Many professionals working with families - including judges, attorneys and mental health professionals - strive to make decisions and offer support based on what they believe is best for children. But what is best for children is a difficult question to answer and depends largely on individual family circumstances as well as other important factors.
The issue of whether shared parenting after divorce or separation is best for children, even in higher conflict co-parenting relationships, is widely studied and debated. Recently, Linda Nielsen, a professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University, studied and presented her findings on shared parenting. Her conclusions are informative.
The study was presented in the face of a belief that after a divorce or separation, stability dictates the children be placed primarily in the home of one parent - often mom's - instead of the children spending more shared time in the other parent's home. This was due to the role of conflict in divorcing or separating couples and its detrimental effect on children, and the antiquated theory that in most circumstances it is best for children to be raised in the primary care of mothers.
What Nielsen discovered in her study was that the benefits of shared parenting are significant and have more of an impact on the well-being of the children. Reviewing 44 previously published reports on the divorce conflict and its impact on children, she went into her study asking four questions and her conclusion was that the quality of the parent-child relationship with both mom and dad was more important than everything else.
While acknowledging that conflict does matter, she states that the quality of the parent-child relationship matters a lot more than the parent's relationship with each other. This theory could also hold true for children of married couples, where the child's relationship with their parents is a key factor in the likelihood of that child's future success. This does not apply, of course, to those relationships involving intimate partner abuse, child-abuse or other issues which raise safety concerns.
Here are some tips that Nielsen gives for parents who are separating:
- Talk to your child, especially about difficult topics.
- Supervise and discipline when necessary. Set rules and enforce them.
- Interact on a regular basis and not just for the fun stuff.
- Don't bring your child into adult issues.
And, most importantly, make your child feel loved and allow your child to love the other parent.