Considerations for determining parenting arrangements: factors that influence outcomes

Section 3: Factors Affecting Outcomes for Children

Below we address the multiple factors which seem to be particularly relevant to post-separation divorce functioning for children and parents, including:

When developing parenting arrangements post- divorce/separation, these factors are among the most important to consider on a case-by-case basis (Brinig, Frederick & Drozd, 2014; Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014).

Characteristics of the child

There are individual characteristics of children that can impact their adjustment in all families. Characteristics may include biological, psychological, pathological and/or physiological factors (Ben-Aryeh et al., 2013; Masten, 2001; Masten & Coatsworth, 1998). Although these characteristics have been identified and studied predominantly in a broad child development framework, there are some child related factors that would be particularly relevant to consider post-divorce/separation, outlined below.


In all families, the children’s temperament – how children approach their environments (social as well as physical) – is an important indicator of outcomes and a factor impacting the type of parenting needed. Footnote 8 There are several well accepted dimensions of child temperament and some of these include level of: behavioural inhibition (i.e., fear of the unknown, both social and environmental), irritability or frustration tolerance, activity level, attention span, persistence and sensory sensitivity (e.g., Zentner & Bates, 2008). In addition to impacting how a child will respond to their environment, these traits impact the level of skill and effort needed to engage in positive, quality parenting. Further, temperament can impact the continuity of parent-child relationship as some research suggests that fathers are more likely to maintain contact/spend more time with children who are well adjusted but disengage from those with behavioural or academic problems (Swiss & Le Bourdais, 2009). This is more often the case when children reside primarily with mothers.

Although children may demonstrate a range of behaviours related to temperament, there are three general categories into which many children fall, including easy, slow to warm up and difficult. Footnote 9 For example, children with an “easy” temperament adapt quickly and well to new environments, they are most often smiling and in a good mood. These children would likely have an easier time with transition and adjustment to change. They are easy to parent – they require less energy and fewer parental resources (patience, sensitivity). Other children, namely those slow to warm up, or children with a difficult temperament may find it more challenging to adapt to change and transitions. The children at the extreme end may also require much higher level of parenting resources (social/emotional as well as time and money). This would be particularly true of the more sensitive children who tend to exhibit fear of the unknown or uncertainty, have high levels of irritability and activity, and/or a lower attention span.

Existing health, mental health or social/intellectual challenges

Existing health, mental health or social/intellectual challenges of the child can function as risk factors for later child adjustment problems. There is also some research indicating that families of children with disabilities report higher levels of marital strain and conflict and an increased incidence of separation or divorce (Statistics Canada, 2008).

Children with some of these existing challenges may require more of a parent’s resources (social, emotional and time) and family resources (including relationships, time, financial), particularly following a divorce/separation. In this context, existing physical health, mental health and social conditions may affect the child’s ability to adapt to and manage change and will increase the necessity of coordination of supports and resources (e.g., professionals, special programs) or children to function (Strohschein, 2005). In these cases, there may be a requirement for increased inter-parental involvement.

Children’s age and stage of development

A considerable amount of research explores the impact of the child’s age and stage of development on how they adjust to divorce/separation (e.g., Health Canada, 2000; O’Connor, 2004). While it is clear that the age of children is not enough to predict child outcomes, research documents some age-related issues that can arise which include: problems children may have understanding divorce; self-blaming for divorce/separation; emotional struggles with family structure changes; and possible adjustment problems. Research suggests that not only do older children have the capacity to make their wishes known, when their views are considered (as part of the decision-making process), older children feel more in control and more satisfied with the arrangements (e.g., Cashmore & Parkinson, 2008; Kelly, 2012; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001; Smith, Taylor & Tapp, 2003).

Some research on parenting practices examining time-spent parenting have shown that the age of the children is associated with the time that they spend with each parent. For example, shared custody might be more common for children in middle childhood, lower for young children and adolescents and spending a majority of time with the father more prevalent for older children (Cashmore et al., 2010, Kaspiew et al, 2009, Le Bourdais Juby & Marcil-Gratton, 2002; Manning, Stewart & Smock, 2003; Seltzer, 1991;).

