Parent-child relationship imortant to reduce effects of divorce on children
Photo: Carol Von Canon. Creative Commons.

Social scientists urge more priority to protecting the parent-child relationship to limit the effects of divorce on children

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | December 2018 

Child development research explains why the loss of a family relationship during divorce is so excruciatingly painful for a child.

The parent-child relationship, particularly with the father, is at risk during separation and divorce. Worse development outcomes in later life are among the effects of divorce on children who lose a parent-child relationship. That is not to say every individual child does worse, just that the risk of doing worse is significantly higher. By understanding effects of divorce on children, we can help families avoid damaging patterns of behaviour and work to improve child development outcomes.

Sometimes a solution designed to protect the child from parental conflict serves to suspend or attenuate one parent-child relationship. This approach is problematic: empirical research shows that continued family relationships can be a protective factor against the damaging effects of divorce on children when there is conflict. Limiting a parent-child relationship when there is conflict can make things worse for the child. This, of course, does not apply to a parent-child relationship that is itself dangerous and damaging to the child.

One expert on family law in Australia, Professor Patrick Parkinson, has proposed that family law professionals should be well briefed on the latest research on the effects of divorce on children and on child development. This article responds to that proposal by setting out the evidence to date.

All child development takes place within parent-child and other family relationships

In 1964, renowned paediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott went so far as to say “there is no such thing as a baby”. He meant that a baby’s development as a human being is so embedded in parent-child relationships that it is difficult to mark the dividing line between the individual and the family.

“Sometimes a solution proposed to conflict is to protect the child by suspending one parent-child connection. This approach is problematic.”

In the past 40 years, psychologists have studied and measured the role of parent-child relationships in child development and have confirmed Winnicott’s memorable insight. The pivotal importance of early childhood relationships has been a dominant theme in child development psychology for a long time. The United Nations, through its Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development Framework, has just declared that family relationships, parent-child relationships in particular, in the early years are the most important thing for all children in the world.

A new book, The Development of Children’s Thinking: Its Social and Communicative Foundations, by three leading researchers, sets out the understandings to date. Social interaction, it says, is the “crucible in which children’s cognitive development takes place, charged with emotion”.

parent-child relationship brain

Photo: Shutterstock.

Neuroscience further demonstrates this process. It is possible to see brain circuits forming in synchrony in parents and children, which goes on to predict children’s later developmental outcomes. The brains of parent and child are interwoven. The parent-child relationship is wired in both their brains.

For example, brain scanning research in Israel has shown that when a father cares for his baby in the first months of its life, his brain changes – caring circuits are triggered and honed. The more child care he undertakes, the more brain circuits associated with understanding and ‘feeling’ the needs of the infant become active. Thus, the act of providing care to his baby strengthens the parent-child relationship and the father’s life-long capacity to respond sensitively to his child’s needs. The baby’s brain develops accordingly: the more the father’s brain changes in the first year, the more the child’s social skills are developed four years later. Those who love us in infancy become part of us.

This perspective goes some way to explain the excruciating pain when a parent-child relationship is severed. The end of a parent-child relationship is part of ourselves dying.

Children don’t just form one parent-child relationship

There was a time, albeit brief, when scientists believed children had one “primary” parent-child relationship or “attachment” that created the foundation for all others. They believed that, in all but very rare cases, the mother filled that role. The idea originated with the father of the attachment idea, John Bowlby, who, before he died, was reconsidering his position, accepting that many children have multiple attachments. Nevertheless, the “primary” idea has proved remarkably resistant to change over the decades, because it accords with social norms and interests.

parent-child relationship

Photo: Harsha K R. Creative Commons.

Following research going all the way back to the 1970s, the answer is now definitive: a baby forms multiple attachments, all starting at roughly the same time in the first year, and all different from each other – that is, one is not the template for another. Attachments need time to develop – no high-quality parent child relationship can be developed in a hurry. Child psychologists have also concluded that father-child attachments can be as strong as mother-child attachments and that men and women can be equally sensitive to their infants, provided they have had the amount of practice that women ordinarily get. Children with a strong parent-child relationship with their fathers do better on average in every domain of development — cognitive, social and emotional.

So family law should make it a priority to preserve not “at least one” relationship, but all parent-child relationships. That is a tough proposition when parents are falling out with each other.

Parent-child relationships after parents separate: the importance of time

William Fabricius at Arizona State University has studied the effects of divorce on children by looking at young adults whose parents have separated. He found that the average quality of the parent-child relationship between young adult and father was related to the time spent with the father during earlier childhood. The relationship was poorest where there was no care, and strongest when mothers and fathers were equally involved. The same pattern for the parent-child relationship held true for overnight stays with the father during the first two years of life: the more overnight stays, the stronger the relationship between father and young adult. At the same time, there was no deterioration in the parent-child relationship between the young adult and mother. Indeed, when children had spent more nights with the father before the age of three, the mother-young adult relationship was slightly stronger, on average.

In a comprehensive review of research covering 60 studies, Professor Linda Nielsen at Wake Forest University in North Carolina found that shared parenting and shared physical custody mitigate the negative effects of divorce on children: lower levels of depression, anxiety and dissatisfaction; lower aggression; less use of alcohol and drugs; less smoking; better school performance; better physical health; and better family relationships.

parent-child relationship

Photo: Shutterstock.

The consensus among psychologists who study child development is that overnight stays form an important part of the process of developing secure infant-parent attachments. Bedtime and night-time routines are crucial opportunities for social and nurturing activities. In 1997, 18 experts sponsored by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) concluded in a consensus statement that to “keep nonresidential parents playing psychologically important and central roles in the lives of their children,” distribution of custodial time should ensure “the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines—including bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities”.

