Parent-child contact and post-separation parenting arrangements

Research Report No. 9 – July 2004

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10. Summary and conclusions by Bruce Smyth

'One of the things that the separation has taught me is that children aren't mine. They're not my possessions. And whatever I can do as a parent, as a father, that's going to help them adjust to the world, I try to do... after all, we brought them here in the first place.' [Alex]

The Australian Institute of Family Studies Parent-Child Contact Study explored five different patterns of parenting among separated and divorced parents with dependent children, with a view to shedding light on qualitative differences in experiences associated with these patterns comprising: 50/50 shared care; little or no contact; holiday-only contact; daytime-only contact; and 'standard' contact.

Large-scale demographic data (ABS 1998) based on resident parents' reports suggest that around half (52 per cent) of all children under 18 with a parent living elsewhere have fairly frequent (at least weekly, fortnightly or monthly) face-to-face contact with that parent. Not surprisingly, patterns of parenting after separation are very varied, as are the perceptions and motivations of parents with different arrangements.

Joining the dots between the various pieces of data, there is much to suggest that family dynamics, in tandem with demographic factors, temper the form that parent-child contact takes. These factors largely reduce to the three Rs - repartnering, relocation, and residual bad feelings (particularly conflict) between parents. To this list may be added three other Rs - relative economic disadvantage, 'rotten behaviour' by a parent47 (including abuse, domestic violence, and obstruction), and regard for children's individual temperament, resilience, experience, age, developmental stage and wishes. Not surprisingly, higher levels of contact appear to be associated with lower levels of inter-parental conflict, lower rates of repartnering, less physical distance between parents' households, and higher levels of financial resources. There is little new here. But what is new is the way the interaction of these and other factors appears to be clearly linked to qualitatively different patterns of post-separation parenting.

Who does what, and why?

The various pieces of data suggest a set of distinct parent-child contact profiles (described below). These profiles must be viewed as impressionistic insofar as they represent an amalgam of both the qualitative and quantitative data.

50/50 shared care

The HILDA data suggest that shared care appears to be adopted by a relatively small group of mainly well-educated, dual career, ex-couples with primary school aged children. Of particular note is that co-parent mothers tend to be relatively financially secure, which may, of course, significantly lessen conflict over child support. Co-parent fathers tend to be single, and therefore may not be emotionally torn between first and second families. Co-parents also appear to have flexible work arrangements, such as being more likely to be able to work from home than other parents, and to live near their former partners. Adequate to high socio-economic resources seem to be a critical facilitator of shared parenting arrangements.

Buiding on the above profile, parents in the focus group typically adopted a working businesslike relationship as parents - that is, they seem to be able to put aside any relationship issues for the wellbeing of their children. As one focus group member put it: 'Reasonable relations make so much possible.'

Virtually all of the 12 parents in the focus groups had adopted a shared care arrangement from the time of separation; many had maintained this arrangement for a considerable length of time; and most had established this arrangement without any involvement with the legal system. The two parents who did have a history of litigation co-parented at arm's length. Destructive patterns of family dynamics were not the norm.

For many of the fathers with shared care, their own need to be involved as a parent seems to be a key motivating factor for 50/50 care, while co-parent mothers appear to be motivated by the rights of both the child and the father to continue their relationship. Both sets of motives, although different, nonetheless aligned, were mutually reinforcing, and may have fostered a commitment by family members to make shared care work. By and large, co-parents seemed to be happy with the way that their arrangements were working for themselves and their children.

Little or no contact

Several datasets suggest that around one-third of children in Australia with a natural parent living elsewhere, rarely or never see that other parent, typically their father (ABS 1998; Parkinson and Smyth 2003). Some fathers appear to be cut out (according to fathers' reports); others appear to cut themselves out (according to mothers' reports).

Several possible drivers - not mutually exclusive - of paternal disengagement suggest themselves: fathers' own problems or issues (such as alcohol or substance abuse); new family responsibilities (especially the presence of a second set of natural children); a belief by fathers that their children may be better off without them, or that walking away is a way of dealing with grief, loss, ongoing conflict, role ambiguity, a sense of unfairness, and the 'pain of contact visits - their brevity, artificiality, and superficiality' (Kruk 1993: 89); disengagement may also be a response to feeling disenfranchised by 'the system' and/or a former partner (Braver and O'Connell 1998).