Currently there is no consensus on what parenting arrangements are most appropriate for infants and children under four years of age (e.g., McIntosh, Smyth & Kelaher, 2013; McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, Wells & Long, 2011; Nielsen, 2014). The debate generally focuses on time spent parenting for young or very young children where some argue against overnight parenting arrangements because of adjustment and attachment problems (especially among young children less than 2 or 3 years old). Others argue that overnights do not directly have an impact on child adjustment (generally for children over 2 or 3 years old) (Kelly & Lamb, 2000; McIntosh et al, 2013; McIntosh et al., 2011; McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher, Wells & Long, 2010; Nielsen, 2014; Pruett, Ebling & Insabella, 2004; Solomon & George, 1999; Tornello, Emery, Rowen, Potter, Ocker & Xu, 2013; Warshak, 2000; Warshak, 2002).

Characteristics of the parents

The characteristics of the parents (e.g., mental health, parenting capacity) are important in all families. They can affect not only the parent’s adjustment to parenting arrangements and the inter-parental relationship quality, but the quality of the parenting they provide. These characteristics are important because in all families, parental functioning is one of the best predictors of child development, outcomes and adjustment (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Altenhofen et al., 2008; Sandler, Wolchik, Winslow, Mahrer, Moran & Weinstock, 2012). However, there is general acceptance that the characteristics of the parent is one of several factors that must be evaluated when determining parenting arrangements, alongside environmental dimensions, available and accessible resources, sources of stress, interpersonal factors, inter-parental factors, child characteristics, parenting practices and the quality of parenting (e.g., Belsky, 1984).

Mental health, psychiatric illness or personality disorders

There is well-developed literature on the relationship between depression or other psychological problems and parenting skills/behaviours, which consequently impact child outcomes. In general, the mental health of the parent can have an impact on emotional, social and academic adjustments for all children across all age groups, contributing to an increased likelihood of internalizing (anxiety/depression) or externalizing (attention-deficit/defiant behaviour, aggression) behaviours in children (Belsky, 1984; Kelly & Emery, 2003; Pruett, Williams, Insabella & Little, 2003; Gefland & Teti, 1990; Hardie & Landale, 2013; Lovejoy, Graczyk, O’Hare & Neuman, 2000; Rishel, 2012; Turney, 2011a; Turney, 2011b; Turney, 2012). For instance, a large body of work has developed identifying an association between child behavioural adjustment and parent-child problems and certain personality traits of the parent (DeGarmo, Reid, Leve, Chamberlain & Knutson, 2010; Febres, Shorey, Zucosky, Brasfield, Vitulano, Elmquist, Ninnemann, Labrecque & Stuart, 2014; Harold, Elam, Lewis, Rice & Thapar, 2012; Jurma, 2015; Wilson & Durbin, 2010). For instance, depressed and hostile parents may be less involved and less affectionate with children which can contribute to internalizing and externalizing behaviours (Barnard & McKeganey, 2004; Boutelle, Eisenberg, Gregory & Neumark-Sztainer, 2009; Riggs, Chou & Pentz, 2009; Weaver & Schofield, 2015).

Substance abuse

When parents currently abuse drugs and/or alcohol or have an untreated and current substance abuse/addiction problem, children are at an increased risk for adverse behavioural, psychological and achievement outcomes. This is because substance abuse can impact the quality of parenting offered to children. Some outcomes for children when parents have a current and untreated substance abuse issue might include: being defiant and over-reactive, having poor academic achievement, and developing substance abuse problems of their own (Fals-Stewart, Kelley, Fincham, Golden & Logsdon, 2004; Irner, Teasdale & Olofsson, 2012; McMahon & Giannini, 2003; Osborne & Berger, 2009).

