Patterns of parenting over four years post-mediation – Key findings of Study 1
While it was not unusual for shared care to be the agreed outcome between parents following mediation of their parenting dispute, over time, shared care arrangements tended to revert to those in place prior to mediation (which were typically primary residence with mother) (see Table 1). Not surprisingly, given the many logistical and relational challenges, shared care was a less stable pattern than primary residence. Four years after mediation, 41% had maintained primary residence, 27% had maintained a shared care arrangement (at least 35% of nights with each parent), and 32% of families had changed their care pattern.
|Pattern of post-separation parenting over four years||Families
|Continuous primary care||54 (41%)|
|Continuous shared care||36 (27%)|
|Began with shared care; moved to primary care||23 (18%)|
|Began with primary; moved to shared care||18 (14%)|
Parents who participated in child-inclusive mediation (where school-aged children’s needs and views were assessed separately, and incorporated into the mediation) were more likely to maintain the same arrangement over time than parents who received child-focused mediation (where children’s needs and views were not assessed), and were more likely to have remained in a primary care arrangement. In contrast, families who exercised shared care prior to mediation were more than twice as likely to maintain this pattern as those families who moved to shared care after mediation.
The demography of shared care in a high-conflict mediation sample
Analysis of the characteristics of families with different parenting arrangements revealed some consistent patterns. Families who sustained shared parenting over three to four years were more likely than other care groups to have the following profile: male children, younger children at separation, smaller sibling groups, fathers with tertiary education, mothers with high incomes and tertiary education, co-located households with close proximity between parents, fathers who had been active carers during their children’s infancy, and mothers who had re-partnered. At intake, these families also reported lower levels of parental conflict and acrimony, higher levels of parental alliance (i.e., worked together and respected each other as parents), warmer father-child relationships, and higher levels of paternal parenting competence and paternal availability than other groups. In short, a cooperative parental relationship was found to be one of the key ingredients for sustaining shared care over time. This finding is in accord with many other studies (for overviews, see McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008; Smyth, 2009).
Families who sustained shared care over the four-year study period also differed from the other care groups in the following ways: fathers continued to report more positive regard for the mother, while mothers’ acrimony toward the father remained stable (i.e., it declined over time in all other groups); and fathers in sustained shared care were more confident in their parenting to begin with, and remained more confident in their own parenting over time. By contrast, families who moved from shared care to primary care tended to be characterised by the following: mothers reported high acrimony towards the father at intake; children reported poor emotional availability of the father at intake; fathers had low formal education; and children were aged 11 or over at intake (i.e., were approaching their teens).
Some families sustained a rigidly fixed shared care arrangement; that is, the living schedule was “never or rarely flexible/accommodating to changing family needs”. Relative to the other care groups, the rigid shared care group was more litigious (i.e., operating from a court or consent order), and was characterised by higher marital and post-separation levels of conflict and acrimony and lower levels of cooperation. Mothers in this group reported feeling more threatened by their former partners than mothers in other groups, while fathers tended to have low regard for mothers’ parenting skills.
Almost all of the 18 families in which fathers lost contact with children were characterised by high, sustained levels of marital and post-separation conflict at all points in the study. This finding is consistent with prior work in which conflict and acrimony have been found to be important precursors to “father absence”.
Satisfaction with parenting arrangements over time
Satisfaction with care arrangements was associated at a number of levels with type of care arrangement. Fathers with shared care arrangements were the most satisfied of all groups with their living arrangements, despite reporting higher levels of conflict about parenting and poorer dispute management. In contrast, four years after parents mediated their parenting dispute, children in shared care (whether rigid or flexible arrangements) were the least satisfied with the parenting arrangements of all care groups; they were also the most likely to report wanting a change in their arrangement. Where shared arrangements were rigidly enforced, children became significantly more dissatisfied with the arrangement over time than did the flexible shared care group; these children were the least satisfied of all the groups with their living arrangements. Mothers and fathers were equally content when primary care and shared arrangements were reported to be flexible. Rigidity in shared care arrangements significantly affected mothers’ but not fathers’ report of contentment with the parenting arrangements.
Children’s adjustment and wellbeing
Over four years, the type of care arrangement had different impacts on the wellbeing of the children involved and on their experience of their parents. After adjusting for initial levels of conflict, children in the shared care groups reported higher levels of inter-parental conflict four years after mediation than children in the primary residence or changing care groups. Reports of inter-parental conflict over time were similar to those from children in the “no or rare contact” group. Children in the sustained shared care group were more likely than those in other care arrangements to report ongoing feelings of being caught in the middle of their parents’ conflict. Over the four-year study, the greatest decrease in children’s scores for feeling “caught in the middle” was for children in the primary parenting group. By comparison, children’s reports of distress about their parents’ conflict did not vary according to the overnight care pattern. Similarly, neither the nature of a child’s living arrangement at any single point in time, nor the pattern of care across time, independently predicted the child’s total mental health scores after four years (as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, Goodman, 1997).
After four years, stable living arrangements and greater amounts of overnight time were independently associated with the child’s report of greater emotional availability by his/her mother, but not by his/her father. Fathers’ availability was predicted by a history of warm and responsive parenting pre-separation and not by the amount of time he currently cared for the children overnight. We note that in this sample mothers were the primary caregiver in the children’s early years, and this may well have a bearing on these observed outcomes.
Children’s experience of living in shared care over four years was associated with greater difficulties with attention, concentration and task completion by the fourth year of this study. Boys in rigidly sustained shared care were the most likely to have hyperactivity/inattention scores in the clinical/borderline range; however, children who were already vulnerable to hyperactivity/inattention tended to remain that way over time, regardless of the overnight care arrangement.
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