Child development experts discuss shared parenting after divorce
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A panel of leading child development experts answer the burning questions about shared parenting after divorce

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | October 2018 

Do children really benefit from shared parenting after divorce? The experts say yes: over 50 recent studies have demonstrated this.

In 2017, 12 global expert researchers and scholars of divorce and post-separation parenting shared a platform at a conference in the USA and answered big questions regarding shared parenting after divorce.

The names of the 12 are given at the end of this article.

1. Do children really benefit from shared parenting after divorce?

Yes. Over 50 studies have demonstrated this: lower levels of depression, anxiety and dissatisfaction; lower aggression; less use of alcohol and drugs; less smoking; better school performance and cognitive development; better physical health; and better family relationships. Some studies show no benefits of shared parenting on some measures, but none show deficits relative to children in the sole custody of one parent. Even when levels of parental conflict are factored in, children do better with shared parenting than with sole custody.

The experts agreed that this evidence is so strong it cannot be ignored.

A possible mechanism is that, in families where a parenting deficit exists, shared parenting enables “weak” parenting by one parent to be offset by “strong” parenting by the other. That is, shared parenting children have two chances of strong parenting, while sole custody children have only one. Child development research confirms that children form multiple attachments with parents from the outset, so the deficiencies in one relationship can be compensated by another. It should be noted that parenting quality can vary over time — shared parenting enables one parent to pick up the slack when the other is distracted.

Another possible mechanism is that two active parents offer more social capital than just one.

Shared parenting arrangements also offer more flexibility over time around the changing needs of a growing child.

Adequate time to build any relationship is key. One expert put it thus: “Would you want to build and enrich and nurture a relationship with a new spouse based on being together only alternating weekends?”

Other research has shown that children, on average, prefer substantial time with both parents. Better outcomes for children in shared arrangements may partly be accounted for simply because the children are happier.

2. How much time do children need to spend with each parent?

A consensus has appeared in the literature that around 35% of the child’s time is required to maintain a high-quality relationship with a parent. Overnight time is important because it makes possible both parents’ involvement in a variety of activities, such as bedtimes, mornings and homework.

But other research has shown that even when parents share joint legal custody without sharing parenting time, the outcomes are better for children. This indicates symbolic benefits to the child when a second parent is involved in important life decisions.

3. Are social expectations of shared parenting important?

The experts agreed that the answer is yes. If society and family law professionals communicate an expectation of sharing, parents’ negotiating strategies change. The growing understanding of fathers’ importance for children is strongly influencing the substantial societal shift towards an expectation of shared parenting.

This social expectation can also affect the children – they know that they matter to both of their parents. Recent research shows that feeling that they matter to their fathers after divorce has a greater impact on children’s adjustment than feeling that they matter to their mothers.

4. Should there be a legal presumption of shared parenting?

Most, but not all, of the panellists believed that the evidence supports making shared parenting a legal presumption, although all agreed that a one-size-fits-all standard was inappropriate. Presumptions are and must be rebuttable in certain circumstances—for example, if there is a risk of child abuse or neglect, too great a distance between the parents’ homes, threat of abduction by a parent, excessive gate-keeping, or a child with special needs requiring specialist care.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) comes in different forms, and the only form the experts agreed should preclude shared parenting is coercive, controlling violence, the stereotypical male battering pattern.

5. Should parental conflict or objections by one parent be grounds for an exception?

Most experts said no. Not all conflict is toxic to children, and certain arrangements that can mitigate exposure to conflict, such as dropping off and picking children up at school rather than at home. Parallel parenting can work where cooperative parenting does not.

In one third of cases of conflict, the conflict is one-sided, with only one parent fomenting hostility and the other trying to move on. Conflict can also change over time, usually growing less severe. In fact, it can sometimes be reduced simply by educating parents about the value of shared parenting. On the other hand, parents who believe that high levels of conflict will lead to sole custody may have an incentive for conflict.

Most panellists strongly disagreed with the idea that shared parenting does not work if one parent opposes it. The evidence does not support this idea. Also, such an arrangement gives a veto to the less cooperative parent.

