Considerations for determining parenting arrangements: factors that influence outcomes

Summary: Parenting Arrangements – Factors to consider

There has been much written on factors that should be considered when making post-divorce/separation parenting arrangements. However most reports focus on discrete factors, or supporting specific models (i.e., shared care, care in families with single identifiable issues) or do not draw clear links to the existing body of evidence. This document represents a synthesis of elements, factors and experiences worthy of consideration in determining parenting arrangements, drawing on research on factors affecting general child development, as well as exploring specific post- divorce/separation research and drawing a link to child outcomes.

This document consists of three parts. Section one describes important findings on the effects of divorce on children from a risk and resiliency perspective and lists a number of important considerations. Section two explores the impact of time spent parenting, providing a description of how time has been conceptualized in divorce/separation and parenting research, and lists the core themes/findings from the academic research. Finally, section three lists and describes common factors that are important for child outcomes.

Risk and Resiliency

It has become generally accepted that there is a variety of risk and protective factors that can impact on children’s adjustment and outcomes (longer term effects) during and after divorce/separation. These factors function to make it more or less likely that children will experience long and short term adjustment issues (i.e., internalizing/externalizing behavioural problems; dropping out of school; poor academic performance; substance (ab)use; poor physical health; and teenage pregnancy), particularly if several factors are present simultaneously. It is important to consider the circumstances of children and their families when working to mitigate risk and promote positive adjustment among children. These factors can be present (or absent) in many different combinations, and each will require a tailored approach to determining parenting arrangements that are best for children.Footnote 1

Time Spent Parenting

Research also outlines the role of parenting time and how the parenting arrangement unfolds in terms of time divisions. In general, according to current research, important considerations relevant to the creation of parenting arrangements include:

  1. Children need to spend as much quality time with each parent as possible, based on their best interests and other relevant factors associated with positive adjustment and outcomes.
  2. There is no standard amount or percentage of parenting time that works for all families. Rather it depends on the individual circumstances and characteristics of the family. Determining the time children will spend with each parent requires consideration of relevant factors that contribute to supporting positive adjustment, reducing risk, and mitigating negative outcomes for children.
  3. It is not just the amount of time spent parenting, but the quality (e.g., activities and engagement) of time that is important for children’s outcomes and adjustment. Parents who engage in a variety of activities with their children feel more competent as parents, and have the opportunity for high quality parent-child interactions. This experience for parents and children is one aspect of developing a strong parent-child relationship and contributes to positive outcomes for children.
  4. Consistency and predictability are important for children’s adjustment in all families and in families negotiating and determining parenting arrangements. However, this includes flexibility – particularly flexibility to meet the children’s needs. When making and considering parenting arrangements, it is important to put realistic arrangements in place for the family, ones that can work for at least a period of time, rather than arrangements that quickly break down.

Individual and Family Factors Relevant to Determining Parenting Arrangements

When determining the specifics of the arrangements there is no one arrangement that will work for all families. Rather there are a number of key factors to consider that come together to determine outcomes for children post-divorce/separation. The list below begins to illustrate the complexity of the process and the multiple considerations for parents and decision-makers to consider. These individual and family level factors include:

  1. Individual characteristics of the child and the parents including: the child’s temperament, their age/stage of development, and whether they have exceptionalities (i.e., physical, mental or psychological); Footnote 2 and parental characteristics such as temperament, mental health, substance abuse issues and parenting capacity.
  2. The parent-child relationship and factors that affect it including: the current strength of the parent-child relationship, and the parent’s willingness and opportunity to engage in quality parenting. Children are better adjusted and have more positive relationships with their parents when parents are sensitive and responsive to them.
  3. The parenting style of both parents. Children will do best and positively adjust to divorce/separation when parents are supportive, engaging, encouraging, affectionate and consistent. This is most often described as quality parenting which broadly includes: sufficient parenting time with children; parental responsiveness to children; parental interaction with children; and emotional security.
  4. The relationship between parents can have direct and indirect, along with positive and negative effects on children. It is best for children when parents communicate and engage in neutral or positive interactions - pervasive conflict negatively affects children. Parents who are distracted or angry will generally be less sensitive and responsive which, as a pattern of parenting, can negatively impact children’s adjustment.
  5. The environment and family context of parents and children can affect children’s adjustment. Children do best when there is a supportive social network, sufficient social and economic resources and a consistent, stable and predictable environment. For example, families with sufficient resources move less often and can reside in better neighbourhoods. Not having these resources is a risk factor for poor adjustment and has been associated with dropping out of school, delinquency and later criminality regardless of family configuration.
  6. The new relationships among parents and second/third/fourth families are also important to consider. They have the potential to increase the complexity of the situation and have a negative impact on children, but can also protect existing parent-child relationships and create strong social networks for children, parents and (step) families.
  7. Practical issues can have a very important effect on determining appropriate post-divorce/separation arrangements. Some of these issues include: work arrangements and flexibility; distance between homes; and socioeconomic status of the two households.
  8. Finally, there is evidence that intervention and support for parents and children can help bolster some of the key parent and child factors mentioned above. This includes skill development, and support for parents to maximize their capacity to parent.