same socio-economic status as the non-sharing parents. 80 Similarly in another study, the 385 shared adolescents rated their relationships with both parents higher than the 1,045 adolescents who lived with their mother, although they were no less likely to report feeling depressed. 81


  • 78. Sara Laftman et al., Joint Physical Custody, Turning to Parents for Emotional Support and Subjective Health: Adolescents in Stockholm Sweden, 42 SCAND. J. PUB. HEALTH 456 (2014).
  • 79. Kyrre Breivik & Dan Olweus, Adolescent’s Adjustment in Four Family Structures, 44 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 99 (2006).
  • 80. Spruijt & Duindam, supra note 42, at 65.
  • 81. Sofie Vanassche et al., Commuting Between Two Parental Households: The Association Between Joint Physical Custody and Adolescent Wellbeing Following Divorce, 19 J. FAM. STUD. 139 (2014).

The third study also found that the 966 shared children ages four to sixteen were better off than the 2, 217 children who lived with their mother in regard to their pro social behaviour, hyperactivity, peer relationships, behavioural problems, and psychological problems. Importantly this study controlled for parents’ incomes, levels of conflict, and how involved the father was with the children before the parents separated. Half of the positive impact was linked to the parents having higher incomes and less conflict in the sharing families and half to the shared parenting arrangement itself. 82

Turning to Australia, the largest study was based on data from a national survey involving 1,235 children in shared care (the term used in Australia for shared parenting) and 6,415 children in primary care. 83 Unlike all of the studies discussed so far, half of these parents were not married when their children were born. Notably, even though the two groups of parents were just as likely to say there had been violence between them, “children in shared care time arrangements seem to fare no worse than children in other care time arrangements where there has been a history of violence or where there is ongoing high conflict between the parents.” 84 Importantly, even after accounting for parents’ levels of education and violence, the shared care children had marginally better outcomes on the behavioural and emotional measures, according to their fathers, and had similar outcomes

according to their mothers. On the other hand, if the mothers were concerned about the safety of the children when they were with their fathers, they reported worse outcomes for the children in shared care. In three other Australian studies shared care was again more advantageous based on data from standardized tests. In the first study, 84 shared care and 473 primary care children were assessed at ages four and five and then again two years later. The shared care children were less hyperactive and had fewer social or academic problems than children in primary care.


  • 82. Sarah Westphal & Christiaan Monden, Shared Residence for Children of Divorce: Testing the Critics’ Concerns (under review, copy on file with author, 2014).
  • 83. Kaspiew et al., supra note 43, at 1.
  • 84. Id. at 273.

In the second study, the 90 shared care parents reported better outcomes for their children than the 411 primary care parents in regard to overall happiness, problems moving between homes, and the children’s relationships with their parents and their grandparents. Again though, those mothers who had concerns about their children’s safety in their father’s care reported worse outcomes for the children in shared care. And in the third study, even though the 110 children in primary care and the 26 in shared care were equally satisfied with their living arrangement, more than 40% of the primary care children said they wanted more time with their father.

Smaller Australian studies confirm these findings from the larger studies. For 105 adolescents living in shared care, 398 living with their mother and 120 living with their father, those in shared care reported having the best relationships with both parents, their stepparents and their grandparents two years after their parents’ separation. They were no different on social adjustment and academic achievement. But they were much more likely than those in primary care to confide in their fathers (80% versus 45%) and to say they had a close relationship with him (97% versus 65%). 85  In a smaller study with ten year olds, the 27 shared care children were reported by their mothers as being less hyperactive than the 37 children in primary care.

The children reported being equally satisfied with either parenting plan, but the shared care parents reported being more satisfied and less stressed than the other divorced parents. The researchers suggested that being less stressed may have enabled the sharing parents to provide higher quality parenting which, in turn, helped reduce their children’s hyperactivity. 86

Only one shared parenting study has included children from different countries. 87 In this impressive study, the researchers analysed data from 36 countries involving nearly 200,000 children: 148,177 in intact families, 25,578 in single mother, 3,125 in single father, 11,705 in mother/stepfather, 1,561 in father/stepmother, and 2,206 in shared parenting families.


  • 85. Lodge & Alexander, supra note 44, at 1.
  • 86. Jennifer Neoh & David Mellor, Shared Parenting: Adding Children’s Voices, 7 J. CHILD CUSTODY 155 (2010).
  • 87. Thoroddur Bjarnason & Arsaell M. Arnarsson, Joint Physical Custody and Communication with Parents: A Cross-National Study of Children in 36 Western Countries, 42 J. COMP. FAM. STUD. 871 (2012); Thoroddur Bjarnason et al., Life Satisfaction Among Children in Different Family Structures: A Comparative Study of 36 Western Countries, 26 CHILD. & SOC’Y 51 (2010).

The data came from the World Health Organization’s national surveys of eleven, thirteen, and fifteen year-olds. Consistent with the studies already discussed, only 29% of the shared parenting children said it was difficult to talk to their fathers about things that really bothered them, compared to 41% of the children who lived with their single mother or with their mother and stepfather. In fact, the children from shared families were somewhat less likely (29%) than those in intact families (31%) to have trouble talking to their fathers. What is especially important about this study is that, in all types of families, how satisfied the children felt with their lives was closely related to how well they felt they communicated with their fathers. In contrast, their satisfaction was not related to how well they believed their family was doing financially.

Since the shared parenting children felt they communicated best with their fathers, they were the most satisfied with their lives, regardless of the family’s financial situation. Unfortunately daughters were twice as likely as sons to say it was hard to talk to their fathers about things that were worrying them, regardless of family type.

C. Do Girls Benefit More than Boys ?

In regard to daughters another question is whether girls benefit any more or any less than boys do from shared parenting. Girls’ relationships with their fathers are generally more damaged by their parents’ divorce or separation than boys’ relationships. 88

Given this, we might wonder whether girls benefit more than boys from living with their fathers at least 35% of the time after the parents separate. According to the studies that have asked this question, several studies suggest that girls might benefit more than boys. Although adolescent girls felt more caught in the middle of their parents’ arguments than the boys did, the girls in shared parenting felt closer to their fathers and felt less need to take care of their mothers than the girls in sole residence. 89


  • 88. Nielsen, supra note 56; Linda Nielsen, Divorced Fathers and Their Daughters: A Review of Recent Research, 52 J. DIVORCE & REMARRIAGE 77 (2011).
  • 89. BUCHANAN & MACCOBY, supra note 57

This suggests that even though girls tend to get more embroiled in their parents’ problems, living with their fathers helps to offset the damage this would otherwise do to the father-daughter relationship.

Likewise, unlike the boys, adolescent Dutch girls in shared parenting families were less depressed, less fearful, and less aggressive than the girls who lived with their mothers even though they saw their fathers regularly. 90 On the other hand, in another Dutch study where parent conflict was extremely high, the girls were more depressed and more dissatisfied than the boys when they lived in a shared parenting family. 91 This suggests that boys may find it easier than girls to remain uninvolved in their parents’ conflicts. And even much younger girls who were only four to six years old were less socially withdrawn when they spent one or two nights a week with their fathers than when they never spent overnight time in his care. For the boys, however, the overnighting made no difference. 92

Overall then, children in shared parenting families had better outcomes than children in sole residence in terms of their psychological, emotional, and social well-being, as well as their physical health and stress related illnesses. Of equal if not greater importance, they had closer, more communicative and more enduring relationships with their fathers.

V. What Plans Are in the Best Interests of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers ?

A. Woozle Warning: What Does “Attachment” Mean?

Before looking at the six studies that focused exclusively on parenting plans for children under the age of four, we need to put ourselves on “woozle alert.” Three of these studies were measuring or were making claims about infants “attachments” to their mothers. Most people, including well educated family court professionals, hearing the term “attachment” would assume that these researchers were measuring either the “quality” of the mother’s relationship to her baby or the “strength” of their “bond.”


  • 90. Spruijt & Duindam, supra note 42, at 65.
  • 91. Vanassche et al., supra note 81, at 139.
  • 92. Marsha Kline Pruett et al., Critical Aspects of Parenting Plans for
  • Young Children, 42 FAM. CT. REV. 39 (2004).

And when we hear the term “insecurely attached,” we would probably assume that the baby has an insecure “relationship” with the mother or that the mother and child are not “securely bonded” to each other.

None of these assumptions, however, are correct. When researchers talk about infants’ “attachment classifications” or “attachment ratings” they are not talking about the quality of the child’s relationship with the mother or the quality of her parenting. “Attachment” measures are merely assessing how infants and toddlers react when they are in stressful, new, or challenging situations.

For example, if the mother leaves the baby for several minutes in a laboratory playroom, does the baby react happily but without distress when she returns, and does the baby confidently explore new surroundings without fear while in the mother’s presence? If so, these are signs of being “securely attached.” But if the baby withdraws or gets angry and frustrated when stressed in these situations, or is reluctant to explore new surroundings, then these are signs of being “insecurely attached.” When the baby’s behaviour is too erratic or inconsistent, then it is classified as having a “disorganized attachment.”

This is, of course, an overly simplified description of the procedures that are used. But the point is that judges and lawyers can easily be woozled by the term “attachment” and by the two research studies where babies who frequently overnighted in their father’s care had “more insecure attachments” on these attachment measures. To avoid being woozled in regard to parenting plans for infants and toddlers, people would have to be aware that in the research studies “attachment” is not synonymous with “bond” or “relationship.” 93 With that in mind, we can appreciate the way that several of the “baby” studies have been woozled in the media and in custody decisions.

B. The Six “Baby” Studies: Data vs. Woozles

Only six of the forty studies were exclusively focused on infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers. Since shared parenting for these very young children is a particularly controversial issue and since the parents in these studies differed considerably in terms of marital status, income, and education, additional details about these six studies are provided. Having infants or toddlers live 50% of the time with each parent is so rare that the term “shared parenting” is rarely used for these very young children. Instead, researchers consider the number of overnights the babies spend each month in the father’s care. The word “frequent” or “occasional” overnighting did not mean the same thing in each study.


  • 93. Pamela S. Ludolph & Milfred D. Dale, Attachment in Child Custody: An Additive Factor, Not a Determinative One, 46 FAM. L.Q. 225 (2012).

So in order to avoid confusion, the exact numbers of overnights are provided in the following summaries. The oldest study from 1999 only addressed one question: Is overnighting linked to how securely babies respond when separated from their mothers in a laboratory attachment procedure? 94

This study is important because it is often mistakenly cited as evidence that spending overnight time with the father contributes to babies being more “insecure attached” to their mothers. The study compared infants 12 to 20 months old in three types of families: 44 who spent some overnight time with their fathers (one to three nights a month), 49 who never overnighted, and 52 who lived with married parents. The infants were categorized as securely or insecurely attached based on the Strange Situation Procedure. The limitations of this study have been pointed out by a number of scholars, as well as by the researchers themselves. 95

Since a sizeable minority of the parents were not married or had no stable relationship with each other when their children were born, most of these infants had no relationship with their fathers before the overnighting began. Then too, all of the infants, even those in the married families, had exceptionally high levels of dis-organized attachments. Disorganized means that the infant’s behaviour toward the mother in the laboratory experiment was too inconsistent to be classified as either secure or insecure.


  • 94. Judith Solomo & Carol George, The Effects on Attachment of OvernightVisitation on Divorced and Separated Families: A Longitudinal Follow up, in ATTACHMENT DISORGANIZATION IN ATYPICAL POPULATIONS 243 (Judith Solomon & Carol George, eds. 1999).
  • 95. Judith Cashmore & Patrick Parkinson, Parenting Arrangements for Young Children: Messages for Research, 25 AUSTL. J. FAM. L. 236 (2011); Michael E. Lamb & Joan B. Kelly, Using the Empirical Literature to Guide the Development of Parenting Plans for Young Children, 39 FAM. CT. REV. 365 (2001); Marsha Kline Pruett et al., Supporting Father Involvement After Separation and Divorce, in PARENTING PLAN EVALUATIONS: APPLIED RESEARCH FOR THE FAMILY COURT 257 (Kathryn Kuehnle & Leslie Drozd, eds. 2012); Richard Warshak, Who Will Be There When I Cry in the Night? Revisitng Overnights: A Rejoinder to Biringen, et al., 40 FAM. CT. REV. 208 (2002).

 The two groups of separated parents were also very different from one another. The overnighters’ parents were far more combative, more violent, more likely to have children out of wedlock from several different relationships, and more likely to have never lived together. The overnighting was also very inconsistent and rare. Only 20% of the overnighting infants spent more than three nights a month in their father’s care and many went for weeks without seeing their father between overnights.

  • First and foremost, the overnighting infants were not rated as more insecure on the laboratory procedure. The insecure attachment ratings were not related to how often the infants’ overnighted or to how long they had been overnighting.
  • Second, regardless of whether they overnighted, even in the married families the infants with insecure ratings were the ones whose mothers were the most unresponsive and inattentive to their needs.
  • Third, overnighting infants had more disorganized (too inconsistent to be categorized) attachment ratings than infants in married families, but not more disorganized than non-overnighting infants. The bottom line is that the researchers concluded that overnighting was not linked to insecure attachment ratings.

Likewise, in the second phase of the study one year later, the overnighters did as well as the non-overnighters on a challenging problem solving task with their mother. One finding from the second phase of this study, however, often gets woozled into evidence against overnighting: When briefly separated from their mother a second time, 40% of the overnighters were angry, resistant, or unsettled compared to 30% of the combined group of intact family and non-overnighting toddlers. But this finding tells us nothing about overnighting since the intact and non-overnighting babies were combined into one group. In sum, the researchers concluded that whatever differences emerged in “disorganized” attachments were linked to the parents’ characteristics – not to the overnighting.

Five years later, a second study was conducted at Yale University with children between the ages of two and six. Ninety nine of these 132 children were overnighting, typically eight times a month, but sometimes more. 96 The other 33 children spent no overnight time with their fathers, although they did have contact with him during the day. The parents were a representative sample of lower middle class couples with average levels of conflict and no history of substance abuse or physical abuse. Most were Caucasian (86%) and had been married to one another (75%) when their children were born. All data came from standardized tests.

For the two to three year-olds, there were no significant differences between the overnighters and non-overnighters in regard to: sleep problems, depression, anxiety, aggression, attentiveness, or social withdrawal. Likewise, for the four to six year-olds, overnighting was not linked to any negative outcomes, but was associated with more positive outcomes in regard to: social problems, attention problems, and thought problems (strange behaviours and ideas, hallucinations, psychotic symptoms).

Unlike the two to three year-olds, there were gender differences on several outcomes for the four to six year-olds. The girls who overnighted were less socially withdrawn than girls who did not overnight, while there were no differences for the boys.

The girls were also less anxious than the boys when the parenting schedule was inconsistent and when several different people were taking care of them throughout the day. The researchers attributed this to the fact that girls are more socially and verbally mature than boys their age.

Importantly, this study examined the impact of having a number of different people taking care of the child throughout the day. This is important because one of the arguments against overnighting and shared parenting for infants and toddlers is that children this young will be more anxious and distressed if several different adults are taking care of them. As it turned out, the four to six year-olds with multiple caregivers had fewer social, behavioral and attention problems, but had more anxiety and sleep problems. Surprisingly though, having multiple caregivers had no impact at all on the two to three year-olds. Given this, the researchers emphasized that there is no reason to be concerned about toddlers’ being taken care of by many adults in an overnighting parenting plan.


