Children aged under four and school aged children could be put at risk developmentally through shared parenting arrangements following separation, two new La Trobe University/Family Transitions reports show.
Commissioned by the Australian Government Attorney General’s Department, the findings are the latest in a series of reports into the impacts on children of divorce.
The implications of the findings show that greater thought needs to be taken by courts and mediators about parenting arrangements, particularly of very young children, said research team leader Associate Professor Jennifer McIntosh, clinical psychologist, from La Trobe University’s School of Public Health and Family Transitions.
‘Our findings show conclusively that rigid arrangements of any kind, often fuelled by acrimony and poor cooperation, and set out in court orders, are associated with higher depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and this form of living became something children often sought to change,’ she said.
‘A cooperative parental relationship and a history of warm, active parenting before separation are key to school aged children doing well in any care arrangement,’ she added.
According to Associate Professor McIntosh, the study findings imply that shared care – when children stay overnight with the non-resident parent five nights or more a fortnight – for very young children should not normally be starting point for discussions about parenting arrangements.
‘The negative impact on the emotional and behavioural functioning of this age group is significant,’ Associate Professor McIntosh said.
The first study, which focused on school aged children in high conflict separation situations, sampled 131 families (260 children), and followed up with personal interviews over four years after divorce mediation.
The study found that shared care arrangements were less stable over time than primary care arrangements, and that rigid arrangements had a significant impact on children and mothers but not fathers.
‘Children living in rigidly fixed shared arrangements were most likely to want a change in the arrangement, reported most frequent conflict between parents and expressed feelings of being caught in the middle,’ said Associate Professor McIntosh.
While type of care arrangement did not predict overall mental health of the child, living in shared care over 3–4 years was associated with greater difficulties in attention, concentration and task completion. Boys in rigidly sustained shared care were most likely to have Hyperactivity/Inattention scores in the clinical/borderline range.
‘Fathers with shared care arrangements were the most satisfied with the arrangement, despite reporting higher levels of ongoing conflict about parenting and poorer dispute management,’ she said.
The second study investigated infants and toddlers in separated families using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
In infants under two, the study showed that overnight care with the non-resident parent once or more a week was independently associated with high irritability and more vigilant efforts by the infant to watch and stay near the resident parent.
In children aged two to three, shared care at five or more nights per fortnight was associated with lower levels of persistence –playing continuously, staying with tasks, practicing new skills, coping with interruption – and more problematic behaviour – crying or hanging on to the resident parent, high anxiety, being frequently upset; eating disturbances and aggressive behaviour.
In this general population sample, for children aged between four to five, independent effects of any care arrangement on emotional and behavioural regulation outcomes were no longer evident. The vast majority of behavioural and emotional disturbance seen in this age group was accounted for by inter-parental conflict and lack of warmth in parenting.
Collaborating researchers included Associate Professor Bruce Smyth, Australian National University; Associate Professor Margaret Kelaher, University of Melbourne; Professor Yvonne Wells, La Trobe University and Caroline Long, Family Transitions.
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