Caring for children after separation or divorce

Caring for children after separation or divorce

4 September 2014
Caring for children after separation or divorce

Professor Lawrie Moloney writes about parenting and parental absence after separation.

Parenting and parental absence after separation

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms the child’s right, in normal circumstances, to enjoy an ongoing relationship with both parents. Similarly, Australia’s Family Law Act, amended in 2006, speaks of the child’s right, again in normal circumstances, to continue to have a meaningful relationship with both parents following separation or divorce. Broadly speaking, “normal circumstances” are those in which an ongoing relationship would not put the child or other family members at risk. For example, continued involvement by both separated parents would not normally be considered to be in a child’s interests if this arrangement was used by one parent as a means of exercising coercive control over one or more family members.

There is evidence that children who experience the absence of a parent after separation and divorce suffer from a range of social disadvantages. Researchers have generally found that the difficulties experienced by children in this situation are more strongly associated with common consequences of the parent’s absence – such as family poverty2 – than with losing the parental relationship itself. The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) has found that about 12% of Australian children whose parents had separated had no contact with one of their parents (mainly fathers) a year or so after the separation. This figure has been found to increase somewhat over time, with about 16% of children spending no time with one of their parents five years or so after the separation.3

On a more positive note, it is also clear that most separated couples have the interests of their children at heart and want to arrive at good workable parenting arrangements. AIFS research has found that most parenting arrangements come about as a result of direct discussions between separated parents and that most of these parents maintain or develop friendly or cooperative relationships with each other – which is good news for children. In addition, many separated parents who experience more difficult relationships make good use of mediation to help them resolve disputes over their children. Smaller proportions – most of whom report quite fraught relationships – use legal advice and legal negotiations as their main pathway towards possible resolution, or rely on courts to make decisions.

Parent-child relationships and parenting time

Regardless of the pathway used, discussions, negotiations and decisions about parenting after separation often focus on the amount of time children will spend with each parent. This is perhaps understandable. We know for example that after separation, many children grieve the loss of having daily interactions with a parent.4 But for children who continue to see both their separated parents, researchers have found no strong links between those children’s wellbeing and quantities of time they spend with each parent.5

At first glance, this might appear to be an unexpected finding. It might seem logical that if many children grieve the loss of daily interactions with both parents, the best outcome would be to attempt to maximise the available time each child can spend with each parent. But this is not what normally happens. AIFS research has found that less than 10% of Australian children from separated families experience this arrangement, while only about 20% of children in total spend more than a third of their time with each parent. When parents separate, the majority of Australian children continue to remain mainly in the care of one parent (usually their mothers).

In summary, the fact that children who spend considerably more time in the care of one of their parents appear to be functioning just well as children whose care time arrangements are more evenly spread between both parents, suggests that time may not be the most important factor when it comes to their wellbeing. From the child’s point of view, it is likely that knowing that he or she continues to be loved and accepted by both parents will almost certainly trump the impact of such differences – knowing that whatever other difficulties exist, both parents remain united in their wish to do the best they can as parents.

The corrosive nature of ongoing conflict and tension

Indeed there is much evidence that respectful relationships between parents are at the core of any successful post separation parenting arrangements. Ongoing conflict and tension between parents has consistently been shown to have a negative impact on children’s adjustment. Young children and infants find such conflict and tension to be especially distressing because it is occurring between the people they rely on for just about everything.

If the parenting arrangements themselves are a cause of ongoing tension, the situation should be reviewed. If this proves difficult to do, a good way forward is to seek the assistance of an accredited family mediator. The mediator will support both parents, while helping them to maintain a primary focus on the needs of the child.

In such circumstances some parents also decide to recruit or employ another person, such as a trusted individual or a family lawyer, to advocate on their behalf. Advocates can provide emotional support or advice. Advocacy can be helpful so long as the process also remains focused on the needs of the children. In the majority of cases, these needs will normally include the need for the children to continue to have a meaningful relationship with both parents.

That said, the legislation makes it clear that the need for a meaningful relationship between a child and a parent must always give way to the need for protection in cases in which a parent’s behaviour is dangerous or clearly neglectful. Dangerousness and serious neglect are not about conflict. Dangerousness is about the need to control. Serious neglect may have its origins in problems related to mental illness and/or addictions and/or the parent’s own earlier experiences of neglect or abuse.

These behaviours need legal interventions. The legal interventions should in turn be supported by relevant services such as mental health, drug and alcohol or family violence services. The primary aim of these services is to help the parent change behaviours that would impact negatively on the child or on other members of the family. If this is achieved, reconsideration of time arrangements between parent and child might then be appropriate.

To read a second article on this topic, also written by Professor Moloney, see Sharing the care of children after separation: Thinking beyond “custody and access” or “residence and contact”.

The feature image is by Pratham Books, CC BY 2.0.

2. See: Amato, P., & Gilbreth, J. (1999). Non-resident fathers and children’s wellbeing: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 61: 557-73. Also: Smyth, B. (Ed.). (2004). Parent-child contact and post-separation parenting arrangements. Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.

3. See: Qu, L.,Weston, R., Moloney, L., Kaspiew, R., & Dunstan, J. (2014). Post-separation parenting, property and relationship dynamics after five years. Table 5.1. The report is available on the Attorney General’s Department website.

4. See for example: Ahrons, C. R. (2004). We’re still family: What grown children have to say about their parents’ divorce. New York, NY: Perennial Currents. Also: Cashmore, J., Parkinson, P., Weston, R., Patulny, R., Redmond, G., Qu, L., Baxter, J. Rajkovic, M. Sitek, T., & Katz, I. (2010). Shared Care Parenting Arrangements since the 2006 Family Law Reforms: Report to the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department Sydney. Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

5. See for example: Smyth, B., Chisholm, R., Rodgers, B., & Son, V. (2014). Legislating for shared-time parenting after parental separation: Insights from Australia? Journal of Law & Contemporary Problems, 77(1), available online: Also: Smyth, B. (2009). A five year retrospective of post-separation shared care research in Australia. Journal of Family Studies, 15(1), 36- 59. Also: Emery, R., Otto, R., & O’Donohue, W. (2005). A Critical Assessment of Child Custody Evaluations: Limited Science and a Flawed System, 6 PSYCHOL. SCI. Pus. INT. 1


Lawrie Moloney

Professor Lawrie Moloney is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Health at La Trobe University. He is a registered psychologist, family mediator and family therapist. Having served as a Director of family court counselling in the early years of the Family Court of Australia, Lawrie then spent 24 years in the university sector, mainly teaching counselling and counselling psychology. He is Editor in Chief of the Journal of Family Studies and has authored more than 200 publications, many related to children, parenting and divorce.

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