  • 96. Marsha Kline Pruett et al., The Collaborative Divorce Project: A Court-Based Intervention for Separating Parents with Young Children, 43 FAM. CT.REV. 38 (2005).

On the other hand, having a consistent, unchanging schedule and having a good relationship with each parent was more closely related to children’s outcomes than whether or not they overnighted. Overall though, overnighting had no negative impact on the two to three year-olds and had a positive impact on the four to six year-olds, especially the girls.

The third study was conducted in Australia. 97 The children ranged in age from zero to five. Three types of parenting plans were compared: no overnights, occasional overnights (one to three nights monthly for infants and one to nine nights for the two to five year-olds) and “shared care” which meant 4-15 overnights a month for infants and 10-15 overnights for the two to five year-olds. We will look at these findings carefully because this particular study has been widely woozled in the media as evidence that overnighting or shared care have a negative impact on babies and toddlers.

For the four and five year-olds, there were no differences on any of the six measures of well-being or physical health. Similarly for the infants and toddlers, there were no differences on physical health, developmental problems, or reactions to strangers.

The shared care toddlers wheezed less often (these researchers interpreted wheezing as a sign of stress). Their scores on a behavioural problems test were higher than the less frequent overnighters – but the scores were perfectly within normal range. The shared care mothers said their babies stared at them and tried to get their attention more often, which the researchers claimed was a sign of insecurity on a three question test which they designed for their study – a “test” which had no established validity orreliability.

Further, the researchers stated that they were using these three questions as a “proxy” for measuring insecure attachments between mother and child even though this was not a validated attachment measure that is used by attachment researchers.

The shared care mothers said their babies were more irritable than the infants who overnighted one to three times monthly, but the researchers did not mention that the shared care irritability scores were identical to those of infants from intact families. Moreover they were no more irritable than infants who never overnighted. Likewise, although the nineteen shared parenting toddlers’ scores were lower on the “task persistence” scale, the scale did not differentiate healthy/normal scores from unhealthy/abnormal ones. In other words, there is no way to determine whether a lower score means the child has any noticeable or significant problems that would generate any concern about lack of persistence.


  • 97. McIntosh et al., supra note 55, at 1.

Unlike the other baby studies, this particular study has been heavily criticized for its shortcomings and its questionable interpretations of the data. Most importantly, most of the data came from measures with no established validity or reliability, meaning that we cannot know what was actually being measured or how to interpret the findings. Also the sample sizes were extremely small and most of these parents were not married or living together when the babies were born (60% to 90%). Many social scientists have concluded that this study provides no convincing evidence that overnighting or shared parenting had a negative impact on infants or toddlers. 98 Given its many flaws, it is troubling that this study has been frequently misrepresented or “woozled” in the media and in academic settings as evidence that overnighting has a “deleterious impact” on infants and toddlers. 99


  • 98. Cashmore & Parkinson, supra note 95, at 707; Michael Lamb, Critical Analysis of Research on Parenting Plans and Children’s Well-Being, in PARENTING PLAN EVALUATIONS: APPLIED RESEARCH FOR THE FAMILY COURT, supra note 96, at 214; Pamela S. Ludolph & Milfred D. Dale, Attachment in Child Custody: An Additive Factor, Not a Determinative One, 46 FAM. L.Q. 225 (2012); Linda Nielsen, Shared Residential Custody: A Recent Research Review (Part I), 27 AM. J. FAM. L. 61 (2013); Linda Nielsen, Shared Residential Custody: A Recent Research Review (Part II), 27 AM. J. FAM. L. 123 (2013); Patrick Parkinson & Judith Cashmore, Parenting Arrangements for Young Children – A Reply to Smyth, McIntosh and Kelaher, 25 AUSTL. J. FAM. L. 284 (2011); Pruett et al., supra note 95, at 152; Richard Warshak, Securing Children’s Best Interests While Resisting the Lure of Simple Solutions. University of Haifa, Conference on Parenting in Practice and Law, Haifa, Israel (2012); Richard Warshak, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children. 20 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y & L. 46 (2014).
  • 99. For a description of the woozling of this study, see Nielsen, supra note 98, at 164 (2014).

The fourth study [100] which was published in 2013 is distinct from the others because it focused exclusively on inner city, impoverished, never married, poorly educated, minority parents with high rates of incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems who were part of the ongoing “Fragile Families” study. 101 Given the unique characteristics of these parents, the findings cannot be generalized to the vast majority of separated or divorced parents – or to most American parents who are living in poverty.

Using six standardized measures of well-being, the researchers compared 384 one year-olds and 608 three year-olds who spent varying amounts of overnight time in their fathers’ care to 1,062 who did not overnight and who rarely had any contact with their fathers. They categorized the infants’ as “occasional” overnighters (1-51 overnights a year), and “frequent” overnighters (51-256 nights). But they categorized the three to five year-olds differently: rare overnights (1-12 a year), occasional (12-127 nights), and frequent (128-256 nights). Consistent with the other overnighting studies, there were virtually no differences between the frequent, the occasional, and the non-overnighters. On the standardized measures of wellbeing, only one statistically significant difference emerged: The three year-olds who frequently overnighted displayed more positive behaviour at age five than those who had rarely or never overnighted. The three year-olds who had overnighted from 51 to 256 nights as infants had more insecure scores on attachment to their mothers than those who overnighted less than 51 times. Unfortunately the attachment ratings were not valid because the mothers did the rating, instead of trained observers, which invalidates the results. 102

The one finding that received the most media attention and was widely “woozled” was this: 41% of the 51 frequently overnighting infants had insecure attachment ratings compared to 25% of the 364 non-overnighters and 16% of the 219 occasional overnighters.


  • 100. Samantha L. Tornello, Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment and Adjustment Among Very Young Children, 75 J. MARRIAGE & FAM. 871 (2013).
  • 101. Sara McClanahan, Outcomes for Children in Fragile Families, in CHANGING FAMILIES IN AN UNEQUAL SOCIETY 108 (Paula England & Marcia Carlson, eds. 2011).
  • 102. Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn et al., Assessing Attachment Security with the Attachment Q Sort: Meta-analytic Evidence for the Validity of the Observer AQS, 75 CHILD DEV. 1188 (2004).

But for the three year- olds, there was no clear link between attachment and overnighting. For the babies and the toddlers, those who occasionally overnighted had more secure attachment ratings than those who never overnighted. Ignoring the fact that there were no differences on any of the other five measures of well-being, this one finding was widely misreported in the media under alarming titles. For example, the British Psychological Society reported the study under the headline: “Staying away affects a baby’s attachment”103 and the University of Virginia’s press release headline read, “Overnights away from home affect babies attachments.”104

Why is this an example of woozling? First because the attachment data came from the mothers’ ratings, but when mothers do the rating there is no established validity for the test. 105 It is not clear, therefore what was being measured. Second, although it might seem alarming that 41% of the frequently overnighting infants were rated by their mothers as insecurely attached, this number needs to be put into context. In general population surveys, 61% of the infants and 41% of the toddlers who are living in poverty are rated as insecurely attached. 106 In other words, the children in this study had lower rates of insecure attachments than other children living in poverty. But the way this finding was presented in the media created an “anti-overnighting” woozle: spending any overnight time in the father’s care causes babies to have a less secure relationship and a weaker bond with their mother. Consequently, the message to judges and lawyers and parents was: parenting plans should not allow overnights in the father’s care until children are past the age of three or four.

Overnighting will weaken the child’s bond with the mother and create ongoing problems related to insecurity in future years.


In sum, this fourth study, despite its being widely woozled, found little to no negative effect linked to overnighting.

The fifth study re-analyzed the attachment test data that was used in previous Fragile Families’ Study. 107 Using exactly the same attachment data, Sokol and her colleagues found no link at all between the actual number of overnights for each child and each child’s rating on the attachment procedure. Rather than dividing the children into separate groups according to how frequently they overnighted, these researchers took each child’s attachment rating and exact number of times the child overnighted each month to determine whether there was any link. There was none.

Similarly, the sixth and most recent study found no negative link between overnighting as an infant or toddler and the quality of the children’s adult relationships with their mother. 108 The 31 adult children who had overnighted six to fourteen times a month as infants or toddlers rated their relationship with their mother just as favourably as those who had not overnighted early in their lives. In short, they did not have less secure or less meaningful relationships with their mother even though they had spent as much as half of each month in their father’s overnight care in the earliest years of their lives. But in contrast to those who had not overnighted at least six times a month, those who had overnighted had much better adult relationships with their fathers.

These young adults felt more important to their fathers, felt their fathers were more responsive and involved in their lives, and were less likely to blame either their mother or their father for problems in the family. They also had fewer stress related health problems and better overall health. What is especially important about these findings is that the researchers controlled for the amount of conflict and the educational levels of the parents. The more frequent early childhood overnighting was linked to more positive outcomes regardless of the conflict or the educational levels of the parents. As the researchers pointed out, the primary goal of infant overnighting studies should be to determine the long term, not the short term, impact of overnighting. Since this is the only study that has looked at these long term outcomes, it is especially relevant in regard to considering the importance of overnighting for the very youngest children.

In sum, the six studies did not provide evidence that regular and frequent overnighting undermines infants’ or toddlers’ wellbeing or weakens their bonds to their mothers.


  • 107. Katerina Sokol, Short Term Consequences of Overnight Parenting Time for Infants: Current Literature and Re-analysis, Workshop presented at Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Toronto (2014).
  • 108. William Fabricius, Long Term Correlates of Parenting Time for Infants, Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts Conference, Toronto (2014).

C. Woozling the Baby Studies: Why Is It So Common ?

 Compared to the studies with older children, several of the six baby studies have been frequently woozled in the media and in the academic community. 109 Why? One reason is that most of us have very strongly held beliefs and very emotional feelings about mothers and babies. And as mentioned earlier, “confirmation bias” inclines us to believe those data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and to discount data that refute our beliefs.

As mentioned earlier, according to confirmation bias, we more accept research that supports what we already believe. We are more easily woozled and more apt to be led astray by studies that reinforce our gut feelings or our personal experiences – even when those studies are flawed and even when they do not represent the larger body of research. In regard to the baby studies, three common beliefs can get in the way of seeing the data clearly and not overreaching the actual data. First, many people still believe that females are, by nature, better than males at raising, nurturing, or communicating with children – especially infants and toddlers. For those individuals, data showing any negative link between the baby’s being away from the mother overnight would be more appealing and more likely to capture their attention in the media. In fact, however, there is no empirical evidence that human females have a maternal “instinct” – an inborn, automatic, natural, built in or hard-wired set of skills that better equips them for taking care of babies or older children.


  • 109. See Nielsen, supra note 24, at 164, for a detailed description of this woozling.

A mother’s responsiveness or nurturance of a baby – just like a father’s – is largely acquired through experience, not through instinct or through some unique feature in her brain. 110 Indeed certain parts of the mother’s brain and the father’s brain become more activated when they are interacting with their baby or when they hear their baby cry. 111 Likewise, fathers are just as capable as mothers of matching and understanding their baby’s social signals and emotions – a skill referred to as “synchronicity.” 112

In fact, among gay male couples, the father who was doing most of the daily caregiving was better at synchronizing and understanding the baby’s signals and had more neural activity in those parts of the brain associated with nurturing behaviors. 113 Then too, both the father’s and the mother’s oxytocin levels (the amino acid associated with nurturing and affiliative behaviour), increase when they are interacting with their baby, while the father’s’ testosterone levels (the hormone associated with aggression) decrease. 114

The point is that, despite the scientific evidence, data will be more readily accepted – even if it is woozled data – if it confirms people’s pre-conceived notions about mothers and babies.

Another reason the negative findings from some of the overnighting studies attract more attention than the positive or neutral findings might be because those particular findings confirm three other beliefs about babies and their mothers: first, that babies are naturally more attached to their mothers than to their fathers; second, that the infant’s attachment or bond with the mother is more “primary” than with the father; and third, that the bond will be weakened if the baby spends too much time away from the mother.


  • 111. Eyal Abraham, Father’s Brain Is Sensitive to Childcare Experiences, 111 PSYCHOL. & COGNITIVE SCI. 9792 (2014); Shir Atzil et al., Synchrony and Specificity in the Maternal and Paternal Brain: Relations to Oxytocin and Vasopressin, 51 CHILD & ADOLESCENT PSYCHIATRY 798 (2012); Jennifer S. Mascaro et al., Behavioral and Genetic Correlates of the Neural Response to Infant Crying Among Human Fathers, 12 SOC. COGNITIVE & AFFECTIVE NEUROSCIENCE 166 (2013); James E. Swaim & Jeffrey P. Lorberbaum, Imaging the Human Parental Brain, in NEUROBIOLOGY OF THE PARENTAL BRAIN 83 (Robert S. Bridges, ed. 2008).
  • 112. Ruth Feldman, Infant-Mother and Infant-Father Synchrony: The Coregulation of Positive Arousal, 24 INFANT MENTAL HEALTH J. 1 (2003).
  • 113. Eyal Abraham, Father’s Brain Is Sensitive to Childcare Experiences, 111 PSYCHOL. & COGNITIVE SCI. 9792 (2014).
  • 114. Ilanit Gordon et al., Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans, 68 BIOLOGICAL PSYCHIATRY 377 (2010); Patty X. Kuo et al., Neural Responses to Infants Linked with Behavioral Interactions and Testosterone in Fathers, 9 BIOLOGICAL PSYCHOL. 302 (2012).

According to contemporary attachment research, however, these beliefs are not supported by the empirical data. Babies form equally strong attachments to both parents at around six months of age. And a secure attachment to the father is just as beneficial and just as “primary” in importance.

Among a few of the findings from specific studies are that infants and toddlers seek comfort equally from both parents,115 that although most 12-18 month-olds turn first to their mothers when they are distressed, there is no strong preference for either parent, 116 that fathers support children’s attachment security as much as mothers, 117 and that having an insecure relationship with the father at the age of 15 months is just as closely tied to children’s behavioural problems at the age of eight as having an insecure relationship as in infant with the mother. 118

The baby studies also seem to have been especially vulnerable to being presented out of context, especially by the media – a woozling technique where a study’s findings are presented as if they applied to the general population, when in fact they do not. A recent example of woozling in the media relates to Tornello’s overnighting study. As already discussed, the university’s press release and the study’s abstract did not present a balanced overview of the findings. Not surprisingly then, the study was soon being woozled internationally under alarming headlines: “Over- night separation linked to weaker bond,119 “Babies who spent more than one night away from mother are more insecure,120 “Nights away from mum leave babies less secure: New findings could affect custody rulings for young children,” 121Divorce study show infants’ attachment to caregivers affected by joint custody.”122

Keep in mind that very few of the parents in the study were divorced because 85% of them had never been married. Illustrating how grossly distorted the data became, one NBC article stated: “A new study suggests parents make or break their child’s ability to form healthy relationships for life before the baby’s first birthday. This study uncovered that when babies spend even one night away from their primary caregivers in that first year those babies may be in for tough times building relationships as adults.” 123 Beyond the United States, similar stories appeared in newspapers and parenting blogs in India, 124 the United Kingdom, 125 and Australia, 126 as well as on a medical news website,127 a law firm’s website, 128 and the Psyche Central website. 129


Even the British Psychological Association reported the study on its website with the title, “Staying away affects a baby’s attachment.”130 These alarming media reports and woozled versions of the actual data are reminiscent of what happened in the media several years earlier with the Australian baby study whose woozling has been documented elsewhere. 131 In the case of both studies, shortly after the studies were published, the woozles started running amuck in the media.

