Post-separation parenting arrangements

Post-separation parenting arrangements

Patterns and developmental outcomes: Studies of two risk groups

Jennifer McIntosh, Bruce Smyth, Margaret Kelaher, Yvonne Wells and Caroline Long


The importance for children’s wellbeing, long-term adjustment and maintenance of loving and supportive relationships with both parents after divorce is well documented. However, questions remain about links between parenting arrangements and relationship outcomes, specifically in terms of the ways that shared overnight care after separation may interact with complex developmental or family circumstances to influence children’s outcomes. This article summarises two recent Australian studies of post-separation shared parenting arrangements, with a focus on developmental outcomes for children in two risk groups: children living with ongoing parental conflict after separation, and infants and pre-schoolers. Both studies help to illuminate the socio-economic, relationship and developmental “equipment” required for translating a shared time arrangement post separation into a developmentally supportive experience for the children concerned.

In recent years there has been much interest in the impacts on children, both positive and negative, of different patterns of parenting after separation, especially where the care of children is shared equally or substantially between both parents. This article summarises key findings from two recent Australian studies of outcomes for two potential risk groups: school-aged children living in separations characterised by high inter-parental conflict (Study 1), and infants and preschoolers in the general population of separated families (Study 2). Both studies were commissioned by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department.

In Australia, the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006, together with other aspects of family law reform – most notably recent child support reform,1– have ushered in an era wherein a child’s experience of care by his/her parents post-separation has become sharply defined by the amount of overnight time spent with each parent (McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008; Smyth, 2009). The Act now stipulates that in courts with family law jurisdiction in Australia, in dealing with cases where the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility is not rebutted, judicial officers “must consider” the merits of making orders that the child spend “equal time” – or, if not equal, then “substantial and significant time” – with each parent. In addition, all “advisors” in the family law system (dispute resolution and legal practitioners, and family consultants) also have an obligation to inform parents that, in developing a parenting plan, they could consider that the child spend equal or substantial and significant time with each parent if reasonably practicable and in the best interests of the child.

One impetus for the current studies arose from concerns about the rapid progression of family law reforms supporting more widespread shared parenting arrangements post-separation, ahead of evidence about potential risks for specific groups within the family law population. While the question of how shared overnight care supports, disrupts or otherwise influences the development of very young children would seem central for policy-makers, practitioners and parents alike, enquiry into the efficacy of shared parenting to date has not had a strong developmental focus. Both studies reported in this paper sought to generate data that might assist parents and those from whom they seek assistance (mediators, lawyers and judicial officers) to reflect, from a more informed perspective, on what kinds of living arrangements may or may not support the developmental needs of the children concerned, and what factors could usefully guide the decision-making process about those arrangements. The infant study brings a fine developmental lens to the practical questions being asked about infants in shared overnight care. For school-aged children involved in high-conflict divorce, our longitudinal study traces the place of children’s living arrangements in their development over time.

This paper distils the original published synopsis of these two studies. That synopsis and the reports of the full study are available online from the Australian Government Attorney General’s Department.2 In the remainder of this article, we briefly summarise the studies, key findings and limitations, and touch on some possible implications.

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