It would be fair to say that sorting out arrangements for children after their parents have separated can often be emotive and difficult to manage, even with the best of intentions from all concerned. Our children are the most precious and important things in our lives. We are protective of them and want to shield them from harm. In a separation scenario, this can manifest in both parents wanting what they consider best for their children, but with differing interpretations of what is best.
A frequent area of disagreement between parents is the question of how many days and nights the children will spend with each parent on a weekly or monthly basis. The English courts are keen to promote the involvement of both parents in providing a stable and loving environment for children, where it is safe that they should do so. If the proposed Children and Families Bill makes it onto the statute book in its present form it will impose a presumption that it is in the best interests of children for both parents to remain involved in the children’s lives. Whilst this is not the same as a presumption of equal parenting, it sends a strong message in the direction of a shared parenting approach.
With children, each developmental stage brings its own challenges and rewards and places differing demands on parents and carers. When considering arrangements within separated families, it can be particularly tricky to get the balance right for very young children. For example, it is hard for babies who are being breastfed to spend long periods away from their mothers, yet this can have the inadvertent effect of curtailing the amount of time a baby will spend with its father in its first few months of life, when key attachments are made.
The first three to four years of a child’s life are a unique phase due to their immense physical, cognitive, social and linguistic development. Children’s brains expand threefold during their first three years, and scientific studies have shown that brain development can be influenced by the care a child receives.
A very interesting Australian study has recently looked at the effect on very young children of different types of parenting arrangements (one of two done by the Australian government and Australian Institute of Family Studies – it was called “overnight care patterns and the psycho-emotional development of infants and pre-schoolers” and you can read about it here). The study divided parenting arrangements into three broad categories: (1) shared parenting (time split roughly equally between two households and one or more overnight stays per week); (2) children having a primary home with occasional overnight contact visits (less than one per week), and (3) homes with rare or no overnight contact with the non-resident parent.
It found that for children aged 4-5 years, the time spent with each parent was less important for developmental outcomes than parental warmth and lack of conflict. However for children under the age of 4 the results were different. Regardless of socio-economic background, parenting warmth or cooperation between parents, a shared overnight care arrangement (one or more regular weekly overnight stays with the parent with whom they did not have their main home) had a significant negative impact on the emotional and behavioural well-being of the child. Babies under two were found to be more irritable and clingy if they were in a shared overnight care arrangement, and children aged between 2 and 3 years exhibited significantly higher rates of problem behaviour, such as crying, excessive clinginess, refusing to eat and hitting, biting or kicking the parent (indicators of attachment issues). These problems were not evident in the 4-5 year age group.
Although this is only one study, it does pose the interesting problem of how best to manage contact arrangements for very young children, at a time when they are developing their family bonds and attachments, but (if this study is correct) do not benefit from moving between two homes, at least overnight. The study seems to show stability of sleeping arrangements is important for children up to the age of 4. As young children cannot voice their own needs and desires, studies such as this are extremely useful, and certainly more work on this area is needed.
This study presents interesting questions for non-resident parents who wish to have their very young children staying in their homes overnight. This is a difficult issue for us, too – we act for mums and dads, resident and non-resident parents, and we find that almost all of the parents we deal with have their children’s wellbeing firmly at the front of their minds and hearts. It is often very tricky to take an objective view of what is right, and parents themselves know their children best and love them most. We all know families where parents separated when the children were very young and shared care arrangements have worked extremely well, so it is important that this study is not used as a weapon to try to limit overnight care.
If there’s a lesson here, we think it may be that parents and those of us in the family justice system who work with them should be more aware of the developmental stages of our children, and how proposed arrangements may affect them, when looking at contact arrangements after separation.
To borrow a lovely quote from the summary of the study discussed above: “The relationships within each household, and the space between, become the soil within which children develop post-separation, with outcomes significantly determined by the richness or toxicity of that soil.” We all want that soil to be fertile and well nourished, rather than full of stones, or clay or sand. It is up to us to tend that soil and, to take the gardening metaphor possibly too far, to mulch it regularly.
If you would like to discuss any aspects of overnight care or other arrangements for children, do give Adam, Sue, Gail or Simon a call on 01223 443333.