VI. When Is Shared Parenting Not Beneficial for Children ?

Overall the forty studies show that children generally fare better in families where most of them lived at least one-third of the time and usually half time with each parent. But this does not mean that all of the shared children were doing as well or better than children who were living with their mother and spending varying amounts of time with their father. Under some circumstances, the outcomes were worse for the shared parenting children. What were those circumstances ?

First, when the mothers in a nationally representative sample of Australian families were worried about the children’s safety when they were with their father, the mothers rated the children as being more stressed and more poorly adjusted when they had a shared parenting plan. 132 These mothers were worried about the father’s violent or aggressive behaviour or about his being negligent in ways that might jeopardize the children’s safety.


  • 130 van Ijzendoorn et al., supra note 102, at 1188.
  • 131 See Nielsen, supra note 24, at 164.
  • 132 Kaspiew et al., supra note 43, at 1.

As for parental conflict, one of the American studies found that teenagers in the shared parenting families were more likely to feel caught in the middle of their parents’ disagreements – girls more so than boys. On the other hand, the quality of these teenagers’ relationships with their parents was not linked to the quality of their parents’ relationship with each other – and the shared teenagers had closer relationships with their parents than the teenagers in the sole residence families. 133

Similarly, in Belgium, the teenage girls, but not the boys, felt more depressed in a shared parenting family than in sole residence if their parents were in high conflict. 134 These studies suggest that girls might be more easily stressed than boys by high conflict. Finally, the quality of the children’s relationship with their father matters, as evidenced by an American study with 141 teenagers (average age of thirteen) all of whose parents had all been designated as “high” conflict by a judge and all of whom were litigating over parenting time or other custody issues. The teenagers who felt they had a bad relationship with their father had more behavioural problems when they lived in a shared parenting family than when they lived primarily with their mother. 135

Although not a negative outcome in the sense of creating significant or long lasting problems for the children, living in two homes is more inconvenient for adolescents than for younger children. Given their more complicated social and academic lives, this is not particularly surprising. Nevertheless, even the adolescents reported that living in two homes was worth the trouble, namely because they maintained close relationships with both parents. These studies were based on interviews with 22 children 136 and 105 adolescents in Australia,137 37 Swedish adolescents,138 21 British adolescents,139 and 22 elementary age children, 140 and 80 college students in the United States. 141


  • 133. BUCHANAN & MACCOBY, supra note 57.
  • 134. Vanassche et al., supra note 81, at 139.
  • 135. Irwin Sandler, Lorey Wheeler & Sanford Braver, Relations of Parenting Quality, Interparental Conflict, and Overnights with Mental Health Problems of Children in Divorcing Families with High Legal Conflict, 27 J. FAM. PSYCHOL. 915 (2013).
  • 136. Monica Campo & Belinda Fehlberg, Shared Parenting Time in Australia: Children’s Views, 34 J. SOC. WELFARE & FAM. L. 295 (2012).
  • 137. Lodge & Alexander, supra note 44, at 1.
  • 138. Gry Mette D. Haugen, Children’s Perspectives on Shared Residence, 24 CHILD. & SOC’Y 112 (2010); Anna Singer, Active Parenting or Solomon’s Justice? Alternating Residence in Sweden for Children with Separated Parents, 4 UTRECH L. REV. 35 (2008).
  • 140. Luepnitz, supra note 36, at 105.
  • 141. William V. Fabricius & Jeff A. Hall, Young Adults’ Perspectives on Divorce, 38 FAM. CT. REV. 446 (2000).

VII. Is There Any Consensus on Shared Parenting Among Professionals ?

Have the experts ever reached any group consensus on shared parenting? On three occasions groups of social scientists or family law professionals have stated their mutual opinions and mutual recommendations on custody issues in published papers.

These three papers are considered “consensus” reports because they represent the shared views of a group of professionals in contrast to co-authored articles where several individuals express their mutual views and recommendations.

The first group convened more than two decades ago in 1994 under the sponsorship of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 142 The eighteen participants were experts from developmental and clinical psychology, sociology and social welfare who were asked to evaluate the existing research on how children were affected by divorce and different custody arrangements. Among their conclusions were that most fathers fail to maintain or are prevented from maintaining significant contact with their children. “Time distribution arrangements that ensure the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines – including bedtime and waking rituals, transition to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities” keep fathers playing important and central roles. 143 As for parenting plans that allow children to live with each parent, they agreed that “the psychological continuity” generally, though not always, “outweighs the disadvantages arising.


  • 142. Michael E. Lamb et al., The Effects of Divorce and Custody Arrangements on Children’s Behavior, 35 FAM. & CONCILIATION CTS. REV. 393 (1997).
  • 143. Id. at 400.

Further they concurred that there was too little research about the impact of conflict on children to jump to conclusions about which parenting plans were most beneficial for children with high conflict parents.

In sum this group recommended that parenting plans provide children with more fathering time – including time living with him in his home – and that this plan not be ruled out simply because the parents were in high conflict with each other.

The second group was sponsored by an interdisciplinary organization, the Association of Family and Conciliatory Courts (AFCC) in 2013. 145 In the “think tank” there were 19 social scientists or mental health practitioners in the group of 32. The other 13 were judges, lawyers or law school professors. And one was a domestic violence activist. The interdisciplinary group reached no consensus on parenting plans for children younger than five. But they did agree that “having parenting time that is not solely on weekends typically contributes to higher quality parenting and more enduring relationships with children.” 146

They also concurred that: “There is enough research to conclude that children in families where parents have moderate to low conflict and can make cooperative, developmentally informed decisions about the children would clearly benefit from shared parenting arrangements.” 147 A “handful” of participants believed that equal shared parenting should be the norm in custody law. But the majority took the position that each custody decision should be made on a case by case basis rather than relying more heavily on the empirical research. The report did not disclose how many of the 32 participants disagreed with these conclusions and did not describe the process by which these 32 individuals were invited to participate. In sum, the majority of these family law professionals and social scientists felt that shared parenting benefits children, but only if their parents have “low to medium” conflict, collaborative relationship – and only if the children are older than a certain age, which is not clearly specified in the report.


  • 144. Id. at 401.
  • 145. Marsha Kline Pruett & J. Herbie DiFonzo, Closing the Gap: Research,
  • Policy, Practice and Shared Parenting, 44 FAM. CT. REV. 152 (2014).
  • 146. Id. at 161.
  • 147. Id. at 162.

After the report was released, two articles were published expressing the concerns of two highly regarded researchers who did not participate in the AFCC meeting. Sanford Braver whose work on divorced parents and their children was supported for over forty years by eighteen federal research grants deemed the report “disappointing.” As Braver explained, the report failed to say much of substance, failed to consider the negative impact of individualizing custody decisions, and failed to give proper weight to the empirical research. 148 Michael Lamb, editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, agreed with Braver. Further, Lamb criticized the group’s report for overstating the empirical research on high conflict, exaggerating its impact on children and inflating its importance as a factor working against shared parenting. Lamb also noted that the report had embraced the erroneous assumption that individualized decision making is inherently superior to decisions that are guided by the empirical data – an assumption that has been proven incorrect in the research literature. 149

In short, Lamb concluded that the AFCC’s group report was “embarrassingly inconclusive.” 150 The third group of experts to make recommendations about shared parenting was unique in several ways.151 First and foremost, the group consisted of 111 international experts in psychology who were able to reach a consensus on specific recommendations regarding parenting plans. Second, all of the group members were social scientists or mental health practitioners.

None were lawyers, judges or law school professors. Third, most of them held or had held prestigious positions or had long histories of publishing books and articles on issues germane to child custody decisions. Among this preeminent group of scholars and researchers were 11 people who had held major office in professional associations, 2 former Presidents of the American Psychological Association (APA), 5 university Vice Presidents,

Provosts, or Deans, 14 professors emeriti (including the doyenne of divorce research, Mavis Hetherington), 17 department chairs, 61 full professors, 8 endowed chairs, 2 former presidents of the American Association of Family Therapy, a former president of APA’s Division of Family Psychology, and several of the leading attachment and early childhood development researchers in the world.


  • 148. Sanford Braver, The Costs and Pitfalls of Individualizing Decisions and Incentivizing Conflict, 44 FAM. CT. REV. 175, 180 (2014).
  • 149. Michael E. Lamb, Dangers Associated with the Avoidance of Evidence Based Practice, 44 FAM. CT. REV. 193, 197 (2014).
  • 150. Id. at 194.
  • 151. Richard A. Warshak, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report, 20 PSYCHOL., PUB. POL’Y & L. 46 (2014).

These 111 experts endorsed the conclusions and recommendations in a paper published by the American Psychological Association and written by psychologist and researcher, Richard Warshak whose decades of work on children of divorce are world renown. Among the recommendations and conclusions of these 111 professionals were: “The social science evidence . . . supports the view that shared parenting should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages, including very young children.” 152

Contrary to the conclusions reached by Jennifer McIntosh et al. and by Samantha Tornello et al. in their own baby studies, the consensus of these 111 professionals was: “There is no evidence to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers.” And in respect to parental conflict, the group concurred that: “Denying joint physical custody when the parents are labeled high conflict brings additional drawbacks to children by denying them the protective buffer of a two nurturing relationships.” “We recognize that some parents and situations are unsuitable for shared parenting, such as parents who neglect or abuse their children and those from whom the children would need protection and distance even in intact families. . .and parents who have no prior relationship or a peripheral one at best with their child.” 153 In sum, these 111 accomplished scientists – professionals whose qualifications to judge the scientific literature relevant to this topic are beyond dispute – concur that shared parenting plans are in the best interests of the majority of children and that shared parenting should not be ruled out just because the children are very young or just because their parents were in high conflict.


  • 152. Id. at 59.
  • 153. Id. at 59-60.

The only published article that has attempted to rebut the consensus paper was written by the three Australian researchers whose baby overnighting study had been refuted in the consensus paper. 154 Jennifer McIntosh, the lead researcher of the Australian baby study and the lead author of the rebuttal article, and her two co-authors stated that Richard Warshak and the 111 experts who endorsed his paper did not measure up to their definition of a “consensus.” Why? First because the paper was not “commissioned” by any organization. Second because the 111 social scientists had not been “nominated” as “experts.” And third because Warshak did not report how many people who read his paper declined to endorse it and did not explain how the 111 social scientists had become part of this consensus group. In light of these criticisms, it is important to know that Warshak specifically acknowledged in his paper that it did not represent the views of all scholars in the shared parenting field and that the paper had been specifically designed to present the views of people who were social scientists. It was not designed, as was AFCC’s think tank, to try to achieve an interdisciplinary consensus in a group that included family law professionals. It is also worth noting that McIntosh was among the 32 people that AFCC’s leaders had “commissioned” and “nominated” as part of their expert panel. Moreover, the 111 members of the consensus group had concurred that the conclusions drawn by McIntosh and by Robert Emery and Tornello in their own infant overnighting studies were unsupportable: Neither of their studies had reliable data that linked frequent overnighting or shared parenting to negative outcomes for infants and toddlers. 155

Finally, it should be noted that in a keynote address at the AFCC annual conference in Australia, McIntosh dismissed the consensus paper published in an APA journal and endorsed by the 111 scholars as “dull, unnecessary, divisive and retrograde” without presenting any arguments to support devaluing the work of such a large group of esteemed colleagues. Further, McIntosh told the audience that her colleague, Robert Emery, considered the consensus paper “undeserving of time or attention.” 156


In sum, the two groups that were entirely composed of social scientists (129 in total) agreed that the parents’ conflicts should not be a pivotal factor in determining parenting plans. Metaphorically, high conflict should not be the tail that wags the dog. In contrast, some portion of the AFCC group (the numbers were not disclosed) that included family law professionals felt that shared parenting should not be an option for high conflict parents.

These two groups agreed that shared parenting plans were in the best interests of most children. But only the group composed entirely of 111 social scientists endorsed overnighting and shared parenting even for the youngest children.

VIII. But the Forty Studies Are Not Applicable to This Case Because . . .

People who dismiss or ignore the findings from the forty studies often make four claims to support their position that “We can’t apply the findings from the forty studies to this particular family or even to the majority of separated parents.” First, all families are unique – which means judges, custody evaluators, and other professionals involved in a case can “predict” more accurately than the forty studies whether the children in the case before the court are likely to benefit from shared parenting. Second, the forty studies compared the average scores of the group of shared parenting children to the average scores of the group in sole residence – which means we cannot apply the findings to any individual child since these are aggregate, actuarial data. Third, even though there was a correlation between shared parenting and better outcomes, this does not “prove” that shared parenting “caused” these benefits. Fourth, these studies are not trustworthy and reliable enough because each study had flaws and because forty studies are not “enough.”

First, the forty studies included almost a quarter of a million parents with varying socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds and varying levels of conflict (including isolated incidents of physical anger and litigation in court). The 115,157 children ranged from one to twenty-two years of age and “sole residence” families included children who were living with their parent and stepparent. Given this, unless it has been established that a particular family has little to nothing in common with the thousands involved in the forty studies, it would be illogical to assume or to predict that the children cannot benefit from shared parenting.

Guided by the results of the forty studies where most children benefitted more from actually living at least one-third of the time with each parent, parenting plans can still be individualized to meet a family’s special needs.

Second, actuarial or aggregate data in social science studies have been shown to increase reliability and trustworthiness of predictions. In contrast, serious concerns have been raised about relying on or trusting data from one individual’s custody evaluation 157 or relying on the opinions of family law professionals or expert witnesses who are not well informed about the empirical studies. 158

Third, in regard to trusting correlational data, studies that are comparing the well-being of children in various types of families (rich vs. poor, single parent vs. two parent, shared parenting vs. sole residence, etc.) have to be correlational since researchers cannot ethically or practically design “experiments” that would establish direct cause and effect. These correlational studies and aggregate data yield valuable information about which factors are linked to children’s well-being.


  • 157. Marc J. Ackerman & Linda J. Steffan, Custody Evaluators’ Views of Controversial Issues, 20 AM. J. FAM. L. 200 (2006); James N. Bow et al., Attorneys’ Beliefs and Opinions About Child Custody Evaluations, 52 FAM. CT. REV 213, 239 (2011); Robert E. Emery et al., Assessment of Child Custody Evaluations, 6 PSYCHOL. SCI. IN THE PUB. INT. 1 (2005); Kelly & Johnston, supra note 23, at 233; Robert F. Kelly & Sarah H. Ramsey, Child Custody Evaluations: The Need for Systems Level Outcomes Assessments, 47 FAM. CT. REV. 286 (2009); Klass & Peros, supra note 23, at 46.
  • 158. Braver, supra note 148, at 148; Kelly & Johnston, supra note 23, at 233; Lamb, supra note 149, at 19; Ludolph & Dale, supra note 98, at 225; Nielsen, supra note 24; Warshak, supra note 151, at 46.