Demographics and resources

Some demographic characteristics of parents are associated with the likelihood that parents will apportion their time with the children more equally including: parental education and income level (generally higher levels) (King, Harris & Heard, 2004; Swiss & Le Bourdais, 2009); Footnote 10 the work/employment status of the parents (more likely when mothers work), and the work schedules of parents (less flexible schedule or weekend/evening work make is less likely) (Juby et al., 2005; Kalmijn, 2015).

Type of parenting

Child development research clearly shows that the quality of parenting is one of the best predictors of child well-being and outcomes in all families (e.g., Adamsons & Johnson, 2013; Amato, 2000; Amato, 2005; Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Cyr, 2006; Cyr, Di Stefano & Desjardins, 2013; Fabricius et al., 2012; Fehlberg, Smyth, Maclean & Roberts, 2011; Gilmore, 2006; Gilmore, 2010; Nielsen, 2011; Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014; Rutter, 1999). These studies indicate that the quality of parenting, the psychological and the relational environment for children, and family characteristics have a stronger association with positive child outcomes than the actual living arrangements/family structure. However, there is a collection of characteristics which, if present, is more likely to result in families that have a shared arrangement that leads to better outcomes and adjustment for children (e.g., parents can act in business-like manner; parents have more resources; high quality parenting, lower levels of conflict).

Quality parenting

The quality of parenting has been defined in many similar ways generally including the umbrella concepts of warmth, sensitivity, and responsiveness (Adamsons & Johnson, 2013; Fabricius et al., 2012).Within these, characteristics of quality parenting include: supportiveness/closeness, active involvement and monitoring, appropriate and authoritative discipline, consistency (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). Regardless of the type of parenting arrangement, quality parenting has been linked to fewer externalizing behaviours (aggression, defiance, criminal activity), stronger academic performance, better overall well-being and fewer internalizing behaviours (depression, anxiety, mental health problems) (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Bricklin & Elliot, 2013; Kuehnle & Drozd, 2012; Nielsen, 2011; Prazen, Wolfinger, Cahill & Kowaleski-Jones, 2011; Sandler, Miles, Cookston & Braver, 2008; Sandler et al., 2012; Smyth, 2009; Stewart, 2003). Children also benefit from strong parent-child communication especially when there is dialogue and constant transmitting of life ideas and values, trust and respect (Ngai, Cheung, To, Liu & Song 2013; Popov & Ilesanmi 2015). Finally, there is some emerging evidence suggesting that quality parenting can offset the negative impact of parental conflict after divorce (Pruett et al., 2003; Sandler et al., 2008; Sandler et al., 2012).

Poor quality parenting consists of the opposite characteristics of those noted above and could include: rigidity (little flexibility), harshness or coerciveness, preoccupation (i.e., lack of attention to the child), low involvement and low support (Kelly, 2012; Kelly & Emery, 2003; Oppenheim & Koren-Karie, 2012; Sandler et al., 2008). It is thought that poor parenting is cyclical in that poor parenting impacts behaviour problems which influence poorer parenting that can then be characterized by punitive parenting, less involvement, reduction in supervision which then continues to impact behavioural problems (Popov & Ilesanmi, 2015).

The parent-child relationship

There is a large body of child development research showing that a positive and supportive parent-child relationship makes an important contribution to children’s adjustment (Chan, 2011; Eisenberg, Zhou, Spinrad, Valiente, Fabes & Liew, 2005; Neighbors, Forehand & Bau, 1997). In general, the parent-child relationship is one of the most important experiences for both children and parents. In addition to some of the characteristics of the parent (covered above), there are other factors that contribute to the development or continuation of a good parent-child relationship.

Past parent-child relationship

There is strong evidence showing that the parent-child relationship before divorce is a good predictor of the post-divorce parent-child relationship (Amato, 2010; Amato & Booth, 1996; Booth & Amato, 2001). Based on this work, it is generally accepted that continuing with pre-existing relationships is important for positive adjustment and outcome for children. However, parent-child relationships can change – strong pre-existing relationships can become weaker and weaker ones can become strong and supportive.