The demographic data from the HILDA survey suggest that conflict, emotional and physical distance, new partners, and relative economic disadvantage feature prominently in the profile of parents who report little or no father-child conflict. The individual stories of focus group members pointed to a similar list. In addition to some fathers' limited parenting skills were a lack of motivation, or poor social support, and perceived efforts by mothers to discourage or obstruct contact. Other significant issues for fathers also included the 'shallowness' of sporadic contact, and the pain of seeing their children adjusting poorly to the separation. In this respect, both the focus group and population-based data accord with key issues identified in research overseas (Dudley 1991; Kruk 1993).

Holiday-only contact

Very little is known in Australia about holiday-only contact. No reliable estimates exist about the proportion of children who experience this pattern of care, and there are no data that describe the timing, frequency, and duration of holiday-only contact.

Recent data from HILDA suggest that roughly 20-25 per cent of non-resident parents (mostly fathers) live 500 kilometres or more from their children. According to resident parents' reports in the 1997 data from the Family Characteristics Survey (ABS 1998), 18 per cent of children with a natural parent living elsewhere saw that parent no more than several times a year (most likely in school holidays, Christmas and Easter). Taken together, both estimates suggest that a substantial number of children in Australia spend small or large chunks of time with a non-resident parent only during school holidays.

Given the dearth of statistical information about this group, the views of separated parents who exercise holiday-only contact are instructive. Such parents articulated six key issues during focus group interviews.

First, the resident parents in these focus groups seemed to crave respite from the burden of caring for children, but non-resident parents had difficulty accruing enough leave each holiday to both see their children and balance time for new family commitments.

Second, for non-resident parents, long-distance parenting was typically 'shallow', and many felt under pressure to have fun with children - 'holidays are for having fun'.

Third, the critical dimension for long-distance, non-resident parents was the need to know when contact would occur - that is, predictability to enable work and travel arrangements to be set in place, followed by a sufficient quantity of time, followed by the ability to have 'quality' time with children. The ability to have a flexible arrangement may be the 'icing on the (residential schedule) cake'.

Fourth, other forms of communication, such as mobile phones or email, were an important potential means for staying connected to children. But where children were young, or the resident parent was not supportive of contact, the ability of the non-resident parents to engage with their children required a high level of commitment on their part.

Fifth, the often superficial nature of contact appears to have led some nonresident parents to feel disenfranchised and detached as parents. Indeed these non-resident parents appeared to struggle with a range of emotions from grief to anger around not seeing their children frequently. The resident mothers (and apparently children) also seemed to struggle but for different reasons.

Finally, the reports of participants suggest that as children grow older, longdistance parenting often gets easier. Indeed, many non-resident parents in the 'little or no contact' focus group appeared to be marking time until their children were old enough to have an independent relationship with them.

All of this suggests that holiday-only contact requires strong commitment and special effort in the form of 'forget-me-nots', other forms of communication, and predictability to make it work or at least be sustained.

Daytime-only contact

According to resident parents' reports, around one third (34 per cent) of children with ongoing face-to-face contact with a non-resident parent do not stay overnight with that parent (Smyth and Ferro 2002). Parents who reported daytime-only contact in the HILDA survey were characterised by two demographic features: they tended to have pre-school aged children; and/or a relatively weak economic base (as indicated by personal earnings, and higher rates of renting) which may equate with a lack of adequate accommodation to have children stay overnight. They also tended to report dissatisfaction with the quality of their relationship with their former partner.

However, this profile is from the generality of grouped data. The individual stories that surfaced in the focus groups pointed to a more complex mosaic. For at least one focus group member, daytime-only contact had its basis in a cooperative coparental arrangement with an emphasis on stability for children. For other group members, fathers' work patterns (for example, shifts or late nights), distance from children, or paternal disinterest was perceived to underpin daytime-only contact. Some fathers perceived obstruction and 'gatekeeping' by mothers, while at least one mother in the group sought daytime-only contact because of a concern for the safety of her children. Still in other cases, daytime-only contact reflected an arrangement put in place when children were young which had simply rolled on. More empirical work is needed to improve our understanding of the various reasons for this pattern of care.