If policy-makers ignored or dismissed correlational data or aggregate data, many policies and laws that benefit children would not exist: for example, laws about adolescent drinking, smoking, driving while texting, or getting a marriage license. Many advances in family law are based on correlational and aggregate data. For example, correlational and aggregate data showed that more fathering time benefitted children which, in turn, led to nationwide change in custody laws to provide children with more fathering time.

Fourth, all social science studies have flaws. This is an inescapable reality. And all areas of research can benefit from more studies. But this does not mean that we should ignore the existing research or do nothing differently until we “get more information.”

Finally we need to keep in mind that all of us are inclined to insist on more data when the findings do not confirm our existing beliefs. Conversely, we are easily satisfied with much less data when the findings confirm what we already believe – a flaw in our thinking processes that psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” 159 In short, it is not in the best interests of children for us to ignore or to dismiss the findings from the forty studies.

IX. Summary and Recommendations

 What are five of the most important messages for judges and lawyers from the forty studies? First, shared parenting is linked to better outcomes for children of all ages across a wide range of emotional, behavioural and physical health measures. But these studies should not be misconstrued to mean that children benefit from living with an unfit, unloving, neglectful, or abusive parent – or from a parent who had little or no relationship with the children before the parents separated. Second, regular and frequent overnights for infants and shared parenting for toddlers and other children under five is not linked to negative outcomes. Specifically it does not weaken the young child’s relationship with or “attachment” to the mother. Third, even if the parents are in high conflict, most children still benefit from shared parenting if they have loving, meaningful relationship with their parents. In that vein, we should keep in mind that most parents with shared parenting plans do not have an exceptionally friendly, conflict free, collaborative co-parenting relationship.


  • 159. Martindale, supra note 27, at 31.

Fourth, even though most shared parenting couples have higher incomes and less conflict than other separated parents, these two factors alone do not explain the better outcomes for shared parenting.

Finally, even though most children acknowledge that living in two homes is sometimes an inconvenient hassle, they feel the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. One of the most beneficial outcomes linked to shared parenting is children’s maintaining a loving, meaningful relationship with both parents.

Given this, we need to keep in mind that this particular benefit may not become apparent until later in the children’s lives. So although children who are living almost exclusively with one parent may appear to be doing “just fine” at present, the relationship with their other parent is more likely to be weakened or to be irreparably damaged as time goes by. And that disadvantage may last a lifetime.

Rather than trusting or being willing to consider empirical data that refute their long held beliefs, some professionals might try to defend their beliefs by insisting that the correlational studies cannot “prove” that shared parenting is responsible for the children’s better outcomes. Embracing this position, they might contend that any number of factors in the family’s past or in the present may have been the actual cause of the better outcomes for the shared parenting children.

This posture brings to mind the anecdote from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is arguing with a girl over the actual “cause” of the death of someone they both knew. The perturbed girl explains to Huck that a person might stump his toe and take medicine for the pain which makes him so dizzy that he falls down a well and breaks his neck and “bust his brains out.” Then “somebody come along and ask what killed him and some numskull up and say, Why, he stumped his toe.” Twain’s point, of course, is that we can always claim that what appears to be the most proximal, most obvious, or most immediate “cause” of a particular outcome is not in fact the actual cause – that the real cause, lying elsewhere in the past, has evaded us.

In that vein, it is worth remembering that many of the forty studies did factor in other variables such as the family’s income and the level of conflict between the parents – and still found better outcomes for the children in the shared parenting families.

Once having been informed of the research, family court professionals should incorporate the empirical data into their decision making and should share the research with their less knowledgeable colleagues. Being familiar with this research decreases the odds that we will act on faulty assumptions or be duped by data that have been distorted, misrepresented, or “woozled.” These research studies enable us to respond more confidently and more effectively when our “woozle alert” sounds the alarm – for example, to question and to be wary when others assert that “the research shows” children cannot benefit from shared parenting plans if their parents do not get along as co-parents, or if the custody issues had to be settled in court, or if the children are younger than four. Shared parenting plans, of course, are not the only factors that are correlated with better outcomes for children. Decades of research have established that a number of factors are correlated with negative outcomes for children whether their parents are still living together or not – factors such as the parents’ low incomes, poor parenting, physical abuse, or a parent’s psychological or substance abuse problems.

Still, it has become clear that continuing to live with each parent at least one third of the time is one of the most beneficial factors – and, unlike low incomes or poor parenting, it is a factor over which family court professionals have some control or influence.

Putting our trust in the current research means putting aside negative predictions about shared parenting that are based on the worst situations seen in court – or based on the assumption that a parent’s weaknesses in parenting will cancel out the benefits of shared parenting. Rather than being swayed by hearsay about “what the research shows,” we serve the best interests of children by relying on data over dogma and by being on the alert for woozles that can lead us astray in making decisions about the most beneficial parenting plans for children.


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Co-parents happier than single parents and non-resident parents (research)

Are Parents with Shared Residence Happier ? Children’s Post-divorce Residence Arrangements and Parents’ Life Satisfaction

Source: Stockholm Research Reports in Demography 2015: 17

Franciëlla van der Heijden, Utrecht University
Michael Gähler, SOFI, Stockholm University
Juho Härkönen, Department of Sociology, Stockholm University

This study investigates whether shared residence parents experience higher life satisfaction than sole and non-resident parents, and whether frequent visitation is similarly related to parents’ life satisfaction as shared residence. Regression analyses on data from 4,175 recently divorced parents show that shared residence parents report higher life satisfaction than other, particularly non-resident, parents, but that this relationship can largely be explained by benefits and opportunity costs of parenthood. Shared residence fathers enjoy a better relationship with their child and their ex-partner and are more engaged in leisure activities than nonresident fathers. Shared residence mothers are more involved in leisure activities, employment, and romantic relationships than sole resident mothers. These differences contribute to the shared residence parents’ higher life satisfaction. Frequent interaction between the non-resident father and the child could partly, but not completely, substitute for shared residence, increasing both non-resident fathers’ and sole mothers’ life satisfaction.

Keywords: Divorce, Joint physical custody, Life satisfaction, Living arrangements, Parents, Shared residence, Subjective well-being.

Download the full report:!/menu/standard/file/SRRD_2015_17.pdf

Definition Shared residence (also called joint physical custody, shared placement, or alternating residence), in which children reside more or less equally with each parent, has become a popular post-dissolution residence arrangement in several Western countries.

Key Extracts:

” . . . . Fathers  who  see  their  child  several  times  a  week  are  as  satisfied  with  their lives as shared residence fathers and fathers’ life satisfaction decreases the less they see their child.  There  is,  however,  a  caveat  for  concluding  that  frequent  visitation  can  replace  shared residency  as  a provider  of  life  satisfaction:  nonresident  fathers’  child  visitation  seems  to compete with involvement in a new romantic relationship (which increases life satisfaction).”

” . . .  Once  repartnering  was  controlled  for,  even  frequently  visiting  fathers  had lower  life satisfaction than shared residence fathers. Shared residence fathers thus benefit from having a better relationship with their child even compared to frequently visiting nonresident fathers.”

” . . . . . . Our  findings  are  generally  similar  to  those  by  Sodermans  and  colleagues  (2015),  the only previous study to analyze residence arrangements’ importance for parental well-being. We,  too,  found  that  the  parent-child  relationship  and  leisure  activities  account  for  an important share of the life satisfaction differences by residence arrangements. In addition, we analyzed  the  importance  of  repartnering,  parental  conflict,  and  employment  as  explanations and  importantly,  showed  that  frequent  visitation  of  the  nonresident  parent  cannot  fully substitute for shared residence in shaping parental well-being.”

” . . . . Despite these limitations, our study has shown that parents with shared residence are more  satisfied  with  their  lives  than  parents  with  a  different  arrangement  because they  can engage in a larger number of satisfying activities. It also showed that while frequent visitation of the non-resident parent has similar life satisfaction effects, it is not a perfect substitute for shared  residence.  Our  findings  have  thus  added  to  the  literature  suggesting  that  shared residence is a favorable post-family dissolution arrangement for children and adults alike.”

Click to access SRRD_2015_17.pdf

Posted in Divorce, Equal Parenting, Joint physical custody, Living arrangements, Netherlands, Shared residence, Sweden | 3 Comments

Kontaktabbruch zu den leiblichen Eltern durch Trennung macht Kinder krank ! (Metastudy, Prinz/Gresser, 2015)

Macht Kontaktabbruch zu den leiblichen Eltern Kinder krank? Eine Analyse wissenschaftlicher Literatur

Prinz/Gresser: Macht Kontaktabbruch zu den leiblichen Eltern Kinder krank? NZFam 2015, 989-995

Quelle: Neue Zeitschrift für Familienrecht (NZFam), von Prinz A., Gresser U. (2015) NZFam 21/2015, 2: 989-995, 06.11.2015

Zahnärztin Anna Prinz und Internistin Prof. Dr. med. Ursula Gresser [*]

Jeden Tag werden weltweit Kinder von ihren Eltern getrennt, sei es durch Flucht, Krieg, Tod, Trennung der Eltern, gerichtliche oder behördliche Maßnahmen. Die Erfassung von Folgen solcher Traumata und ihre Bedeutung für die medizinische Versorgung der Betroffenen werden immer wichtiger.

  1. Ziel der Studie

Ziel der vorliegenden Literaturanalyse war es, zu klären, ob Kinder, die in ihrer Kindheit und Jugend Kontaktverlust zu ihren lebenden Eltern erleiden, über das aktuelle Trauma hinaus länger anhaltende gesundheitliche Folgen zeigen. Wenn dies so wäre, dann müssten aus ärztlicher Sicht alle denkbaren Maßnahmen ergriffen werden, um einen Kontaktabbruch von Kindern zu ihren Eltern zu verhindern.

  1. Methodik

Nachfolgend werden die Ergebnisse von sechs wissenschaftlichen Studien, die sich mit der Frage gesundheitlicher Folgen von Kontaktabbruch zwischen Kindern und lebenden leiblichen Elternteilen befassen, bezüglich der Fragestellung dargestellt und bewertet. Eine Zusammenfassung dieser Publikationen zeigt die unten stehende Tabelle.

III. Literatur

  1. Elternverlust in der Kindheit und Risiko für das erste Auftreten einer schweren Depression oder eines Alkoholmissbrauchs

Ziel der retrospektiven Studie von Kendler et al. [1] war es, zu klären, ob es einen Zusammenhang zwischen Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil in der Kindheit und dem Verlauf der Risikoraten für schwere Depression und Alkoholabhängigkeit gibt, und ob das Geschlecht eine Rolle spielt.

Hierzu wurden am Department für Psychiatrie der Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond/USA, 5070 gleichgeschlechtliche und 2118 nicht-gleichgeschlechtliche Zwillinge der Jahrgänge 1934 – 1974 befragt.

Elternverlust wurde definiert als Kontaktverlust zwischen Kind und Elternteil vor dem 17. Geburtstag. Es wurden zwei Ursachen unterschieden: Kontaktverlust durch Tod eines Elternteils und Kontakt- verlust zu einem lebenden Elternteil, im Folgenden als Trennung bezeichnet.

Als Anfangszeitpunkt wurde der Zeitpunkt angesetzt, zu dem der Kontaktverlust begann. Bei Auftreten von Depression oder Alkoholkrankheit wurde die Zeit bis zum Wiedererreichen des Wertes vor dem Kontaktverlust ermittelt.

Von einem Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil in der Kindheit berichteten von den 5070 gleichgeschlechtlichen Zwillingen 1021 (20,1 %), davon 337 durch Tod (33,0 %) und 836 durch Trennung (81,9 %). Beides betraf dreimal häufiger den Vater als die Mutter. Von den 2118 nicht- gleichgeschlechtlichen Zwillingen berichteten 443 (20,9 %) von einem Kontaktverlust, davon 131 durch Tod (29,6 %) und 407 durch Trennung (91,9 %).

Von den insgesamt 7188 Befragten hatten damit 1464 mindestens einen Kontaktverlust (20,4 %), davon 468 durch Tod (32,0 %) und 1243 durch Trennung (84,9 %).

Das Erkrankungsrisiko für eine Depression war in allen Gruppen im Jahr nach dem Kontaktverlust erhöht (iHR [2] = 5,28), bei Verlust des Kontakts zur Mutter deutlich stärker (iHR 13,36 bzw. 8,12) als bei Verlust des Kontakts zum Vater (iHR = 2,37 bzw. 6,49). Trat der Kontaktverlust durch Tod der Mutter ein, waren die Folgen fast doppelt so schwerwiegend (iHR 13,36) wie bei Kontaktabbruch zur Mutter durch Trennung (iHR = 8,12). Bei Kontaktabbruch zum Vater war es umgekehrt: Die Folgen waren bei Trennung höher (iHR = 6,49) als bei Tod (iHR = 2,37).

Während es nach Kontaktverlust durch Tod 12 bis 15 Jahre dauerte, bis das Erkrankungsrisiko wieder auf das Ausgangsniveau vor dem Kontaktverlust zurückging, dauerte dies nach Kontaktverlust durch Trennung mit 29 bis 35 Jahren mehr als doppelt so lang. Zwischen männlichen und weiblichen Betroffenen gab es keine signifikanten Unterschiede.

Einen Einfluss von scheidungsbedingten oder genetischen Faktoren auf die Dauer der Erhöhung des Risikos für schwere Depression schließen die Autoren nicht aus.

Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil durch Trennung – nicht aber durch Tod – führte zu einem erhöhten Risiko, an einer Alkoholabhängigkeit zu erkranken. Am ausgeprägtesten war dies bei Kontaktverlust zur lebenden Mutter, hier war das Erkrankungsrisiko für Alkoholabhängigkeit signifikant erhöht (iHR = 4,70 mit p < 0,0001) mit einer errechneten Erholungszeit von 115,5 Jahren.

Bei weiblichen Betroffenen zeigte sich ein höheres Erkrankungsrisiko bei Kontaktverlust zu einem lebenden Elternteil, insbesondere wenn der Kontaktverlust den Vater betraf.

Fazit: Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil verursachte bei den Kindern über viele Jahre erhöhte Erkrankungsrisiken, insbesondere für schwere Depressionen. Der Kontaktverlust zur Mutter wirkte sich hierbei deutlich gravierender aus als der Kontaktverlust zum Vater. Kontaktverlust zum Vater durch Trennung war folgenschwerer als Kontaktverlust zum Vater durch Tod. Der durchschnittliche Erkrankungszeitpunkt lag für schwere Depression bei 27,6 und für Alkoholabhängigkeit bei 22,4 Jahren. Die Erholungszeit bis zum Erreichen des Krankheitsrisikos vor dem Ereignis war nach Kontaktverlust durch Trennung mehr als doppelt so lang wie nach Kontaktverlust durch Tod.

Die Kinder wurden bezüglich ihrer leiblichen Eltern bei Kontaktverlust durch Trennung in etwa doppelt so stark und fast dreimal so lang belastet wie bei Kontaktverlust durch Tod.