Parental involvement

Parental involvement refers to the degree to which parents are involved or engaged with and accessible to their children, and take responsibility for their children (e.g., Lamb, 2000). This can include involvement at home, in the school or community, and in activities/hobbies/sports. This work reiterates the importance of doing more than being in the physical presence of a child (i.e. in the house when a child is playing in the other room), but rather connecting and interacting. Children with involved parents tend to have better short and long-term outcomes with respect to development and behaviour (Carlson, 2006; Hill & Tyson, 2009; Jeynes, 2010; Jeynes, 2012; Sarkadi, Kristiansson, Oberklaid & Bremberg, 2008; Stacer, & Perrucci, 2013). Some work has shown that having two involved adults can offer greater frequency and degree of engagement (Cooper, 2010; Dufur, Howell, Downey, Ainsworth & Lapray, 2010; Myers & Myers, 2014).


Attachment is the measurement of the connection between a child and a parent/caregiver. The importance of attachment has been demonstrated across many different cultures (Ahnert, Pinquart & Lamb, 2006; Bretherton, 2010; van Ijzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz 2008). To assess attachment, trained professionals measure concepts including emotional and physical care giving, constant involvement (in daily life) and emotional investment. The child development research consistently shows that when there is secure attachment, there are multiple positive outcomes for children and adults (e.g., developmental, behavioural, emotional) (Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson & Collins, 2005).

Attachment has become important to those studying the impact of divorce and parenting arrangements post-divorce because researchers want to understand how a change in family structure might affect the nature of the connection between children, parents and child adjustment. However, it is important to note that the attachment research is based on social science assessment tools used to measure attachment between children and caregivers/parents. These laboratory tools provide empirical data on attachment. There is little consensus that these tools should be used to determine custody and access arrangements (Byrne, O'Connor, Marvin & Whelan, 2005; Dale & Ludolph, 2012; Fabricius et al., 2012; Smith, Coffino, van Horn & Lieberman, 2012; Solomon, 2013).

Attachment research consistently shows children are more likely to thrive when they have at least one secure attachment (Lopez, 1995; Slater, 2007). It is clear that children can have positive and strong attachments to both parents in addition to caregivers; in fact they benefit from having more than one positive attachment (Ahnert et al., 2006; Altenhofen, Sutherland & Biringen, 2010; Bretherton, 2010; Brown, Mangelsdorf & Neff, 2012; Brown, McBride, Shin & Bost 2007; Brumariu, & Kerns, 2010; Cassidy, 2008; Dale & Ludolph, 2012; Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 2011; Kochanska & Kim, 2013; Lamb, 1977; Solomon, 2013; Suess, Grossmann & Sroufe, 1992; Waters & McIntosh, 2011). This means that promoting the development of more than one secure attachment is ideal as the potential for positive outcomes increases when children have sufficient access to both parents (or multiple caregivers). Importantly, children can have different quality (e.g., secure, insecure) of attachment to different adults in their lives – if they are not securely attached to one parent, they could have a secure attachment to another parent or adult (Kerns, Tomich, Aspelmeier & Contreras, 2000; Verschueren & Macrcoen, 1999).

Consistent themes from the research show that children with an insecure attachment, particularly a disorganized attachment, with both parents in infancy are at the highest risk for behavioural problems (Kuehnle & Drozd, 2012; Smith et al., 2012; Sroufe et al., 2005). On the other hand, secure attachment has been associated with increased self-esteem, resourcefulness, peer competence and romantic relationship competence.

The inter-parental relationship

The relationship between ex-spouses/partners can impact their ability to be good parents and this can influence the parent-child relationship and outcomes for children (e.g., Amato & Booth, 1996). For example, a distracted or angry parent may not be as sensitive or responsive to children’s needs and may be more likely to put children in the middle of inter-parental conflict.

