Questions about joint child care after parental separation and divorce have been engaging the interest of professionals of various profiles: social workers, family physicians, psychologists, psychiatrist, jurists and attorneys and institutions and bodies involved in custody decisions. All involved in the process of making custody decisions understand the level of responsibility when safety and stability of child development and future are at stake.

First international and interdisciplinary Conference on Shared Parenting, held from 9 to 11 July 2014 in Bonn, Germany, aimed at gathering interested experts and representatives of the civil sector in order to find the paradigm for child care in separated or divorced families. Search for fair and unbiased standards based on findings from empirical studies and clinical practice is under way.

Equivalent alternative parenting

Definition of shared parenting in a nutshell means parenting by both parents in at least one third of the time, including weekends, includes responsibilities and obligations ensuing thereof and is related to equivalent alternative care of both parents. It is applicable in most cases of divorce, including conflict divorces, under the premise that there is no domestic abuse and child abuse. The aim of child care organised in this way is reducing problems emerging in children after the family separation, like low self-esteem, depression and alienation, failure and leaving the education process, drug abuse, delinquency.

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In cases of family separation, from the child’s viewpoint, the problem is disabled availability of both parents. The fact that children need both parents should not be surprising, but still, many parents, absorbed in their conflict, are surprised. At the same time, we should not forget that the number of hours alone spent with the child is not a synonym for good parenting.

National study at the Wake Forest University on the group of 2,000 parents of intact families showed that, on average, fathers spent 33 hours per week caring for their children, while mothers spent 50 hours. Therefore, children develop strong attachment bonds with both parents from their earliest age, but with the dissolution of spousal relationships, the child often ends in the middle of conflict, which impacts on the quality of attachment to each parent, the attachment pattern most often turning into insecure attachment.

How is the child affected by divorce

During separation and immediately after that, parents tend to project their own feelings to children, which they are often unaware of. Emotional tensions in the process of divorce are very much connected with insensitivity for the child’s needs, while at the same time children start concealing their own pain in front of their parents.

The most frequent causes of animosity among parents is disrespecting, preventing or blocking the time which the child should spend with the other parent, denigrating or blaming the other parent, or a parent making attempts to renew the previous relationship with the other parent, justifying it with care for the child. The consequence may be that the child starts feeling responsible for parental break up, or refusing contact with one of them.

Children younger than five years of age are those who are most affected by parental divorce. They become withdrawn and confused about family relationships. They may blame themselves, show regression in their behaviour, they can be preoccupied with bringing their parents together and long for the absent parent. That age group is at the highest risk of loosing the relationship with the non-custodial parent. Younger school children show sadness, a feeling of loss and a desire for reconciliation of their parents. Older school children show feelings of shame and discomfort, they tend to sever new social relationships and are full of contradictory feelings of sadness and intense anger. They often conceal their feelings to present braver than they are and can be.

Advantages and disadvantages of shared parenting

According to the USA Department of Health and Human Service, more than 40% of children born in the USA live with only one parent. Contrary to common belief, when the custody battle escalates, courts still rarely opt for shared parenting. One of the objections is that shared parenting is appropriate for a small group of highly educated parents who are tolerant and who do not have unresolved issues, and that about 65% of attempts to follow that concept fails if the above mentioned is not fulfilled.

Advantages of shared custody, among other things, include:

• children need both parents for development, especially after divorce,

• it reduces animosity between parents,

• it reduces the possibility of a conflict of loyalty in the child,

• the child learns about the equality of both sexes,

• both parents financially support the child,

• mothers get better chances for career development.

It has been found that shared parenting reduces parental conflicts because parents do not feel threatened with losing the important relationship with the child. Children growing up in such conditions show better results in all measures of adjustment to everyday life and fewer emotional difficulties and behaviour disorders than do children growing up in sole custody. (Bausserman 2002).

Inter-parental conflict reduces in cases of shared parenting, while it increases in sole custody arrangements. Shared parenting increases the level of parental cooperation. The aim is discouraging parents from destructive court custody battle and motivating them to participate in family mediation and development of mutual cooperative parenting plans.

The relationship between shared parenting and joint custody.

Croatian family law prescribes joint legal custody, meaning that both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for their children. Joint legal custody is not the same as shared physical custody, or shared parenting, because joint legal custody does not mean significant time with the non-custodial parent, although it does mean that both parents can make important decisions about the child.

We can say that there is emerging ethics which recognises the fact that child’s needs and interests, although related, are separate from their parents’ rights. Research clearly shows that it is best for the children of divorce to experience routine activities with both parents, which puts parents’ roles above the limitations of contact and visitation, under the condition that the child is protected from destructive parental conflicts.

Most recent research supports this shift from the framework of sole custody, the same measure for all and the ‘winner-gets-all’ attitude. The idea of shared parental responsibilities is spreading.

Edward Kruk from the British Columbia University writes about significant findings that parents who are in continual contact with their children enjoy better physical and emotional health, which is the result of finding meaning and personal gratification in active parenting, while statistically highest incidence of depression is found in non-custodial parents who have no contact with their children. In practice, it means that each of the parents has to relinquish some of his/her privileges in their relationship with the child, so that they can together negotiate what is best for the child, even at the cost of their personal loss.

Voluntary exclusion of parents from their children’s lives

“Pain that is not transformed is transmitted” Richard Rohr

When people are separated from their beloved, it is the transformation of one of the strongest types of pain a person may encounter, in sacrificing oneself with love. The number of fathers, but also mothers, who voluntarily become excluded from their children’s lives is a serious problem for their children’s later life. However, unnecessary removal or interference with the contact between the child and the non-custodial parent, who wants to be a part of his child’s life is interfering with the natural relationship of love and closeness and it is inadmissible in itself.

The level to which children can maintain a good relationship with both parents plays a significant role in predicting the outcomes of children’s coping with adverse effects of divorce. Prolonged grieving is associated with children becoming the focus of parental conflict or parents’ unresolved relationship. The focus of working with parents is on achieving that each parent protects children from the devastating consequences of their conflict, thus giving them the opportunity to develop as free, confident and happy persons.

Halil Gibran’s poem ‘About Children’ talks about that.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies

so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Written by: Sanja Jusufbegović, clinical psychologist

Other texts by the same author:

How can we assist child coping with disease of family member?

Sleep disorders in pre-school children

Eating disorders in pre-school children

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