  1. Kontaktabbruch zu Eltern in der Kindheit und Funktion des Hypothalamus-Hypophysen- Nebennierenrinden-Systems im Erwachsenenalter

Ziel der Studie von Tyrka et al. [3] war es, Erkenntnisse darüber zu gewinnen, ob und ggf. welchen Einfluss ein Kontaktabbruch zu einem Elternteil auf den Cortisolhaushalt von Erwachsenen hat, die als Kinder Kontaktverlust erfahren haben. Eine Veränderung dieses Systems kann bei psychiatrischen Krankheiten auftreten. [4]

Hierzu wurden 88 Erwachsene ohne Zeichen einer Axis-I-Erkrankung (Depression, Schizophrenie, Angststörung) untersucht: kein Elternverlust (n = 44) oder Kontaktverlust zu einem lebenden Eltern- teil (25) bzw. verstorbenem Elternteil (19). Alters- und Geschlechtsverteilung der Gruppen waren ähnlich. Elternverlust wurde definiert als Kontaktverlust von mindestens 6 Monaten Dauer zwischen Kind und Elternteil vor dem 18. Geburtstag. Ausgewertet wurde nach 3 Gruppen: 1) Tod eines Eltern- teils, 2) Trennung von einem lebenden Elternteil, 3) kein Elternverlust.

Verlust durch Tod (n = 19) trat durchschnittlich im Alter von 9,2 Jahren auf und betraf 2 x die Mutter und 17 x den Vater. Kontaktverlust zu lebenden Elternteilen (n = 25) trat durchschnittlich im Alter von 5,2 Jahren auf und betraf 4 x die Mutter, 13 x den Vater und 6 x beide Eltern. Bei 22 Fällen war der Kontaktverlust dauerhaft, bei 3 Fällen vorübergehend. Die sozioökonomischen Belastungen waren in der Gruppe mit Kontaktverlust zu einem lebenden Elternteil am größten; 4 Kinder waren in Fremd- pflege untergebracht.

Die corticotrope Hypophysenfunktion wurde mittels des Dexamethason (Dex)-CRH-Tests untersucht. Daneben erfolgten umfangreiche physische und psychische Untersuchungen.

Während sich für ACTH (Adrenocorticotropes Hormon) keine signifikanten Unterschiede zwischen den Gruppen fanden, ergab sich für Plasma-Cortisol ein signifikanter Mehranstieg bei den Teilnehmern, die einen Elternverlust erlitten hatten, im Vergleich zur Kontrollgruppe, mit stärkerer Ausprägung bei männlichen Teilnehmern.

Im Vergleich zu den Teilnehmern ohne Elternverlust zeigten die Teilnehmer mit Kontaktverlust zu ihren Eltern statistisch signifikant häufiger depressive Symptome. Betraf der Kontaktverlust verstorbene Eltern, kamen eine ängstliche Persönlichkeitsstruktur und übermäßige Vorsicht hinzu.

Fazit: Die Studie ergibt, dass Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern Störungen des neuroendokrinen Stoffwechsels im Erwachsenenalter hervorrufen kann. Bei Kontaktverlust und vorangegangener guter Fürsorge der Eltern war der Anstieg des Cortisols am ausgeprägtesten, bei Kontaktverlust zu lebenden Eltern und vorangegangen geringer Fürsorge war der Anstieg des Cortisols im Vergleich zur Gruppe ohne Elternverlust am geringsten.

  1. Bedeutung eines kontinuierlichen Kontakts zu den leiblichen Eltern für die psychische Gesundheit von Kindern in Fremdunterbringung

Ziel der Studie von McWey et al. [5] war es, die Bedeutung eines kontinuierlichen Kind-Eltern-Kontakts auf die psychische Gesundheit von fremduntergebrachten Kindern zu ermitteln.

Ausgewertet wurden die Daten von 362 Kindern aus dem „National Survey on Child and Adolescent Well-Beeing“, die für mindestens 180 Tage fremduntergebracht waren („out-of-home placement“). In welcher Form diese Fremdunterbringung stattfand, z.B. bei Pflegefamilien oder in Heimen, wird nicht angegeben, auch nicht, inwieweit dritte Personen Kontakt zu den Kindern hatten. Die Kinder waren 7 bis 15 Jahre alt, die Fremdunterbringung dauerte durchschnittlich 800 Tage, 54 % waren Mädchen, 46 % Jungen. Die Datenerhebung erfolgte über Befragung der Kinder, ihrer Betreuer und der zuständigen Behörden.

Ausgewertet wurde der Kontakt zu den Müttern, nicht ausgewertet (mangels Daten) wurde der Kontakt zu den Vätern.

107 Kinder hatten keinen Kontakt, 91 hatten „etwas“ Kontakt (1 bis 2 Kontakte/Monat) und 164 hatten „oft“ Kontakt (mindestens 1 Kontakt/Woche).

Zwischen der Häufigkeit von Kontakten zu den leiblichen Eltern und der Entwicklung einer Depression gab es im Gesamtkollektiv einen Zusammenhang: je mehr Kontakt, desto weniger Depression.

Mädchen hatten in allen Gruppen (kein – etwas – häufiger Kontakt) signifikant häufiger eine Depression als Jungen.

Während bei den Jungen die Depression in der Reihenfolge „kein Kontakt – etwas Kontakt – häufiger Kontakt“ abnahm, kam bei den Mädchen Depression am häufigsten in der Gruppe mit etwas Kontakt vor.

Es gab geschlechtsunabhängig eine signifikante Korrelation zwischen früheren Gewalterlebnissen und der Entwicklung einer Depression.

Signifikant war der Zusammenhang zwischen Kontakthäufigkeit und Verhaltensstörungen. Die Kinder mit häufigem Kontakt zu ihren leiblichen Eltern zeigten signifikant weniger Verhaltensstörungen, als die Kinder ohne bzw. mit wenig Kontakt.

Fazit: Ein häufigerer Kontakt mit der leiblichen Mutter war bei den Kindern mit einer geringeren Ausprägung depressiver Symptome und weniger Verhaltensauffälligkeiten assoziiert. Mädchen zeigten ausgeprägtere Symptome von Depression als Jungen.

Die Autoren folgern, dass bei Kindern in Fremdunterbringung ein häufiger und gleichmäßiger Kontakt der Kinder zu ihren leiblichen Eltern die Ausprägung von Depressionen und Verhaltensauffälligkeiten günstig beeinflussen kann, und ein häufiger Kontakt zu den leiblichen Eltern fester Bestandteil der Betreuung von Kindern in Fremdunterbringung sein sollte.

  1. Risiko für die Entwicklung schwerer psychischer Erkrankungen bei Erwachsenen, die in der Kindheit vorübergehend von ihren Eltern getrennt wurden: die Helsinki Geburts- kohortenstudie

Ziel der Studie von Räikkönen et al. [6] war es, zu ermitteln, ob eine Trennung von Kindern von ihren leiblichen Eltern in der frühen Kindheit Einfluss auf das Risiko für die Entwicklung schwerer psychischer Erkrankungen hat.

Dazu wurden prospektiv die Lebensdaten von 13.345 Kindern von der frühen Kindheit (Geburt 1934- 1944) bis zum späten Erwachsenenalter (Erhebungsjahr 1971) erfasst. Auswertbar waren die Daten von 11.028 Kindern, die keine Trennung von ihren Eltern erlebt hatten, und 1719 Kindern, die in den Jahren 1939 bis 1945 im Rahmen von Evakuierungsmaßnahmen auf Zeit von ihren Eltern getrennt in eine Fremdunterbringung kamen. Die Trennung erfolgte im Mittel im Alter von 4,6 Jahren, die durchschnittliche Trennungsdauer betrug 1,7 Jahre.

Die Daten zeigten für die von ihren Eltern ohne Kontakt getrennten Kinder ein signifikant höheres Risiko für das Auftreten einer psychischen Erkrankung, eines Substanzmissbrauchs oder einer Persönlichkeitsstörung, die jeweils so schwer waren, dass sie zu stationärer Behandlung oder zum Tod der untersuchten Personen führten. Je höher der sozioökonomische Hintergrund der Kinder vor der Trennung war, desto höher war das Risiko für die gesundheitliche Schädigung durch die Trennung.

Risiken für weniger schwere Krankheitsbilder wurden in der Studie nicht erfasst.

Fazit: Trennung mit Kontaktabbruch von den leiblichen Eltern in der frühen Kindheit führt zu einem signifikant höheren Risiko, im Erwachsenenalter hospitalisierungsbedürftige psychische Erkrankungen, Substanzmissbrauch oder eine Persönlichkeitsstörung zu entwickeln. Dies betrifft besonders Kinder mit zuvor hohem sozioökonomischem Hintergrund.

  1. Auswirkung von Trennung und Verlust des Kontakts zu Eltern auf den Gesundheitszu- stand Jugendlicher

Ziel der Studie von Reiter et al. [7] war es, zu klären, ob und wie sich Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern bei Scheidung der Eltern auf die emotionale und psychosomatische Gesundheit der Jugendlichen auswirkt, und ob sich ggf. ergebende Probleme mit zunehmender Scheidungsrate in der Bevölkerung oder mit der Zeitspanne seit Scheidung verringern.

Die Autoren befragten 1997, 2001, 2005 und 2009 Schüler von 4 Schulen in Førde/Norwegen im Alter von 15-20 Jahren. Die Befragten wurden in drei Gruppen eingeteilt: Scheidung und Kontakt zu beiden Eltern (n = 565), Scheidung und Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil (150) und weder Scheidung noch Kontaktverlust (2413). Kontaktverlust wurde angenommen, wenn „Ich sehe diese Person nicht“ angegeben wurde.

Von 1997 bis 2009 nahm die Zahl der von Scheidung betroffenen Jugendlichen um 33,8 % zu, von 20,1 % auf 26,9 % der Stichprobe. Insgesamt berichteten 775 von 3188 Befragten (24,3 %) über ein Scheidungserlebnis, und davon 150 (19,4 %) über Kontaktverlust zu mindestens einem Elternteil. 137 dieser 150 von Kontaktverlust Betroffenen (91,3 %) verloren den Kontakt zum Vater. Wie viele den Kontakt zur Mutter verloren, wird nicht angegeben.

Die Belastung der Jugendlichen durch Depressionen, Ängste und psychosomatische Erkrankungen wurde durch die Zunahme an Scheidungen im Studienzeitraum nicht verringert, ebenso nicht durch einen größeren Abstand zum Zeitpunkt der Scheidung. Ein Toleranz- oder Heilungseffekt durch Zeitablauf trat nicht ein.

Kontaktverlust stellte sich als hoher emotionaler Stressfaktor heraus. Jugendliche mit Scheidungserlebnissen und aufrechterhaltenem Kontakt zu beiden Eltern gaben im Vergleich zur scheidungsfreien Kontrollgruppe gleiche bis geringfügig höhere Belastungen an, Jugendliche mit Scheidungserlebnissen und Verlust des Kontakts zu einem Elternteil im Vergleich zur Kontrollgruppe weitaus höhere Belastungen.

Die Autoren zitieren Amato und Keith [8] , wonach ein „Ersatz“ der biologischen Eltern durch Stiefeltern die Folgen nicht abmildert. In der Studie von Reiter et al. wurde dieser Faktor nicht untersucht.

Fazit: Während Scheidungen mit erhaltenem Kontakt zu beiden Eltern von Jugendlichen gut verkraftet werden, führt ein Kontaktabbruch zu einem Elternteil nach einer Scheidung zu ausgeprägten emotionalen Belastungen der Jugendlichen mit Depressionen, Ängsten sowie psychosomatischen Beschwerden. Die Zeit mindert diese Belastungen nicht.

  1. Zusammenhang zwischen Kontaktverlust in der Kindheit und dem Risiko für die Entwicklung einer Depressions-, Angst- oder Suchterkrankung, untersucht an männlichen Zwillingen

Ziel der Studie von Otowa et al. [9] war es, zu klären, ob Kontaktverlust eines Kindes zu seinen Eltern eine Auswirkung auf das Risiko hat, eine schwere Depression, eine Angsterkrankung oder Alkohol- oder Drogenmissbrauch und -abhängigkeit zu entwickeln.

Die Studie basiert auf Daten aus der „Virginia Adult Twin Study of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders (VATSPSUD)“, wie auch die Studie von Kendler et al. [10]

Befragt wurden 2605 männliche Zwillinge, 20–58 Jahre alt (Ø 36,8 Jahre). Von Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern waren 584 (22,4 %) betroffen, 400 durch Kontaktabbruch zu lebenden Eltern, bei 184 waren Eltern verstorben.

Elternverlust wurde definiert als Kontaktverlust zwischen Kind und Elternteil vor dem 17. Geburtstag.

Kontaktverlust führte im Vergleich zur Kontrollgruppe ohne Kontaktverlust bei den Kindern zu einem signifikant erhöhten Risiko für die Entwicklung von schwerer Depression (Odds ratio 1,77–Prävalenz 26,2 %), generalisierter Angststörung (1,45; 18,2 %), Panikstörung (2,03–2,2 %), Alkoholabhängig- keit (1,56–24,0 %), Drogenmissbrauch (1,87–21,6 %) und Drogenabhängigkeit (2,02–7,6 %). Das Risiko für die Entwicklung von Phobien war erhöht (1,28–21,9 %).

Das Lebensalter zu Beginn des Kontaktverlustes oder die Dauer des Kontaktverlustes spielten keine Rolle, jüngere und ältere Kinder waren in gleicher Weise betroffen. Kontaktverlust von lebenden Eltern war im Vergleich zu Kontaktverlust durch Tod mit einem höheren Risiko für die Entwicklung einer schweren Depression (Odds ratio 2,01 vs. 1,04), einer generalisierten Angststörung (1,45 vs. 0,86), einer Panikerkrankung (2,01 vs. 0,78), eines Drogenmissbrauchs (1,87 vs. 1,09) oder einer Drogenabhängigkeit (2,01 vs. 1.05) verbunden.

Kontaktverlust zur Mutter erhöhte im Vergleich zu Kontaktverlust zum Vater signifikant das Risiko für die Entwicklung von Phobien (2,09 vs. 0,94) und Alkoholabhängigkeit (2,34 vs. 1,13).

Kontaktverlust zum Vater erhöhte im Vergleich zu Kontaktverlust zur Mutter signifikant das Risiko für die Entwicklung von schweren Depressionen (1,65 vs. 1,51) und Drogenmissbrauch (1,77 vs. 1,41)

Die Beziehung zu den Eltern oder Konflikt zwischen den Eltern als mögliche Einflussfaktoren wurden bei der Studie nicht berücksichtigt.

Fazit: Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern führt unabhängig vom Lebensalter des Kindes bei Beginn und der Dauer des Kontaktverlustes zu einem erhöhten Risiko für die Entwicklung von schweren Depressionen, Angststörungen, Panikstörungen, Alkoholabhängigkeit, Drogenmissbrauch, Drogen- abhängigkeit und Phobien. Kontaktverlust zu lebenden Eltern wirkt sich dabei deutlich stärker aus als Kontaktverlust auf Grund von Tod. Kontaktverlust zu Mutter bzw. Vater bewirken beide erhöhte Erkrankungsrisiken mit unterschiedlichen Risikokonstellationen.