Co-parenting is broadly defined by McHale and Irace (2011) as:

A shared activity undertaken by those adults responsible for the care and upbringing of children. This joint enterprise serves children best when each of the co-parenting adults is capable of seeing and responding to the child as a separate person with feelings and needs different from their own and when the adults find ways to work together to co-create a structure that adequately protects and nurtures the child. (p. 16)

The co-parenting relationship can best help children adjust to divorce when there is: joint planning; coordination among activities for the children; parental support and agreement; recognized value in the contribution of each parent; flexibility; effort to agree or build consensus on children’s needs; coordination in child rearing practices and boundaries between parental responsibilities; low conflict; and mutual respect and maturity (Fabricius et al., 2012; Smith, 2004). In these cases, a strong co-parenting relationship allows for active and positive involvement of the parents (Hardesty, Khaw, Chung & Martin, 2008; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Pruett, & Pruett 2009) regardless of the structure of the family (Carlson, McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008).

When parents can cooperatively co-parent, there is more likely to be increased child-parent contact as strong relations promote and facilitate contact (Fabricius et al., 2012; Smith, 2004; Sobolewski & King, 2005; Waller, 2012). It is widely accepted that it is best for children’s well-being that parents are able to maintain a neutral/positive and cooperative co-parenting relationship (Hayden, Schiller, Dickstein, Seifer, Sameroff, Miller, Keitner & Rasmussen, 1998; Jaffe, Crooks & Bala, 2005; McHale & Irace, 2011; McHale, Kuersten-Hogan, Lauretti & Rasmussen, 2000; Schoppe, Mangelsdorf & Frosch, 2001; Sobolewski & King, 2005). Practically speaking, when parents have a neutral/positive relationship, it may be easier to make changes to arrangements and develop parenting arrangements, and parents may engage more frequently in supporting the child’s relationship with the other parent. Conversely, it can be emotionally and psychologically harmful for children when parents have a negative or hostile relationship, cannot operate in the child’s best interest, or fixate on time arrangements (McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008; Pruett et al., 2003).


Inter-parental conflict is a distinct concept from family violence. It is generally accepted that conflict is multi-dimensional in nature (e.g., varying along lines of frequency, severity, response, degree of involvement of both parents, and the potential impacts on children) (e.g., Ayoub, Deutsch & Maraganore, 1999; Birnbaum & Bala, 2010; Harold et al., 2014; Neighbors et al., 1997; Saini, Redmond, Polak, & Yadeta, 2010). It is important to note that some conflict is normal in relationships and it can be neutral or positive with respect to its effect on child outcomes and parent-child relations. For example, when it is infrequent, resolved in a prosocial manner, contained, and does not involve or implicate the child conflict does not have a negative effect. In fact, this type of conflict can aid in skill development and future modelling of effective conflict resolution.

In all families, what matters most is the frequency and degree (occasional and based on discrete issues versus persistent, frequent, and hostile) and degree to which it is resolved (resolved quickly versus unresolved and ongoing). It is also generally accepted that conflict prior to divorce is not a good predictor of conflict after divorce. (Altenhofen et al., 2008; Buchanan, Maccoby & Dornbusch, 1991; Cyr, 2007; Drapeau, Gagné, Saint-Jacques, Lépine & Ivers, 2009; Emery, Otto & Donohue, 2005; Fabricius et al., 2012; Gilmore, 2004; Gilmore, 2006; McIntosh & Long, 2005; Pruett, et al., 2004; Sandler et al., 2008; Stewart, 2001; Spruijt, de Goede & Vandervalk, 2004).

Research on conflict suggests that children exposed to or involved in (i.e., put in the middle of) persistent and unresolved conflict (both violent and non-violent) are more likely to demonstrate internalizing and externalizing behavioural problems and social adjustment problems (e.g., Ayoub et al., 1999; Fomby & Osborne, 2010; Harold et al., 2012; Jouriles, Rosenfield, McDonald & Mueller, 2014; Kelly, 2012; McIntosh & Chisolm 2008; Saini et al., 2010). Potential developmental and behavioural consequences of conflict include:

