Shared parenting arrangements a major stress for young children

10-May-2013 Family Law By Simone Green
How often and for how long can young children stay with the non-resident parent? This is a common question in Family Law custody disputes.

Studies have been conducted which seek to answer three related practical questions: 

  1. At what age and in what circumstances is it appropriate for infants and very young children to stay overnight with the non-resident parent?
  2. To what extent is it appropriate to make arrangements for substantially shared care between parents of young children?
  3. What orders should be made if the parents of a young child live a long distance apart or the child’s primary carer wants to move a long way from the other parent?

A link has been found between the frequency of overnight stays and emotional regulation in children under the age of four.


“Infants under two who spent one or more overnights a week with the second parent showed a cluster of stress management problems”

Studies funded by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department have shown that for 4-5-year-olds with separated parents, overnight time arrangements did not alone predict emotional management problems in children in this age group. However, high conflict between parents and low parental warmth did.

The findings were different for infants (0-2 years) and young children (3-4 years) in separated families. Infants under 2 who spent one or more overnights a week with the second parent showed a cluster of stress management problems, such as being irritable, monitoring their primary carer more carefully and maintaining closer proximity with their primary carer compared to infants in lower rates of overnight care.

Toddlers aged 2-3 years, who spent two or three nights per week with a parent living elsewhere, showed a range of significant emotional regulation difficulties compared to children who had fewer overnight stays with their other parent. These included low levels of persistence in attending to or completing tasks and learning new things. These toddlers also tended to show distressed behaviour towards the primary parents, such as crying, hanging on to the parent upon separation, excessive worry and upset, refusing to eat and hitting, biting or kicking the parent.

The findings above suggest that regardless of the situation of their parents’ separation, shared-time parenting is not always a positive experience. 


When trying to reach a decision about parenting arrangements after separation, consider the following:

  1. As with all relationships, parent-child relationships after separation take work. Shared care is one option but involves many logistical and relationship challenges.
  2. Shared care is especially developmentally challenging for infants and pre-school children. While a co-operative parenting relationship can make many things possible, the developmental needs of the young child and the demands involved in meeting those needs means that the challenges are even greater.
  3. Shared care should not normally be the starting point for discussions about parenting arrangements for very young children.
  4. For an older child, where parents can work together, are attuned to the child and can respond to his/her needs, the benefits of a shared overnight arrangement can be more evenly weighed.

Most importantly, the qualities parents exhibit will have an impact on how their children cope. Parents need to respond to their children at each stage of their developmental progress and in accordance with their emotional needs.

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