  1. Diskussion

Die Studien über die Folgen von Kontaktabbruch eines Kindes zu leiblichen Eltern kommen mit unterschiedlichen Ansätzen zu dem Ergebnis, dass ein Kontaktverlust zu den leiblichen Eltern mit erheblichen gesundheitlichen Schädigungen der Kinder einhergeht, die teilweise lebenslang anhalten. Kontaktverlust zu den leiblichen Eltern ist mit einem deutlich erhöhten Risiko für die Entwicklung von Verhaltensauffälligkeiten, schweren Depressionen, Suchterkrankungen, Angst- und Panikerkrankungen verbunden. Es finden sich auch organische Veränderungen, wie zB des neuroendokrinen Stoffwechsels.

Durch Kontaktverlust zu lebenden Eltern werden die betroffenen Kinder etwa doppelt so stark und dreimal so lang belastet wie bei Kontaktverlust durch Tod.

Nach den hier vorgestellten Studien spielen das Geschlecht, das Alter bei Kontaktverlust und die Dauer des Kontaktverlustes bei den Kindern für die Entwicklung der gesundheitlichen Schäden eine geringe Rolle.

Während man sich in früheren Studien überwiegend mit Kontaktverlust zur Mutter befasste, befassen sich die neueren Studien mit Mutter und Vater. Der Kontaktverlust zur Mutter bewirkt dabei andere Folgen als der Kontaktverlust zum Vater.

Ein Teil der Auswertungen erfolgte retrospektiv. Das Querschnittdesign der Studien liefert in erster Linie Assoziationen, nicht Kausalzusammenhänge. Eine systematische Untersuchung der Thematik in longitudinalen Studien wäre wünschenswert. Dabei sollten von Beginn an mögliche Einflussfaktoren miterfasst werden, wie familiäre Konflikte, Unterstützung durch die Eltern, Loyalitätskonflikte, genetische Faktoren, sozioökonomischer Hintergrund und andere Bezugspersonen der Kinder, wie zB Stiefeltern oder Pflegeeltern. Littner [11] betont die Wichtigkeit der leiblichen Eltern für Pflegekinder. Die vorliegende Arbeit befasst sich mit der Bedeutung eines Kontaktabbruchs zu leiblichen Eltern für die gesundheitliche Entwicklung von Kindern. Unterschiede in der gesundheitlichen Entwicklung in Abhängigkeit von der Lebensumgebung „leibliche Familie vs. Pflegefamilie vs. Heim“ sind Gegenstand einer weiteren Arbeit [12].

Auch wenn die Studien sehr unterschiedlich und zusätzliche Einflüsse nicht auszuschließen sind, so ergibt sich, dass Kontaktverlust zu den leiblichen Eltern – sowohl bei Vater als auch bei Mutter – zu erheblichen psychischen und physischen Schädigungen bei den Kindern führt, von denen sich die Kinder auf Lebensdauer nicht erholen.

Die Studienlage ist ein Hinweis für Verantwortliche und Entscheider, bei Entscheidungen über Kinder auch deren Beziehung zu den leiblichen Eltern und ihre langfristige gesundheitliche Entwicklung im Auge zu haben.

  1. Zusammenfassung

Es gibt nur wenige Studien, die sich mit der Frage gesundheitlicher Folgen von Kontaktabbruch zwischen Kindern und ihren lebenden leiblichen Eltern befassen. Die hier vorgestellten Studien kommen zusammengefasst zu folgendem Ergebnis:

Kontaktabbruch zu den leiblichen Eltern führt bei den Kindern zu erheblichen gesundheitlichen Beeinträchtigungen, die lebenslang andauern können.

Jungen und Mädchen sind von diesen gesundheitlichen Folgen gleichermaßen betroffen.

Die Konsequenz aus diesen durch wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen gewonnenen Erkenntnissen kann aus ärztlicher Sicht nur sein, dass Kontaktabbruch von Kindern zu ihren lebenden Eltern verhindert werden muss. Die vorliegenden Studien nennen meist keine Unterschiede bzgl. der Ursache des Kontaktabbruchs, so dass der Kontaktabbruch unabhängig von den äußeren Bedingungen für die Kinder ein schweres Trauma mit anhaltender gesundheitlicher Schädigung bedeutet.

Für eine weitergehende wissenschaftliche Bewertung wäre die Einführung eines Registers für Kontaktabbruchsfälle, verbunden mit einer Meldepflicht für Ärzte und Behörden, hilfreich.

Tabelle: Zusammenfassung der verfügbaren Studien über gesundheitliche Folgen von Kontaktabbruch bei Kindern zu einem oder beiden lebenden leiblichen Elternteilen. Auflistung der Studien in chrono- logischer Reihenfolge ihrer Veröffentlichung, Stand: Oktober 2015

Autor Titel Was wurde untersucht Untersuchte Stichprobe Ergebnisse
Kendler et al. 2002 Childhood parental loss and risk for first-onset of major depression and alcohol dependence: the time- decay of risk and sex differences Auftreten von schwerer Depression bzw. Alkoholabhängigkeit nach Kontaktverlust zu lebenden oder verstorbenen leiblichen Eltern 1464 Zwillinge beiderlei Geschlechts, die vor dem 17. Geburtstag einen Kontaktverlust zu einem leiblichen Elternteil erlitten hatten Kontaktverlust führt zu schweren Depressionen, insbesondere beim Verlust des Kontakts zur Mutter. Bei Kontaktverlust zum Vater bewirkt Trennung grössere Probleme als Tod. Die Erholungszeit bis zum Erreichen des Krankheitsrisikos vor dem Ereignis ist nach Kontaktverlust durch Trennung mehr als doppelt so lang wie nach Kontaktverlust durch Tod. Kinder werden bezüglich ihrer leiblichen Eltern bei Kontaktverlust durch Trennung in etwa doppelt so stark und fast dreimal so lang belastet wie bei Kontaktverlust durch Tod.
Tyrka et al. 2008 Childhood parental loss and adult hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal function Veränderungen im neuroendokrinen Stoffwechsel im Erwachsenenalter nach Kontaktverlust zu lebenden oder verstorbenen leiblichen Eltern 44 Erwachsene, die vor dem 18. Lj. für mindestens sechs Monate Kontaktverlust zu einem Elternteil erlitten hatten Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern führt zu Störungen des neuroendokrinen Stoffwechsels im Erwachsenenalter. Je besser die Fürsorge der Eltern war, desto ausgeprägter war das Ausmaß der Veränderungen.
McWey et al. 2010 The impact of continued contact with biological parents upon the mental health of children in foster care Einfluss der Kontakthäufigkeit von fremduntergebrachten Kindern zu ihren leiblichen Eltern auf die Ausprägung depressiver Symptome und Verhaltensauffälligkeiten. 362 Kinder, 7 bis 15 Jahre, für mindestens sechs Monate fremduntergebracht. Häufigerer Kontakt von Kindern in Fremdunterbringung zu ihren leiblichen Eltern kann zu einer geringeren Ausprägung von Depressionen und Verhaltensauffälligkeiten führen.
Räikkönen et al. 2011 Risk of severe mental disorders in adults separated temporarily from their parents in childhood: The Helsinki birth cohort study Einfluss eines Kontaktverlustes von Kindern zu ihren leiblichen Eltern in der frühen Kindheit auf das Risiko für die Entwicklung schwerer psychischer Erkrankungen. 11.028 Kinder, die keine Trennung von ihren Eltern erlebt hatten, und 1719 Kinder, die durch Evakuierungsmaßnahmen eine Trennung in der Kindheit erlebt hatten. Trennung von leiblichen Eltern in der frühen Kindheit führt zu einem signifikant höheren Risiko, im Erwachsenenalter schwere psychische Erkrankungen, Substanzmissbrauch oder eine Persönlichkeitsstörung zu entwickeln. Dies betrifft besonders Kinder mit hohem sozioökonomischem Hintergrund.
Reiter et al. 2013 Impact of divorce and loss of parental contact on health complaints among adolescents Einfluss von Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern durch Scheidung der Eltern auf die emotionale und psychosomatische Gesundheit der Jugendlichen. 3188 Schüler von 15 bis 20 Jahren in Norwegen, 2413 ohne und 755 mit Scheidungserlebnissen, 150 mit Kontaktverlust zu mindestens einem Elternteil. Kontaktverlust ist für Jugendliche ein hoher emotionaler Stressfaktor. Während Scheidungen mit erhaltenem Kontakt zu beiden Eltern von Jugendlichen gut verkraftet werden, führt ein Kontaktabbruch zu einem Elternteil nach einer Scheidung zu ausgeprägten emotionalen Belastungen der Jugendlichen mit Depressionen, Ängsten und psychosomatischen Beschwerden. Die Zeit mindert diese Belastungen nicht.
Otowa et al. 2014 The impact on childhood parental loss on risk for mood, anxiety and substance use disorders in a population- based sample of male twins Einfluss von Kontaktverlust eines Kindes zu seinen Eltern auf das Risiko, schwere Depression, Angsterkrankung, Alkohol- oder Drogenmissbrauch zu entwickeln. 2605 männliche Zwillinge, davon 584 vor dem 17. Geburtstag von Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern betroffen, 400 durch Trennung, 184 durch Tod. Kontaktverlust zu leiblichen Eltern führt unabhängig vom Lebensalter des Kindes bei Beginn und der Dauer des Kontaktverlustes zu einem erhöhten Risiko für die Entwicklung von schweren Depressionen, Angststörungen, Panikstörungen, Alkoholabhängigkeit, Drogenmissbrauch, Drogenabhängigkeit und Phobien. Kontaktverlust zu lebenden Eltern wirkt sich dabei deutlich stärker aus als Kontaktverlust auf Grund von Tod. Kontaktverlust zu Mutter bzw. Vater bewirken beide erhöhte Erkrankungsrisiken mit unterschiedlichen Risikokonstellationen.

[*] Die Autorin Prinz ist Zahnärztin in München; die Autorin Gresser ist Internistin und Medizinische Sachverständige in München. Die vorliegende Veröffentlichung ist eine Vorabpublikation von Teilergebnissen aus der Dissertationsarbeit von Anna Prinz an der Medizinischen -Fakultät der Universität München.

[1] Kendler/Sheth/Gardener/Prescott (2002), Childhood parental loss and risk for first-onset of major depression and alcohol dependence: the time-decay of risk and sex differences. Psychol Med 32: 1187-1194.

[2] iHR = Erkrankungsrate zu Beginn, ermittelt über Hazard Ratio.

[3] Tyrka/Wier/Price/Ross/Anderson/Wilkinson/Carpenter (2008), Childhood parental loss and adult hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function. Biol Psychiatry 63: 1147-1154.

[4] S. dazu zB Ehlert/Gaab/Heinrichs, Psychoneuroendocrinological contributions to the etiology of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and stress-related bodily disorders: the role of the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis, Biological Psychology, Volume 57, Issues 1–3, 2001, S. 141- 152.

[5] McWey/Acock/Porter/Breanne (2010), The impact of continued contact with biological parents upon the mental health of children in foster care. Child Youth Serv Rev 32: 1338-1345.

[6] Räikkönen/Lahti/Heinonen/Pesonen/Wahlbeck/Kajantie/Osmond/Barker/Eriksson (2011), Risk of severe mental disorders in adults separated temporarily from their parents in childhood: the Helsinki birth cohort study. J Psychiatr Res 45: 332-338.

[7] Reiter/Hjörleifsson/Breidablik/Meland (2013), Impact of divorce and loss of parental contact on health complaints among adolescents. J Public Health (Oxf) 35:278-285.

[8] Amato/Keith (1991), Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull 110: 26-46.

[9] Otowa/York/Gardner/Kendler/Hettema (2014), The impact of childhood parental loss on risk for mood, anxiety and substance use disorders in a population-based sample of male twins. Psychiatry Res 220: 404-409.

[10] Kendler/Sheth/Gardener/Prescott (2002), Childhood parental loss and risk for first-onset of major depression and alcohol dependence: the time-decay of risk and sex differences. Psychol Med 32: 1187-1194.

[11] Littner (1975), The importance of the natural parents to the child in placement. Child Welfare: Journal of Policy, Practice, and Program 54 (3): 175-181.

[12] Gresser et al., in Vorbereitung, Vergleich der gesundheitlichen Lebenswege von Kindern in Abhängigkeit von der Lebensumgebung, in der sie aufwachsen: Biologische Familie, Pflegefamilie mit/ohne Kontakt zu den Eltern, Heim mit/ohne Kontakt zu den Eltern.


Professor Dr. med. Dr. med. habil. Ursula Gresser

seit 1990 bis heute: Gutachterin bei Wissenschaftsjournalen, Promotionen, Berufungsverfahren Betreuung von Doktoranden

1999-heute: Praxis für Innere Medizin und Medizinisch-wissenschaftliche Sachverständigengutachten

2015-heute: Praxis für Mediation München

heute ab 15. September 2016: Gichtzentrum München Medizinische Sachverständigengutachten Medizinische Lehrtätigkeit und Wissenschaftliche Analysen Alternative Streitbeilegung (ADR)



Professor Dr. med. Ursula Gresser

Blombergstraße 5

82054 Sauerlach Lkr. München

Tel. 08104 – 887822

Fax 08104 – 887824

Email: ursulagresser [at] email . de


Kinder brauchen Kontakt

Gefahr für Depressionen ist bei Scheidungskindern groß

Zitate von Prof. Dr. med. Ursula Gresser

“Kontaktabbruch zu Eltern macht Scheidungskinder krank”,

sagt Prof. Ursula Gresser.

Die Medizinerin hat die sechs neuesten internationalen Studien zu dem Thema ausgewertet.

“Der Kontaktabbruch zu lebenden Eltern schädigt die Kinder etwa doppelt so lang und dreimal so intensiv wie der Kontaktabbruch aufgrund von Tod eines Elternteils”,

so Prof. Ursula Gresser.

Am häufigsten trete laut den Studien die Depression auf, am zweithäufigsten die Suchterkrankung.

“Juristen können sich nicht mehr darauf berufen, dass sie mit Kontakt-abbruch zum Wohl eines Kindes handeln. Wer jetzt noch Kontaktabbruch veranlasst, handelt im Wissen der Schädigung!”

Zitat: Prof. Dr. med. Ursula Gresser

Posted in Anna Prinz, Contact issues, Divorce children, Effects on children, Health, Ursula Gresser | 1 Comment

Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children?

Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems ?

Authors: Malin Bergström, [1] Emma Fransson, [1] Bitte Modin, [1] Marie Berlin, [2 & 3] Per A Gustafsson, [4] Anders Hjern [1 & 5]

[1] Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS), Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
[2] National Board of Health and Welfare, Stockholm, Sweden
[3] Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
[4] Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden
[5] Clinical Epidemiology, Department of Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
Correspondence to Malin Bergström, Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS), Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm 10691, Sweden;
Received 14 October 2014, Revised 29 January 2015, Accepted 4 February 2015
To cite: Bergström M, Fransson E, Modin B, et al. J Epidemiol Community Health Published Online First: [April 28, 2015] doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205058


Background – In many Western countries, an increasing number of children with separated parents have joint physical custody, that is, live equally much in their parent’s respective homes. In Sweden, joint physical custody is particularly common and concerns between 30% and 40% of the children with separated parents. It has been hypothesised that the frequent moves and lack of stability in parenting may be stressful for these children.