  1. poor social competence (i.e., peer problems poor self-esteem and cognitive/academic problems lack of concentration; academic performance problems)
  2. internalizing behaviours (i.e., emotional problems; anxiety, withdrawal, depression and suicidal thoughts)
  3. externalizing behaviours (i.e., aggression, impulsivity, delinquency, attention difficulties); and
  4. modelling of conflict, violent or vulnerable behaviours, post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms (nightmares, dissociation, flashbacks);, substance abuse, and lack of future parenting competency, trust issues, or difficulties in future relationship formation

There is some suggestion that when families experiencing conflict on the higher level of the spectrum adopt arrangements that include substantially shared time the arrangements are more likely to break down (e.g., McIntosh et al., 2011). When the arrangements break down, there is often a shift to sole mother custody.

Family ViolenceFootnote 11

The existence of violence in the family Footnote 12 is a “devastating reality for many Canadians regardless of their social, economic or cultural backgrounds” (Department of Justice, 2014b, p.16) and of paramount concern for all (e.g., survivors, service providers, as well as decision-makers). Generally, family violence is understood as the use of abusive behaviour “to control and/or harm a member of their family, or someone with whom they have an intimate relationship” (Department of Justice, 2014a). It can be experienced as one or more forms of physical, sexual, emotional and/or financial abuse or neglect (Department of Justice, 2014a, b; Neilson, 2013). It may be isolated to a single incident, it may be longstanding, or it may be a situational experience (e.g., after divorce, with substance use/abuse, anxiety). From a research and policy perspective, different typologies of violence allow for precision when talking about violence and when creating measures to deal with violence (e.g., intimate partner violence, domestic violence and family violence; Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003; Johnson, 2006; Johnston & Campbell, 1993; Johnson & Ferraro, 2000).

Current and future safety concerns in the context of family violence along with the short and long-term consequences from exposure and experiences with violence are important considerations when determining parenting arrangements post-separation/divorce. When there is family violence, research findings emphasise protecting the safety and well-being of parents and children and respecting victims and witnesses of violence (Johnston, Lee, Olesen & Walters, 2005; Jaffe et al., 2005).

There is a strong consensus that experiencing and/or being exposed to family violence before, during or after divorce puts children at risk of emotional and behavioural problems (e.g., Bourassa, 2007; Cunningham & Baker, 2004, 2007; Edleson, 1999; Evans, Davies & DiLillo, 2008; Febres et al., 2014; Geffner, Igelman & Zellner, 2003; Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2010; Holt, Buckley & Whelan, 2008; Jaffe et al., 2005; Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt & Kenny, 2003; Moylan, Herrenkohl, Sousa, Tajima, Herrenkohl & Russo, 2010; Narayan, Cicchietti, Rogosch & Toth, 2014; Rigterink, Katz & Hessler, 2010; Rossman, Hughes & Rosenberg, 2013; Schnurr & Lohman, 2013; Siegler, 2013; Sousa, Herenkhol, Moylan, Tajima, Klika, Herenkohl & Russo, 2011;Trickett & Schellenbach, 1998). Importantly, exposure to family violence can have the same effects as being subject to violence (e.g., Brinig, Frederick & Drozd, 2014). The impact of family violence on children is pervasive and can include emotional, behavioural, social, health, academic, relationship (intimate and non-intimate), and vocational adjustment issues. Experiences of domestic violence for young children and older youths can have negative consequences, including higher levels of internalizing (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, depression) and externalizing behaviours (e.g., delinquency, aggression), lower academic and cognitive functioning (e.g., reading, verbal abilities, dropping out of school) and less well developed social skills (e.g., difficulties in interactions with peers and poor peer relations). Research has also found a higher level of alcohol use among and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for children experiencing or exposed to family violence as they get older (see references above).

