Divorce harms children’s emotional security, shared parenting mitigates it
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Divorce harms children’s emotional security, but this is mitigated by more shared parenting

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | December 2018 

Reduced parenting time with fathers after divorce damages emotional security in children. Increased time mitigates negative impacts of conflict.

Reduced parenting time with fathers after divorce undermines children’s emotional security, because they don’t have enough daily interactions to reassure them that they matter to their fathers, finds Professor William Fabricius of Arizona State University, USA, in a paper to be published next year. Conversely, more parenting time with fathers is linked to a better father-child relationship.

Most studies of shared time with parents after divorce use 65%/35% as the cutoff for considering the arrangement to be joint physical custody. But when researchers have looked at what happens when there is more sharing, ranging, for example, from 60%/40% and all the way to 50%/50%, they’ve found that higher levels of sharing are associated with fewer behavioural problems and better social skills in the child’s later life.

High conflict between parents further reduces emotional security for children, introducing a fear of abandonment. Recent evidence from larger samples shows this fear is worst when children spend 25%-35% of their time with their fathers. Fear of abandonment is not as bad when they spend less than 25% of their time with their fathers, and is considerably better when they spend more than 35% and closer to 50%. This finding challenges the idea that reducing time with a parent is a cure for high-conflict situations; more sharing will benefit most children.

Research on father-child relationships among college students

Fabricius examined the father-child relationship in college students from divorced families. The average quality of the child-father relationship increases with the proportion of time spent with the father during childhood, incrementally from 0% to 50%. The same relationship has been found for overnight stays with the father during the first two years of life: the more overnight stays, the stronger the relationship in young adulthood. These findings have been confirmed in other studies of families recruited from the community by Fabricius and other researchers, especially in Europe.

In neither case does mother-child relationship security decrease as childhood time with the father increases. Indeed, in the case of overnight stays, more overnight stays with the father during infancy were associated with a slight improvement in the relationship between the young adult and the mother.

The public health cost of low emotional security

Fabricius draws attention to the public health implications of these findings. An estimated 35% of children of divorce have poorer relationships with their fathers in adulthood than do children from intact families. These poorer relationships are associated with worse behavioral and emotional adjustment and lower school achievement. A poor relationship with parents is also implicated in mental health disorders, major chronic diseases and early mortality. A weakened relationship with a divorced father also means that the father invests less time and money on behalf of the child.

Fabricius’s own most recent research, with a non-college sample, shows that as a predictor of mental health years later, adolescents’ perceptions of how much they mattered to their fathers were more important than their perceptions of how much they mattered to their mothers.

Emotional Security Theory

Fabricius explains these findings through emotional security theory. The central tenet of this theory is that conflict between parents (whether separated or not) can threaten children’s sense that their parents will be able and willing to continue to take care of them, producing fear of abandonment.

Anxiety about abandonment can manifest itself in three ways: distress in response to episodes of conflict; attempts by children to control exposure  to the conflict through things intervening to try to stop the conflict or ingratiating themselves; and negative expectations that the conflict will cause their parents to walk away. A “Fear of Abandonment” scale assesses children responses in these situations, using measures like “I worry that my parents will want to live without me”, “it’s possible that my parents will never want to see me again”, “I worry that I will be left all alone” and “I think that one day I might have to live with a friend or relative”.

Very similar fears are still present in young adults as they look back on parental conflict during their childhood: memories of distress when experiencing parental conflict, feelings of self-blame, and negative expectations that conflict will undermine the parental support they receive during young adulthood.

Father time in high-conflict situations

Research on college students by Fabricius and his team found that more time spent with fathers during childhood mitigated the extent to which the conflict damaged emotional security and exacerbated mental health problems. There was no indication that more parenting time for fathers in high-conflict families resulted in poorer father-child relationships.

In other research with young adults, Fabricius and his team found that the strength of the father-child relationship increased in high-conflict situations as more time was spent with the father, but only up to 25% of the total parental time. After that, more time did not produce more improvement.

On the other hand, fear of abandonment is worst in high-conflict families when children spend between 25% and 35% of their time with their fathers. The same was found to be true for somatic symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and nausea. If the child sees the father less than 25% of the time, the fear decreases; and if the child spends more than 35% of the time with the father, up to near 50%, the fear of abandonment decreases even more—all the way down to the level experienced in low-conflict situations.

Emotional security theory helps explains these findings. When time with the father is low, the child loses little if he withdraws completely. Between 25% and 35%, the extent of the potential loss is greater and the perceived risk that it will happen is higher. But with equal parenting, the perceived risk of abandonment is lower.

Another area of research that sheds light on this issue is the impact on child wellbeing of parental relocation after divorce. Relocation to a place more than an hour’s drive from the original family home is associated with long-term harm to children’s emotional security with the parents and a worse reaction to conflict between the parents. Relocation is also linked to more anxiety, depression, aggression, delinquency, involvement in the juvenile justice system, associations with delinquent peers and drug use. This findings hold true whether the child remains in the original family home or moves away from it, offering further evidence that separation from a parent is damaging to the child.

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  • Fabricius WV, Equal parenting time: The case for a legal presumption, To be published in Dwyer JG (2019), Oxford Handbook of Children and the Law

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