Methods – We used data from a national classroom survey of all sixth and ninth grade students in Sweden (N=147839) to investigate the association between children’s psychosomatic problems and living arrangements. Children in joint physical custody were compared with those living only or mostly with one parent and in nuclear families. We conducted sex-specific linear regression analyses for z-transformed sum scores of psychosomatic problems and adjusted for age, country of origin as well as children’s satisfaction with material resources and relationships to parents. Clustering by school was accounted for by using a two-level random intercept model.

Results – Children in joint physical custody suffered from less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent but reported more symptoms than those in nuclear families. Satisfaction with their material resources and parent–child relationships was associated with children’s psychosomatic health but could not explain the differences between children in the different living arrangements.

Conclusions – Children with non-cohabitant parents experience more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families. Those in joint physical custody do however report better psychosomatic health than children living mostly or only with one parent. Longitudinal studies with information on family factors before and after the separation are needed to inform policy of children’s postseparation living arrangements.


During the past 20 years, it has become more common for children in the Western world to live alternatively and equally much with both parents after a parental separation. [1–3] In Sweden, this practice of joint physical custody (JPC) is particularly frequent and has risen from about 1–2% in the mid-1980s to between 30% and 40% of the children with separated parents in 2010. [4] A possible reason behind the increase may be Sweden’s active policy for parental equality. [5] In 1974, Sweden, for example, was the first country to allow mothers and fathers to use paid parental leave, and since 1976 parents could continue having joint legal custody after a separation. The proportion of Swedish children born out of wedlock or to non-cohabiting parents is low compared with other Western countries. In 2009, the share was 6%. [4] Other assumed reasons behind the increase of JPC are women’s participation in the labour force, [5] which is very high in Sweden, [6] and changes in Family Law facilitating JPC. [7 8] The frequency of JPC in, for example, Belgium [9] and Australia [10] has increased substantially after such legislative changes.

In international research, JPC has sometimes been defined as children living “at least one third of the time with each parent” [11] or included children whose parents have joint legal custody in this category. [12] Joint legal custody, however, does not imply that the children necessarily live equal parts of the time with the two parents. In Sweden, JPC is so widespread that a more stringent categorization (50/50) is justifiable and has been applied in recent publications. [13–15] In fact, the practice of JPC seems to constitute a new norm for separating Swedish parents, since 50% of recently split-up families report their children spending half the time in each parent’s home. [4] Furthermore, we have shown in a previous study that over 85% of all Swedish children aged 12–15 years live at least partly with both their parents, regardless of whether they are cohabiting or not. [13] Despite the high frequency of JPC in Sweden, it is still possible that families with this arrangement vary in their socioeconomic characteristics from those with sole custody solutions. Results from a recent longitudinal study indicate that the more favourable socioeconomic situation that used to characterise JPC families no longer prevails as JPC has become more common, [9] but other current research still suggests that parental health and well-being differ between parents with joint and sole care. [16]

Several studies over a long period of time have established that children with separated parents show higher risks for emotional problems and social maladjustment than those with cohabiting parents. [17–19] One explanation for these increased risks may be the actual experience of the separation process and the emotional crisis possibly associated with this. Parental separation may also expose children to loss of social, economic and human capital. [4, 14] Other explanatory factors may derive from characteristics typical of separating parents such as lower relationship satisfaction and higher conflict levels also before the separation. [4] The rising numbers of children with JPC have concerned child clinicians as well as researchers on the subject. [20, 21] Child experts have worried about children’s potential feelings of alienation from living in two separate worlds, [20–22] increased exposure to parental conflict [12, 22] and other stressors that JPC may impose on a child. [22] Such daily stressors may be long distances to school, friends and leisure activities, lack of stability in parenting and home environment and a need to adjust to the demands of two different family lives. [12, 22] The logistics of travelling between their homes and keeping in contact with friends has been stated as a draw-back of JPC in interview studies with children. [23–25] Older adolescents, in particular, indicated that they preferred to be in one place. [23]

The worries regarding children’s well-being in JPC are enhanced by a simultaneous increase in children’s psychological and emotional complaints and psychosomatic symptoms in Scandinavia. [26, 27] The higher frequency of such symptoms has been interpreted as a sign of increased stress in children’s lives [28] and could hypothetically also be related to stressors imposed by JPC. Already, stressful circumstances such as bullying, [28] economic stress in the family, [29] peer and teacher relationships, [30, 31] schoolwork pressure [31] and lack of emotional support from the parents [32] have been shown to be related to psychosomatic symptoms in Swedish adolescents. However, even if the relationship between stress, psychological symptoms and psychosomatic problems is established, [28] the mechanisms of how stress exposure and recurrent pain are associated are not fully understood. [33]

In this study, we wanted to investigate if the high frequencies of JPC and of psychosomatic problems in Swedish schoolchildren were related. We used a national sample of Swedish children aged 12 and 15 years to compare psychosomatic problems in children with JPC with those in nuclear families and living mostly and only with one parent. We also wanted to study the influence of two previously identified stressors: children’s parental relations and material resources, on psychosomatic problems in relation to living arrangements.


Data source
We used data from a national classroom survey, conducted in 2009, of psychosomatic symptoms in children aged 12 (grade 6) and 15 years (grade 9). The survey was conducted by Statistics Sweden under the mandate of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health. [34] We were granted permission by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare to use the data. For the survey, 207 700 pupils were eligible and 172 391 (83%) agreed to participate and were present in school when the survey was conducted. Of these, we included 147 839 children who had completed the outcome instrument on psychosomatic problems and answered the questions on living arrangements, sex, age, country of birth and the items in the covariates ‘parent–child relations’ and ‘material resources’.

Outcome measures
We used the PsychoSomatic Problems (PSP) scale as the outcome measure. This instrument includes eight items on psychosomatic problems in schoolchildren and adolescents. [35] The eight questions concern the past 6 months and ask if the respondent had difficulties (1) concentrating (2) sleeping; suffered from (3) headaches (4) stomach aches; felt (5) tense, (6) sad (7) dizzy and had (8) little appetite. The response alter- natives are never, seldom, sometimes, often and always. Analyses of the dimensionality of the scale justify that the sums of scores are summarised across the items and transformed into a linear interval scale and have shown acceptable reliability and validity. [35] Cronbach’s α for the scale was 0.87. Scores were transformed to z-values with a mean value of 0 and an SD of 1 for the multiple linear regression analyses. [36]

In table 2, we also present proportions of children who reported that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ suffered from the respective problems (these response alternatives merged).

Categorical variable
Living arrangements were based on children’s answers in the survey. The family arrangements were worded as follows: nuclear family; “always together with both mother and father”, JPC; “approximately equally much with mother and father, for example one week with mother and the second week with father”, mostly with one parent; “mostly with mother, sometimes with father” or “mostly with father, sometimes with mother” and only with one parent; “only with mother” or “only with father”. We merged the gender-specific alternatives in the ‘mostly’ and ‘only’ categories since the numbers in the categories ‘mostly’ and ‘only’ with fathers were too small to allow for any meaningful statistical analyses.

The covariates sex, age, children’s and parent’s country of origin were obtained from the questionnaire. Domicile was obtained from the National SIRIS database and categorised in accordance with a categorisation provided by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. As potential mediators, we used sum scores of two subscales of subjective well-being from the KIDSCREEN-52 instrument: [37] parent–child relations (six items, eg, Have you been able talk to your parent(s) when you wanted to?) and material resources (three items, eg, Have you had enough money to do the same things as your friends?). These scales were completed at the same time as the PSP scale and the questions concern experiences from the previous week with response alternatives assessing either intensity (not at all-slightly-moderately-very-extremely) or frequency (never-seldom-sometimes-often-always). High scores indicate more satisfaction. This instrument has shown acceptable reliability and validity. [38] Cronbach’s α for the parent–child relations scale was 0.91 and for the material resources scale 0.89.

Statistical analysis
Linear multiple regression analyses, stratified by sex, were used to calculate β coefficients on z-transformed sum scores of psychosomatic problems for the four living arrangements with JPC as a reference group. In model 1, the confounders grade (6 vs 9) and country of origin (Swedish vs foreign born) are included. Model 2 includes the aforementioned confounders and continuous scores from the covariate ‘material resources scale’. In model 3, the confounders and continuous scores from the covariate ‘parents–child relations scale’ are included. Finally, Model 4 is adjusted for all the aforementioned confounders and covariates. Clustering by school was accounted for by using a two-level random intercept model.

Interaction analyses demonstrated sex differences in psycho- somatic symptoms in relation to all living arrangements, and we therefore decided to perform the analysis separately for girls and boys. There were no significant interaction effects for age and JPC.


Descriptive statistics
As shown in table 1, 69% of the 147 839 children lived in nuclear families, 11% in JPC, 8% mostly with one parent and 13% only with one parent. The majority of those living mostly or only with one parent lived with their mother. About every sixth child in these arrangements lived with the father. Foreign born children had similar rates of separated parents as Swedish born children but JPC was more common for children with both parents born in Sweden (12%) than if one (10%) or both parents (2%) were foreign born. There were small differences in living arrangements in relation to children’s sex and domicile, but a larger proportion of the children aged 15 years lived with only one parent, compared with children aged 12 years. The differences were statistically significant at the <0.001 level.

Table 1 Characteristics of children by family type
Intact family Joint physical custody Mostly one parent Only one parent
N Per cent N Per cent N Per cent N Per cent
Sample size 101 738 69 15 633 11 11 468 8 19 000 13
Girls 51 003 68 7610 10 5916 8 10 216 14
Boys 50 735 69 8023 11 5552 8 8784 12
Resident parent
Mother 9455 82 15 889 84
Father 2013 18 3111 16
Age (years)
12 48 348 71 7655 11 4984 7 6855 10
15 53 390 67 7978 10 6484 8 12 145 15
Large city 31 224 68 5662 12 3167 7 6021 13
Small town 49 470 69 7663 11 5798 8 9054 13
Rural 20 938 70 2696 9 2495 8 3941 13
Children’s national origin
Swedish 93 908 69 15 319 11 10 982 8 16 507 12
Other 7830 70 314 3 486 4 2493 22
Parents’ national origin
Both Swedish 75 384 70 13 220 12 8787 8 10 689 10
One Swedish 9957 58 1782 10 1669 10 3829 22
Neither Swedish 15 684 74 489 2 902 4 4098 19

Table 2 Frequency of psychosomatic problems by gender and family type
Psychosomatic problems Nuclear family Joint physical custody Mostly with one parent Only with one parent
Z/mean Always/often Z/mean Always/often Z/mean Always/often Z/mean Always/often
Girls N=74 745
Total score 0.14 NA 0.33 NA 0.49 NA 0.53 NA
Concentration 0.02 11 0.14 13 0.29 18 0.35 21
Sleeping 0.06 16 0.17 18 0.30 23 0.36 26
Headaches 0.13 16 0.23 18 0.38 23 0.43 25
Stomach aches 0.17 12 0.30 14 0.42 18 0.48 21
Tense 0.12 13 0.23 15 0.35 18 0.38 21
Little appetite 0.11 11 0.24 13 0.38 18 0.44 21
Sad 0.23 16 0.42 22 0.54 27 0.61 29
Dizzy 0.06 11 0.18 13 0.32 18 0.40 21
Boys n=73 094
Total score −0.33 NA −0.21 NA −0.12 NA −0.10 NA
Concentration −0.16 9 −0.04 10 0.07 14 0.11 16
Sleeping −0.18 10 −0.11 11 −0.01 15 0.04 17
Headaches −0.25 8 −0.16 9 −0.08 10 −0.05 12
Stomach aches −0.29 5 −0.22 5 −0.16 6 −0.14 7
Tense −0.22 6 −0.16 7 −0.10 8 −0.07 10
Little appetite −0.23 5 −0.17 6 −0.11 7 −0.06 8
Sad −0.38 5 −0.30 6 −0.22 8 −0.19 9
Dizzy −0.19 6 −0.11 7 −0.02 9 0.01 10
NA, not available.

Psychosomatic problems
As shown in table 2, children in nuclear families reported the least problems in terms of mean values on all items and total mean score. Children in JPC had slightly more problems, followed by those living mostly with one parent. Children who lived with only one parent reported most problems, in terms of mean scores, on all items. Also, the proportion of children who always or often suffered from different symptoms was highest among the latter group. These patterns were similar for girls and boys. For the sexes taken together, sleeping problems were most frequent: 22% among those living only with one parent, 19% living mostly with one parent, 14% in JPC and 13% in nuclear families (sexes taken together). Also, suffering often or always from headaches was common: 19% among those living with only one parent, 17% living mostly with one parent, 14% in JPC and 12% in nuclear families (sexes taken together).

Girls suffered from more problems than boys both when the PSP scale was analysed in terms of mean values and as a frequency of symptoms. Sadness was the most frequent problem for girls in all living arrangements, followed by sleeping problems and headaches. For boys, sleeping and concentration problems were most common. All these differences were statistically significant at the <0.001 level.

Table 3 Two-level random intercept linear regression model: standardised β coefficients and CIs for psychosomatic symptoms in relation to living arrangements (N=147839)
Nuclear families Mostly with one parent Only with one parent
β CI β CI β CI
Model 1 −0.18 −0.20 to −0.15 0.14 0.11 to 0.18 0.19 0.16 to 0.22
Model 2 −0.11 −0.14 to −0.09 0.09 0.06 to 0.12 0.10 0.07 to 0.13
Model 3 −0.09 −0.11 to −0.07 0.05 0.02 to 0.08 0.07 0.05 to 0.10
Model 4 −0.07 −0.09 to −0.05 0.04 0.01 to 0.07 0.05 0.02 to 0.08
Model 1 −0.11 −0.13 to −0.09 0.10 0.07 to 0.13 0.13 0.10 to 0.16
Model 2 −0.08 −0.10 to −0.06 0.06 0.03 to 0.09 0.06 0.03 to 0.09
Model 3 −0.06 −0.08 to −0.04 0.04 0.01 to 0.07 0.06 0.04 to 0.09
Model 4 −0.05 −0.06 to −0.03 0.03 −0.00 to 0.05 0.03 0.01 to 0.06
Joint physical custody (equally much with both parents) serves as the reference category.
Model 1 is adjusted for age and country of origin, model 2 is adjusted as model 1 and for the child’s perception of own material resources. Model 3 is adjusted as model 1 and for the child’s satisfaction with parents–child relations. Model 4 is adjusted for all the previous variables. Clustering by school is accounted for by using a two-level random intercept model.

Standardised β coefficients for psychosomatic problems in relation to living arrangements are presented in table 3. They show that, compared with children in JPC, those living mostly or only with one parent report more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families. Adjusting for age and country of origin had practically no effect on the outcome, which is why the crude model is not presented. The β estimates for children living mostly or only with one parent become weaker after adjustment for satisfaction with material resources (model 2) and parent–child relationships (model 3). Model 4 shows that both boys and girls who live mostly or only with one parent still have higher risks for psychosomatic problems than those in JPC, when all the aforementioned variables are included. Also, the lower risk for children in nuclear families, compared with JPC, remains through all the models.