These negative outcomes can be seen immediately or longer term, even into adulthood. Some work shows that there is an increased risk of negative outcomes when children both witness and are involved in family violence and that living in homes with violence can put children more at risk of experiencing violence and/or neglect (e.g., Bourassa, 2007; Edelson, 1999; Sousa et al., 2011). Aside from the direct impact of violence, there are indirect effects of violence too, affecting the quality of the parenting, the parent-child relationship with both parents and the well-being of the parent (which in turn can negatively affect the children) (Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 1998; van Horn & Lieberman, 2002; Levendosky, Leahy, Bogat, Davidson & von Eye, 2006). It should be noted that not all children who come from homes where there is family violence will be affected in the same manner or to the same degree. The type of attachment to the non-violent parent, the quality of the parenting, their ability to prevent children from having further exposure to violence are all important factors and can protect children from negative effects of violence (e.g., Graham-Bermann, DeVoe, Mattis, Lynch & Thomas, 2006; Osofsky, 1999; Pruett et al., 2003; Sandler et al., 2008; Sandler et al., 2012). Footnote 13

The overarching message about family violence in the context of making a parenting arrangement involves first considering the presence or absence of family violence and the form it took as well as protective factors that are in place (e.g., positive parenting, secure attachments, social supports, and other factors mentioned previously) (see for example, Jaffe et al., 2008). The existence and nature of the family violence, as well as other pertinent circumstances need to be examined to determine the appropriate parenting arrangement in any particular case.

The social and physical environment for parents and children

Child outcomes and adjustment in all families can also be impacted by the social and physical environment of parents and children. The factors below will be important to consider in determining parenting arrangements that are in the best interests of their children.

Socioeconomic status

Research clearly shows that socioeconomic status (SES) is at least partially linked to child-well-being in all families. There are health, cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural outcomes that are impacted by SES. The effects in some cases begin before birth and last into adulthood. In general, when children have more resources available to them they do better in the long term (Bornstein & Bradley, 2012; Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Braveman, Egerter & Williams, 2011; Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, Chen & Matthews, 2010; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; Ryan, Claessens & Markowitz, 2015; Weaver & Schofield, 2015). Lower SES has also been linked to an increased frequency in or absolute number of transitions for children.

Child’s relationships

Recent work has emphasized that while most parenting arrangement discussions focus on child-parent relations, often overlooked are the important relations between siblings and friends and the impact they have on children’s adjustment (e.g., Davies, 2015).

A supportive social network

A supportive social network is an important factor protecting all children of negative adjustment (e.g., Sandler, Miller, Short, & Wolchuk, 1989). Further, parents adjust better to divorce and are able to offer more quality parenting when they have social support and a network of resources in the community (Castillo & Fenzl-Crossman, 2010; DeGarmo, Patras & Eap, 2008; Leslie & Grady, 1985; McDermott, Fowler & Christakis, 2013). This might include involvement with immediate family and/or emotional support among peers, colleagues and extended family. This type of support can help sustain a quality relationship with children.

Repartnering – New relationships, remarriage and cohabitation:

Remarriage and repartnering post-divorce/separation is common and these transitions and new relationships are important to consider in post-divorce/separation arrangements for children. For example, one might consider how they will be handled, and the impact on parental involvement. Practically speaking, the complexity of parent-child contact may increase when multiple families are involved. Instead of repartnering having a negative or positive impact on adjustment in itself, it appears that it is the factors associated with this transition that affect children most (Anderson & Greene, 2013) including: affecting the number of transitions the children experience (i.e., having stable relationships versus a series of serial short term ones), changing the dynamics of parental interaction (i.e., increase or decrease conflict); changing the nature or frequency of parental involvement with children (i.e., increase or decrease contact and engagement -especially for non-resident father); the development of new relationship between the new partner and the children (i.e., positive and supportive, neutral or negative) (Coleman, Ganong, Russell & Frye-Cox, 2015; Flouri, 2006; Fomby & Osborne, 2010; Ganong & Coleman, 2004; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Juby, Billette, Laplante & Le Bourdais, 2007; Kelly, 2012; Manning & Smock,1999; Manning et al., 2003; Qu & Weston, 2010; Stephens, 1996; Swiss & Le Bourdais, 2009; Tach, Mincy & Edin, 2010). In addition to adding the new partner, there may also be new children (from a former relationship, or as a product of the new relationship). The introduction of these new individuals can also affect the existing post-divorce relationship. Any of the factors are risk or protective factors that can have an impact on children’s adjustment in positive or negative ways.

