After divorce, kids need both parents (Arndt, 2003)

Posted on August 29, 2003 by


Source: Australia – The Age – Bettina Arndt – Staff columnist – August 29, 2003

Children are distressed by divorce. Contact with both parents should start immediately after separation, writes Bettina Arndt.

By Bettina Arndt

Constant exposure to the antics of the small group of seriously warring parents who end up in the Family Court has meant that judges, lawyers and mediators often show considerable resistance to more enlightened views of post-divorce parenting.

Take the issue of contact with very young children affected by divorce. Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that only 38 per cent of children up to two years old living with single mothers stay overnight with their fathers, compared to 60 per cent of children aged 3 to 4.

The assumption made by the court and often replicated in advice given by lawyers, counsellors and mediators is that such young children have only one “psychological” parent, and that overnight contact with the father can provide anxiety by separating the child from the psychological parent. But this assumption is now being challenged.

The notion of an exclusive attachment to the primary parent is based on an outdated view of parent-child relationships, says University of Western Sydney law professor Tom Altobelli, quoting recent research showing infants can form multiple attachments that contribute to their sense of security.

The researchers quoted by Altobelli conclude that infants and toddlers should have multiple contacts each week with both parents to minimise separation anxiety and maintain continuity in the child’s attachments.

Children become stressed by separations from either parent that last more than three or four days, say the researchers, and blanket restrictions on overnight contact for these young children are “unnecessarily restrictive”, given the importance of evening and overnight periods as opportunities for social interaction and nurturing.

Although there is some disagreement about the appropriate frequency of overnight contact for these infants, the researchers agree that even the youngest children can tolerate separation of a few days from the primary caregiver when parents are communicating well.

The great irony is that as family law experts quibble over how much contact fathers should be allowed to have with their young children, these children will not be cared for exclusively by their mothers.

These days, many such infants and toddlers will spend long periods cared for by unfamiliar child-care workers, and will often be farmed out to relatives, friends or mum’s boyfriend, even for overnight stays.

Unrationed care is permitted by one and all – with rigid controls only on the child’s actual father.

But the chances of shifting attitudes in the Family Court on such matters seem slim. A better strategy is to encourage couples to rethink their own approach to post-divorce parenting.

Parents should be encouraged to start a different conversation – without ever going near the court – a conversation that might sometimes lead to shared custody or at least children maintaining close relationships with not only their fathers but other key people such as grandparents.

Instead of writing laws trying to change the way the court handles these issues, it may be better to introduce statutory orders, as has been done in some American states, requiring that separating parents ensure that contact occurs from the start of separation, with the prescribed amount varying with the age of the child.

Such “early intervention strategies” should also include mandatory mediation on parenting issues for all separating parents. To get in early, this could be set up through Centrelink and the Child Support Agency, the two organisations in contact with most parents very soon after separation.

Financial inducements could be given to ensure participation, similar to the participation requirements that are now part of our social welfare system.

At present, when families break up, dad often disappears from the scene and it is often months or even years before contact with the children is resumed. The result is distressed children, particularly young children, miss out on the comfort of attachments vital to their sense of security at this difficult time.

We have to find a better way.

Bettina Arndt is a staff columnist.