Overall, girls report more psychosomatic problems than boys. Interaction analyses indicate interaction effects for psychosomatic problems and sex in all living arrangements. No differences for 12-year-old and 15-year-old children were found for the associations between JPC and psychosomatic symptoms.

In this cross-sectional study, based on a national survey of nearly 150 000 Swedish children aged 12 and 15 years, children who live equally much with both parents after a parental separation suffered from less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent. Children in JPC, however, reported more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families, as did the children in the two other postseparation living arrangements. Our results show that children’s satisfaction with their material resources and parent–child relationships affects children’s psychosomatic health but cannot explain the differences between children in the different living arrangements.

Girls reported more psychosomatic problems than did boys while there were no age-related differences.

The pattern that children in JPC are in an intermediate position between children in nuclear families, having the least, and those in single care, having the most problems, is consistent with previous findings from our group as well as other research groups. This pattern has been established in relation to outcomes such as satisfaction with life, [18] risk behaviour, [15, 39] parent–child relationships, [11] school achievement, [19] well-being [13] and mental health. [16]

Psychosomatic symptoms are related to stress, [28] but despite the fact that two homes require adaptation to different neighbourhoods and family climates, our results show lower risks for psychosomatic symptoms for children in JPC than in single care residency. This result confirms findings from more previous small-scale studies. For example, Turunen [40] as well as Carlsund et al [14] found lower risks of stress in JPC than in single residency after controlling for family and child characteristics as well as parent–child relationships. Also, an American study showed that children in JPC had fewer stress-related illnesses and health problems than those living only with their mothers. [1] Taken together, this indicates that the potential stress from living in two homes could be outweighed by the positive effects of close contact with both parents. Although children in interviews have brought up hassles of JPC, [23–25] most children also state that close relationships with both their parents are more important. [25, 41]

It is, however, possible that the difference in psychosomatic health between children in nuclear families and JPC may, at least partly, be explained by family factors associated with the parents’ separation or divorce. Separated parents more often have psychological problems and poor economy than co-living parents and may have had relationship problems and conflicts also before the separation. [4, 42] Such factors directly affect children’s psychological health and symptom load [1, 43] and could be important for how families arrange custody and children’s housing after the split-up. [1, 9] In this study, children living with only one parent reported the least satisfaction with their relationships to their parents, followed by those living mostly with one parent. Children with JPC were slightly less satisfied with their parent relations than those in nuclear families. This pattern is in line with previous publications on children’s parental relations in different living arrangements. [4, 42]

Adding indicators of parent–child relationships and material resources to models 2–4 in the regression analyses lowered the associations between psychosomatic problems and living arrangements considerably. These findings are consistent with previous studies that have demonstrated a mediating effect of parent–child relationships and material resources on the relationship between psychosomatic health and living arrangements. [31, 44, 45]

Positive relationships to parents have been found to be more common in children in JPC than in single care, in particular to the fathers. [13, 32, 46] Children’s satisfaction with their material resources was included as a potential mediator since economic stress has previously been shown to be associated with psychosomatic symptoms in children [29] and is more common among children with separated parents. [4, 13] Also, these conditions reduced the differences in psychosomatic health between the living arrangements.

Girls in JPC reported more psychosomatic problems than boys, as did girls living mostly or only with one parent. The pattern of psychosomatic problems in relation to living arrangements was, however, similar for both sexes. Since girls generally report more psychosomatic ill health than boys, [26, 27] the sex differences in relation to living arrangements may possibly be explained by our outcome variable rather than an actual worse situation for girls after a parental separation. Earlier studies have reached varying results regarding gender differences after parental separations. [47, 48] In a previous study, we found no differences for boys and girls on the effects of JPC on well-being. [13] Further studies are thus needed to reveal if JPC and other postseparation arrangements have a different impact on boys and girls.

Methodological issues
We had the advantage of using a national survey with a validated outcome measure on psychosomatic problems. [35] The large sample size allows us to draw conclusions on the entire population of Swedish children aged 12 and 15 years. This is a considerable strength since previous studies have had high rates of attrition [12] or suffered from small sample sizes, preventing, for example, comparisons between JPC and single care. [14]

The national sample also ensures inclusion of families with different background characteristics. In her reviews, Nielsen [11] argues that JPC families today have less social, economic and relationship advantages compared with single care families, but there is still a risk that families with different postseparation arrangements differ in ways that affect children’s psychosomatic health. In Sweden, it is estimated that around 14% of separating parents have conflicts regarding custody and children’s housing [4] and about 2% have their custody disputes resolved in court. [49]

Despite the strength on a total population sample, our data are limited regarding contextual variables that may affect children’s health. We included measures on children’s material resources and parent relationships but lack other types of information on the families’ socioeconomic situation and the level of parents’ cooperation or conflict. Children’s reports of satisfaction with these aspects may possibly reflect their own personalities and coping strategies rather than the actual strain on the family. The lack of objective data on the families’ situations is an important limitation since such factors are associated both with children’s living arrangements and directly with their psychosomatic health. [18, 50, 51]

Another limitation is the lack of information on when the children had experienced the parental separation. Ideally, the results of this study should be confirmed by studies with a longitudinal design and access to information on psychological as well as socioeconomic family factors.

Finally, we consider our categorisation of JPC as a strength. In the survey, the alternative JPC was worded “approximately equally much with mother and father, for example one week with mother and the second week with father”, which indicates that the JPC category actually includes children who spend 50% of their time with each of the parents. Nearly 8% of the participants choose the category “living mostly with one parent”, which implies that children’s actual housing after a parental separation is not entirely black or white with respect to everyday contact with the parents. Our categorisation thus gives a more nuanced picture than studies where only the single care and JPC categories are included, [39] where JPC includes children living 30% or less with one parent [1 11] or where the JPC category even includes families with joint legal custody but primary residency with one parent. [12]

Children who share their time between the parent’s respective homes after a separation experience less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent. Their satisfaction with their material resources and parent–child relationships is important for their psychosomatic health but cannot explain the differences between children in different living arrangements. Longitudinal studies with information on family factors before and after the separation are needed to inform policy of children’s post-separation living arrangements.

What is already known on this subject?
The practice of joint physical custody, that is, children spending equal time in the respective homes of their separated parents, has become more frequent in Western countries over the past decade. At the same time, there has been an increase in self-reported paediatric psychosomatic symptoms. Child health experts have argued that joint physical custody imposes stress on children.

What this study adds?
In a Swedish national sample of children aged 12 and 15years, we found that children in joint physical custody suffered from less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent but reported more symptoms than did those in nuclear families.

Acknowledgements – The authors thank the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare for granting them permission to use the data.
Contributors – MBe conceived the study, participated in the design and drafted the manuscript. BM provided expertise regarding the data source, interpretation of the data and the statistical analysis. EF participated in the design of the study and interpretation of the data. MB provided expertise regarding demography and the data source and participated in the interpretation of the data. PAG provided expertise regarding child psychiatry and participated in the interpretation of the data. AH participated in the design of the study, provided expertise regarding the data source, performed the statistical analyses and interpretation of the data and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Funding – This study was funded by Länsförsäkringsbolagens Forskningsfond.
Competing interests – None.
Ethics approval – Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
Provenance and peer review – Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Open Access – This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See:

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Bergström M, et al. J Epidemiol Community Health 2015;0:1–6. doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205058 1
Research report

JECH Online First, published on April 28, 2015 as 10.1136/jech-2014-205058
Copyright Article author (or their employer) 2015. Produced by BMJ Publishing Group Ltd under licence.

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The Fatherless Society: Literature- and Fieldstudy (Barbara Kleinschuster-Moser, 2015)


fatherlessA DIPLOMA THESIS by Barbara Kleinschuster- Moser.

 Die vaterlose Gesellschaft: Literatur- und Feldstudie (PDF-download, Barbara Kleinschuster-Moser, Diplomarbeit, 09.02.2015)

This German language diploma thesis was produced in Austria during an instruction course to become a qualified social education worker. Following the book of Matthias Matussek I chose the title “Die vaterlose Gesellschaft” (The fatherless society).

Regarding my person: I am 57 of age and in my main profession I am a chartered accountant. I produced this thesis out of my personal interest, last but not least for a better understanding of the past of my family.

My husband and I are both married the second time, whilst I am childless my husband is father of two children (at present 25 and 27 years of age). During the first four years of our mutual life I had to notice how he struggled to realize a normal contact arrangement with his children. It was a suffering for all of us, for him, the children and for me as a dedicated stepmother as well. After four years he succeeded in obtaining the sole custody, a very rare occurrence in Austria. Later – in adulthood – his (meanwhile obviously my) children stated amongst other comments they would have never succeeded in finishing school (not to talk about their university career) if they would have stayed with their mother any longer. Too extreme the psychological stress was a daily burden, the backlash which was part of the intention and strategy of the mother to destroy their father financially and in his personality as well.

The diploma thesis is split into two sections:

  1. A review of the specialist literature of the late 20th and the 21st century until today
  2. A survey of fathers who maintain (or have maintained) contact with their children under difficult conditions

By relevant scientific investigations since World War II the negative impact of a fatherless education of minors is evident and no longer a matter of interpretation. Nevertheless these scientific results do not find their way into current judicature which still privileges the mother in case of divorce. In this “politically tinted” environment which is cultivated preferably by left-wing, green political parties and feminist movements it is difficult if not impossible at all to achieve the interests of minors and their fathers respectively.

The survey of affected fathers from different countries (Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, The Netherlands, The UK and Australia) was done following the method of the “self administered survey”.

By initial approach I also tried to get into contact with at least some mothers and children involved. This approach was not productive as the children were in most cases too young, the mothers (all of them) blocked my attempt of contact as apparently they did not want to be disturbed in “their world”.

It was noticeable how homogeneous the psychological strain was for fathers all across the survey. Fathers with the willingness for engagement with their children today in 2015 still feel forsaken by politics, legislative, judiciary and welfare offices and being exposed to the arbitrariness of mothers.

Barbara Kleinschuster-Moser
February 2015
Graz, Austria

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New member from Denmark joined PEF on 26 Nov 2014

FB logo

Name: “Foreningen Far til støtte for børn og forældre” (english – “Fathers’ association in support of children and parents”)
Purpose: to work for the children as far as possible can have close contact with both parents and both parents can retain influence on their children’s upbringing – also when the parents do not live together. Furthermore, to ensure children’s and parents’ rights in society by parents assimilated through legislation, judicial and law administration practice, and as far as possible to support relevant research in children’s and family area.
General messages from the organization:
A group, where parents can help each other – it’s a User to User group:
Twitter account:
Adress: Pasteursvej 2, 1799 København V, Denmark
Phone number: 72 40 66 88
Date of registration: 1977 Sep. 24

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International Men’s Day, Wednesday 19 November 2014

landscape_screen shot_imd_2013

International Men’s Day, Wednesday 19 November 2014

Working Together for Men and Boys, Fathers and Sons: Positive Male Role Models

Objectives of International Men’s Day include a focus on men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models. It is an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them.

The November IMD is a significant date as it interfaces the popular ‘Movember’ charity event and also with Universal Children’s Day on Nov 20 with which IMD forms a 48 hour celebration of men and children respectively, and of the special relationships they share.

The ability to sacrifice your needs on behalf of others is fundamental to manhood, as is honour. Manhood rites of passage the world over recognise the importance of sacrifice in the development of Manhood.

Men make sacrifices everyday in their place of work, in their role as husbands and fathers, for their families, for their friends, for their communities and for their nation. International Men’s Day is an opportunity for people everywhere of goodwill to appreciate and celebrate the men in their lives and the contribution they make to society for the greater good of all.

Methods of commemorating International Men’s Day have included public seminars, conferences, festivals and fundraisers, classroom activities at schools, radio and television programs, Church observances, and peaceful displays and marches. The manner of observing this annual day is optional; any organizations are welcome to host their own events and any appropriate forums can be used. This year the theme is Positive Male Role Models. Should you want to choose another theme for your particular celebration you are quite at liberty to do so.

International Men’s Day is celebrated in over 60 countries of the world. Too many to list. Join us on November 19 in celebrating the contribution men and boys make to those around them, to their family and friends, their work place and the community, the nations and the world.

imd2011-poster-a4-rgb-747kbDads4Kids is honoured to host the Men’s Day website and we invite you to join the global celebrations. Anyone is welcome to quote material from this website (attribution to this website is required), as well as free and open use of our logo and access to new posters in the Resource Section.

Please feel free to download and use our posters and logos at:
* Logos:
* Posters:

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EU Cross-Border Custody Helpline

2690656718_3f548236b0_zThe Platform for European Fathers (PEF) starts a new information and advice service for European parents struggling with EU cross-border custody and access issues.

When your partner has left you and has taken the children without your consent to another EU country, and you are desperate and searching for information on what you can possibly do, then also have a look at our ‘Platform for European Fathers’ (PEF) newly opened website, with a Facebook discussion group and a Facebook information page with information on cross-border custody and access issues within the EU and between EU countries.

For more information on the EU Cross-Border Custody Helpline see:

  1. Facebook helpline discussion group:
  2. Facebook information page:
  3. Website:

Support by 24 organisations from 15 EU countries:

24 national member parent organisations of PEF from 15 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) are offering you their national expertise, information and support:

  1. Austria – Children’s Feelings (Kindergefuehle)
  2. Austria – Go Daddy ! (Papa gibt Gas)
  3. Austria – Fathers without Rights (Väter ohne Rechte)
  4. Austria – In the name of parental responsibility (In Namen Elterliche Verantwortung – INEV)
  5. Belgium – Fatherinstitute (Vaderinstituut)
  6. Belgium – SOS Papa Belgique
  7. Bulgaria – Union of Fathers (Съюз на бащите в България)
  8. France – Association Father, Child, Mother (Père Enfant Mère)
  9. France – SOS Papa Nord-Picardie
  10. Germany – Fathers on the Brink for Children (Väter Aufbruch für Kinder – VAfK)
  11. Greece – Sygapa, Father’s and Men’s Dignity
  12. Hungary – Association of Divorced Fathers (Elvált Apák Érdekvédelmi Egyesülete – EAÉE)
  13. Iceland – Association for Equal Parenting (Félag um foreldrajafnrétti)
  14. Ireland – Parental Equality Ireland (PEI)
  15. Ireland – Mens Support Groups of Ireland (MSGI) – The National Umbrella Organisation
  16. Lithuania – Association Against Parental Alienation (Asociacijos Prieš Tėvų Atstūmimą – APTA)
  17. Netherlands – Father Knowledge Centre (Vader Kennis Centrum – VKC)
  18. Portugal – Parental equality and children’s rights (Igualdade Parental e Direito dos Filhos)
  19. Spain – Federal Union of Associations for Equal Parenting (Union Estatal de Federaciones y Asociaciones por la Custodia Compartida)
  20. Spain – Association of Victims of Family Violence Laws (Asociación Víctimas Ley Violencia Género Madrid – GenMad)
  21. Switzerland – Responsibly Raising Fathers and Mothers (Verantwortungsvoll erziehende Väter und Mütter – VeV)
  22. Switzerland – Second wives and families (Donna2)
  23. United Kingdom – Men’s Aid
  24. United Kingdom – Fatherhood Institute
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