It is often assumed, by legal and mental health professionals alike, that when divorcing parents are unable to come to an agreement in regard to parenting arrangements for their children, and remain locked in high conflict, shared parenting is contraindicated.
The belief is that children will remain caught in the middle of their parents’ conflict, and exposure to ongoing conflict is extremely damaging to children’s well-being. In many jurisdictions, there is a legal presumption against shared parenting in high conflict cases.
As a result, parents who seek a sole custody arrangement or wish to retain primary caregiving responsibility for their children after divorce often characterize their cases as high conflict. Parents may exaggerate the extent of conflict, or purposefully engage in conflict to resist a court order for shared parenting.
There is no debate that continued, ongoing, unresolved high conflict is harmful to children of divorce. What remains under dispute among legal and mental health practitioners and policymakers is the type of parenting arrangement that is best for children in high conflict situations, and the amount of time children should spend with each of their parents in such cases.
For many years the research supported the position that shared parenting in situations of high conflict was harmful to children. More recently, however, this research has been scrutinized and found wanting, and a different viewpoint has emerged. Previous research examined the frequency of alternating contact, and found negative outcomes for children in situations of high conflict and a high frequency of alternations between mothers’ and fathers’ homes; that is, children were being exposed to their parents’ conflict during frequent transitions between the two households. When the frequency of transitions is reduced, and high conflict parents avoid direct contact with each other during the transitions and shield their children from their conflict, these negative effects disappear.
More recent research has examined actual parenting time as opposed to frequency of contact (less frequent transitions, but shared or equal parenting time), and has found not only that shared parenting is not harmful in high conflict situations, but shared parenting can ameliorate the harmful effects of high conflict: a warm relationship with both parents is a protective factor for children.
A consensus seems to have emerged within divorce research on the matter of high conflict and parenting after divorce. In 2002, Robert Bauserman, in his metaanalysis of 33 studies that compared child outcomes in sole custody and shared parenting homes, concluded that the benefits of shared parenting on children’s well-being exist independent of parental conflict. The negative effects of parental conflict are likely the result of the fact that fathers lose contact with their children in high parental conflict situations. In a 2003 article, Marsha Kline Pruett found that the effects of parental conflict on child outcomes are mediated by paternal involvement…
Read more:Edward Kruk, Ph.D, Psychology Today