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Divorce is no longer considered an aberration, but an acceptable transition for a substantial number of families. While children tend to live with their mother following divorce, an increasing number are proposing that children have a “shared” amount of time with both parents. Shared parenting has been attempted in a range of countries outside the UK, with varied results.
Many adult clients describe the psychological effects of divorce as traumatic or devastating, such as the residential changes, financial tension, changes to social networks and role strain. Some have said these added stresses contributed to physical or mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Their levels of patience and attention have been reduced, they believe, which may affect their parenting abilities.
When working with children, there is often a range of emotional issues following divorce. Younger children tend to present with bedwetting, sleep issues or behavioural problems, whereas older children may describe anxiety, depression, and social or relationship issues. The number of children presenting with pyschological problems seems to decrease with the number of years that elapse. I have also been consulted by adults seeking therapy for psychological difficulties that have persisted throughout their childhood (following their parents’ divorce), including relationship struggles or trust issues.
With this in mind, there has been a call for government to review the legislation on shared parenting. In my opinion, the benefits are clear; the contribution of both parents in a child’s life on a regular basis, the balance of responsibilities as well as rewards of being with your child regularly (to name only a few) is certainly compelling.
Nonetheless, I am also aware of the potential danger in employing a “one size fits all” practice. By changing the law to instruct all divorced parents to embrace shared parenting, one runs the risk, while providing benefit to some families, of aggravating the situation in others. Although many parents desire and are able to provide a loving, caring home for their children as a single parent on a regular basis, others may not. For various reasons, some may feel they can be a better parent if they are instead able to have regular visitation. In more extreme cases, shared parenting can have dangerous effects if parents have a history of violence or abuse. It is paramount such a legal change seeks to provide appropriate safeguards, therefore, in those cases in which shared parenting is not deemed the best solution.
Research suggests children fare best within an environment of love, security and consistency, where parents communicate effectively with one another. Children whose parents are able to work together, in spite of their own differences, can create a consistently balanced, secure and loving home for their children based on quality rather than geography, and where the child understands they were not at fault.
Divorce is by no means necessarily an unwanted or potentially harmful event. On the contrary, in some cases, it can be the healthiest option. However, it seems clear the critical issue is how the separation is dealt with, and the effect this can have on the parents and children. We live among diverse environments and relationships.
When considering shared parenting, we need to ask what is in the best interests of the child. There may be times when this does not match with the best interests of the parents, and my concern is that by enforcing shared parenting for everyone, we may be putting the rights and needs of parents ahead of those of the children.
So, rather than reducing this debate to a matter of residency, or employing a ‘one size fits all’ rule, we should discuss how we can best help each individual situation, so children experience minimum loss and psychological impact.Opinion: Shared Parenting - One Size Definitely Does Not Fit All by Dr Nikki Teper