6. How should we deal with parental alienation?

The experts agreed that shared parenting tends to prevent parental alienation because it ensures that the child can directly evaluate the behaviour of both parents, recognising the discrepancies between the parent’s actual characteristics and those described by the alienating parent.

7. What should happen when one parent wants to move far away?

The experts felt that each case needs to be considered individually. They said that attention should be paid to the moving parent’s reasons for wishing to move, the possibility that both parents might move, and the projected impact on the other parent-child relationship and on the child’s adjustment. The history of involvement of the non-moving parent should also be a significant consideration.

The shared parenting expert panel

The 12 experts presented their views at a two-day conference in May 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, hosted by the National Parents Organisation and the International Council of Shared Parenting (ICSP). The following is an extract from the original article introducing the 12 experts.

Dr Kari Adamsons is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut and has published many peer-reviewed articles and chapters on fathering, shared parenting and divorce. She is particularly known for her work on nonresident father involvement and father identity and is considered one of the leaders of the next generation of fatherhood scholars. She is Associate Editor of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Dr William Austin is a nationally recognized expert on child custody evaluations who has published numerous professional articles and book chapters on the topic of shared parenting after divorce. He co-chaired the task force that developed the Model Standards of Practice for Child Custody Evaluation for the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC).

Dr Malin Bergström of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has written several books about child development, attachment theory, and parenting. Dr Bergström’s research focuses on children’s health and welfare in shared parenting arrangements and she has led rigorous research projects evaluating the Swedish experience with shared parenting.

Dr Sanford L Braver is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, where he served in the Psychology Department for 41 years and was the recipient of 18 competitively reviewed, primarily federal research grants, totaling over $28 million. His work has been published in nearly 135 peer reviewed professional articles and chapters and he is author of three books including Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths.

Dr Jennifer Harman is Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University. She specializes in the study of intimate partner relationships and has published many peer-reviewed articles and books on shared parenting after divorce. Her 2016 TEDx talk on parental alienation showcased several ideas from her most recent co-authored and well-received book, Parents Acting Badly.

Dr Michael E Lamb is Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. He has focused his scholarship on father–child and mother–child relationships over the past 40 years, writing more than 500 professional articles and 50 books, including five editions of The Role of the Father in Child Development. He is currently President of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Developmental Psychology.

Dr Pamela Ludolph is a clinical and forensic psychologist in the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan and in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the university’s Law School. She is a published author who conducts complex child custody evaluations and frequently lectures to family court and mental health professionals in the United States and abroad.

Dr Linda Nielsen is Professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University. She is an internationally recognized expert on shared physical custody research and father–daughter relationships. She has written three books on father–daughter relationships and three editions of the college textbook, Adolescence: A Contemporary View, as well as numerous articles on shared parenting.

Professor Patrick Parkinson is Professor of Law and Dean of the Beine Law School at the at the University of Queensland, Australia, and is a Past President of the International Society of Family Law. He played a major role in the development of legislation and practice in family law and child protection in Australia and helped in persuading the Australian government to invest in a national network of Family Relationship Centers, offering mediation and other services to parents going through separation. He has written six books and authored approximately 100 journal articles and book chapters on issues relating to shared parenting after divorce.

Dr. Irwin Sandler, Regents’ Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, directed for more than 25 years a national research center on the development and evaluation of programs to improve outcomes for children following parental divorce by focusing on post-divorce shared parenting. He is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and has served on several scientific advisory boards and committees.

Prof. Dr. Jur. Hildegund Sünderhauf-Kravets has been a Professor of Family Law and Youth Welfare Law at the Lutheran University of Applied Sciences in Nuremberg, Germany, for 17 years. She initiated the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that calls on member states to provide for shared parenting following a separation, wrote the only monograph about SP in Germany, and cofounded the ICSP.

Dr Richard Warshak is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and is one of the world’s most respected authorities on divorce, child custody, shared parenting and parental alienation. He has written 14 books and more than 75 articles in 18 languages that have had a broad impact on family law. His book Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing has been particularly influential.

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