In my long experience as a family lawyer, children of divorced or separated couples can be happy or unhappy – regardless of contact arrangements.
This view contradicts a study from Stockholm University which was widely reported and which claims that children who live full time with one parent are more likely to be stressed than those in shared custody.
Researchers say one explanation for the findings of the report – which relates to Swedish families 14 years ago – may be that children who spend most of their time away from one parent, lose contact with relatives, friends and money.
Rather than be drawn into the often widely differing findings of such studies, it is perhaps more important to concentrate on common sense, and take practical measures to reduce the impact of divorce and separation on children’s health and wellbeing.
While my professional experience is largely confined to parents who are in conflict during or following a break-up, it is apparent that different triggers spark stress in children and young people.
A child living with one parent could be thoroughly miserable with the arrangement – missing the other dreadfully, left insecure by the split – and with profound feelings of guilt and great trepidation about the future. If they have a good reason for not wanting to always be with the lone parent – their stress levels will escalate.
Conversely children whose separated parents get on very well – and who have regular contact with both – may become anxious over handovers from one parent to the other. Causes of aggravation might be unwelcome journeys, separation from friends, pressure of meeting schedules and unease with a non-resident parent they do not know as well.
The overarching goal in these situations is the same as that which lies at the heart of family law: in all cases and circumstances, the wellbeing of the child must come first.
While it is understandable at the outset of divorce or separation for both parents to want to share custody and contact equally, there are often so many reasons why this is not always possible. For example, children may not benefit from seeing both parents if one has insufficient time to sustain a relationship and stay abreast of their interests.
What is crucial is that parents do all they can to sort things out with maximum cooperation and minimum argument. It is vital that they behave like responsible grown-ups in arranging the needs and comfort of their children – planning meticulously, if possible together, and explaining lifestyle changes to the children as soon as possible.
To achieve this, parents can work with professional advisers who can guide them through all the considerations that make an amicable outcome possible and help reach agreement constructively through a collaborative route to divorce.
Collaboratively trained and a qualified mediator, she has modernised South Yorkshire Resolution since becoming chair in 2013 and is also a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel and the Children Panel.
She can be contacted on 0114 290 6232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.