What characterised the accounts of these parents, particularly the non-resident fathers, was a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the arrangement. This view was corroborated by the high percentage of fathers with daytime-only contact in the HILDA survey who felt they had 'nowhere near enough' contact with their children.

'Standard' contact

The largest (and probably most heterogeneous) group examined were parents who opted for every-weekend or every-other-weekend (sometimes with extra nights mid-week) residential schedules. One of the key insights to come out of the focus group material is that many parents appear to opt for 'standard' contact by default: that is, they are typically unaware of any other feasible alternatives and perceive the every-other-weekend schedule as the 'norm'. Moreover, a number of parents also noted that this pattern of contact was the most practical and workable arrangement in the light of parents' work patterns and the need of the primary carer to have some recreational time with children.


Family dynamics, in tandem with several demographic factors (most notably material resources, and the quality of the co-parental relationship, physical distance between parents' households, and the repartnering status of parents), look to be important correlates of particular patterns of care. The maturity of children also seems to be important, with daytime-only contact being most common when children are of pre-school age, and 'shared care' applying when children are of primary school age.


There are a number of practical and policy implications that flow out of the material presented.

Parenting arrangements

Each child is unique. So too is each family's circumstances. Thus no one postseparation arrangement is going to be, or indeed has been found to be, in the best interests of all children (Lye 1999; Mason 2000; Ricci 1997). Separated parents should thus be urged to be creative in the types of residential schedules that they construct for the care of their children. They need to be encouraged to think about different ways of doing things. Parents also need to be encouraged to review their arrangements periodically - one-size-does-not-fit-forever - perhaps every two years, as children mature and parents' circumstances change. Of course, for some parents this may simply not be possible. High levels of interparental conflict may necessitate some rigidity.

The material presented in Chapters 5-7 suggests that many parenting arrangements, especially 'standard' contact, occur because parents and legal professionals are unaware of different ways of approaching more individualised timesharing arrangements. An information booklet that sets out a range of different timeshare schedules, along with children's various developmental and emotional needs, is likely to be a valuable tool to help parents develop or adjust their parenting arrangements.

Professionals who help parents make their arrangements might also benefit from such a resource. Professionals, such as those in the Family Court (including judges, registrars, mediators, and lawyers), lawyers, mediators and counsellors working in community settings or privately, and divorce-support people more generally, are well placed to help parents think through the many complex considerations required to develop more individualised arrangements for children. This means that more refined and comprehensive supporting material should be developed for use by professionals.

Managing conflict

It is well known that conflict is 'bad' for children (Pryor and Rodgers 2001; Reynolds 2001; McIntosh 2003). But data presented earlier in this report suggest that conflict is also bad for parents. Not only can conflict escalate into more serious forms of destructive behaviour with long-lasting consequences for everyone, but it is often linked to paternal disengagement. The identification of interventions that provide better, more cost effective and more enduring ways of handling conflict for highly conflicted parents thus remains a matter of extreme importance.

Fisher and Pullen (2003) have recently pointed out that the tensions that may arise in ascertaining and balancing children's and parents' needs and interests may be better served if interventions become more child-focused and child-inclusive. Australia is at the vanguard of a number of such interventions (Children in Focus 2003; Jaffe, Lemmon and Poisson 2003; McIntosh 2000; McIntosh and Deacon- Wood 2003) and, where possible, separated parents should be encouraged to make use of these. These interventions are likely to raise parents' awareness of the centrality of children in family disputes, and encourage a framework for achieving child-sensitive outcomes (Children in Focus 2003).

47. It is important to note that while 'rotten behaviour' should be named and made explicit, research exploring this issue is relatively under-developed in Australia (see, for example, Brown 2003) and the methodologies on which the present study is based - namely, focus group interviews and a national random survey - are not well suited to examining such behaviour.