“Conflict and its future trajectory are difficult to assess at the time of the separation.”

In 2014, a group of 111 experts from 15 countries published another consensus report reinforcing the earlier consensus on overnight stays and extended it to children of all ages, including very young children.

Psychologists offer several reasons that fathers’ involvement may improve outcomes for children, in addition to all the benefits associated with sustaining the relationship itself:

  • Fathers are likely to invest more in the child and are less likely to drift away.
  • The social capital available to the child through two parents is greater.
  • When fathers are more involved, the children’s relationships with the paternal grandparents are more substantial. Research by Maaike Jappens in Belgium has found that grandchildren with good grandparent relationships are less likely to be depressed and have higher life satisfaction.
  • With two parents, strong parenting by one can compensate for the weaker parenting of the other. This effect can vary over time, covering for periods of lower availability by one parent and adapting to the child’s changing needs as he or she grows up.

What happens when there is conflict?

The issue of conflict is what brings out the trench warfare, as Patrick Parkinson has described the debate about the 2006 and 2011 family law reforms in Australia.

parent-child relationship

Photo: Sander van der Wel. Creative Commons.

Empirical research leads to two conclusions.

  1. All the benefits of joint physical custody that mitigate the negative effects of divorce on children also apply when the parents are in conflict.

Nielsen’s review of 60 studies looked at children who had experienced high-conflict situations. She found that limiting joint custody and one parent-child relationship is not correlated with fewer negative effects of divorce for children in high-conflict families. Joint physical custody is associated with improved outcomes in all areas—academic/cognitive, emotional, behavioural, social and physical—even when there is conflict.

However, joint physical custody is linked to worse outcomes for children exposed to conflict in some exceptional circumstances: adolescents in high-conflict families who have a poor parent-child relationship with one of the parents sharing custody; teenage girls (but not boys) whose parents have sustained high conflict for eight years or more; and adolescents who are highly conscientious or extremely extroverted. Again, all these are averages: young people in these groups are more likely to suffer harm but not certain to do so.

  1. Having more than one parent-child relationship typically protects children from the harm associated with conflict.

William Fabricius found that one of the consequences of parental conflict for children is a fear of abandonment by one parent. This fear is lessened somewhat if the child does not see the parent very much anyway and lessened considerably if the child sees the parent 50% of the time. The strongest fear of abandonment occurs when the child sees the parent between 25% and 35% of the time, because the extent of the potential loss of the parent-child relationship and the perceived risk of its happening are both high.

parent-child relationship

Photo: Camera Eye Photography. Creative Commons.

How to deal with parental conflict in family law without risking parent-child relationships?

Child development researchers are the first to agree that some forms of conflict preclude any kind of sharing, which is why judges have so much discretion over each case. For example, systematic abuse and controlling behaviour by one parent, or manipulating the child to reject the other parent, renders shared custody unviable. Any parent-child relationship that endangers the child clearly needs to be changed or ended.

But conflict and its future trajectory are difficult to assess at the time of separation. Current conflict is an unreliable measure of what arrangements are appropriate, adding yet more complexity to the task of family law professionals to protect parent-child relationships.

  • There are many kinds of conflict, and not all conflict is toxic.
  • Some kinds of conflict can be mitigated without risking a child-parent relationship – for example, organising transfer of children at the school gate, rather than outside one home.
  • Conflict can change over time. In particular, it can drop over time, more so if parents are supported effectively. In Australia, a survey of 10,000 mothers who reported domestic violence at the time of separation found only 18.5% were still fearful by the time the researchers interviewed them at various time after the separation.
parent-child relationship

Photo: Shutterstock.

A nuanced assessment of the nature of conflict is a crucial part of balancing the harm to the child done by exposure to conflict and the harm to the child done by breaking a parent-child relationship. The more we understand the child development implications of conflict and breaking relationships, the better we can support children through a terrible time, to limit long-term harm.

This article is based on a series of articles covering recent research on family separation reported on the Child and Family Blog.

Duncan Fisher, Child & Family Blog editor


Report on research by Sanford L. Braver and Michael E. Lamb, A panel of leading child development experts answer the burning questions about shared parenting after divorce

Report on research by William L. Fabricius, Divorce harms children’s emotional security, but this is mitigated by more shared parenting

William L. Fabricius, Teenagers who feel they matter to dad have better mental health

Maaike Jappens, Shared custody increases contact with grandparents, who may help children cope with divorce

Report on research by Edward Kruk, A presumption of shared parenting after divorce? 40 years of research and argument paving the way

Charlie Lewis and Jeremy Carpendale, Cognitive development theory: a relational approach

Report on research by Nicole E. Mahrer, Karey L. O’Hara, Irwin N. Sandler & Sharlene A. Wolchik, Family law should give higher priority to support for quality parenting

Report on research by Linda Nielsen, Effect of divorce on child development less with joint custody – even when there is parental conflict

Report on research by Linda Nielsen, Family courts should prioritise more the protection of child-parent relationships

Report on research by Patrick Parkinson, Teaching family law professionals about child development needs may be more influential than predictions about what the courts will do

Report on research by Jani Turunen, In Swedish study, children of separated parents who share physical custody are less likely to be stressed

Richard A. Warshak, After parents divorce, regular overnight stays with dad are best for most young children

Report on research by Richard A. Warshak, Early child development research demonstrates that overnight stays with fathers after a divorce are important for very young children


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