New step-parents (or stable partners) can contribute positively through developing new kinship/familial bonds, acting as an additional source of support for children, engaging in positive parenting contributions, sustaining the biological parent’s involvement (Bray & Berger, 1993; Bray & Kelly, 1998; Coleman & Ganong, 1997; Coleman, Ganong & Russell, 2012; Coleman et al., 2015; Crosbie-Burnett, 1984; Crosbie-Burnett & Giles-Sims, 1994; Ganong, Coleman, Fine & Martin, 1999; Ganong, Coleman & Jamison, 2011; King, 2007; Papernow, 2006; Manning, & Lamb, 2003; Saint-Jacques, 1995; Sweeney, 2010; White and Gilbreth, 2001).

Bolstering or Supporting Post-divorce/separation adjustment - Intervention for children and parents

Given some of the environmental experiences of children and parents, there is evidence showing that universal and/or targeted intervention and training programs can have a powerful impact on parent and child adjustment. Research demonstrates that when programs provide parenting tools, parenting strategies and identify at risk families, children show greater success across various outcomes, including reduced delinquency.

Evidence has shown that parental skill development can enhance the quality of parenting and improve negative parent-specific issues or characteristics. For example, random control trials clearly show that when mothers participate in parenting programs, children have fewer behavioural problems and stronger mother-child relations, receive effective discipline and exhibit improved post-divorce coping (Vélez, Wolchick, Tein & Sandler, 2011). Interventions and services for families include: mediation; parent education; parent coordination; custody evaluations; supervised access programs; legal education and outreach initiatives; and parenting programs and lessons (online, at home or in class) (e.g., Saini et al., 2010).

Parental training/education and information can improve the parent-child relationship and have positive impacts on outcomes for children across all age ranges and among multiple outcomes including developmental tasks, social competencies, social relations, self-concept, risk-taking behaviours and cognitive competencies (Almeida, Abreu-Lima et al., 2012; Farris, Bert, Nicholson, Glass & Borkowski, 2013; Sandler, Schoenfelder, Wolchik & MacKinnon, 2011; Sandler et al., 2012; Vélez, Wolchik, Tein & Sandler, 2011). Programming that includes parenting lessons, education on skill development and home visits by public health nurses have a longstanding impact in preventing crime and child delinquency across all types of families and especially for at risk families (Mihalic, Elliott, Fagan & Hansen, 2001). Recent work has shown that an online version of a parenting education program can help reduce parental conflict, help parents control anger and improve self-assessments of parental abilities and enhance coping abilities following divorce (Becher, Cronin, McCann, Olson, Powell & Marczak, 2015).

For some parents, there may be barriers to accessing parenting programs and services, some of which include: lack of time; competing commitments; lack of awareness; lack of feeling of need; difficulties with child care; isolation of community; and stigma or privacy concerns with participation.

Practical Considerations

Apart from the host of empirically supported factors that can affect children’s adjustment discussed above, there are other important considerations that need to be taken into account when determining parenting arrangements. These factors affect families different and provide further support for the fact that arrangements need to be tailored to individual families. These considerations include (but are not limited to; Bricklin & Elliot, 2013; Kuehnle & Drozd, 2012; McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008; McIntosh, et al., 2010):

  1. Making/complying with child support arrangements: The payment of child support can help with child adjustment, mostly through mitigating the negative impacts of insufficient economic resources and confirming to children that their parents continue to care for them (Huang, 2009; Huang, Han & Garfinkel, 2003; Kelly, 2007; Kushner, 2009; Manning & Lamb, K, 2003; Menning, 2002). An association between paying support and maintaining contact with children post-divorce has been identified (Huang, 2009; Juby et al, 2007; Menning, 2006). In addition, some studies report a positive link between the payment of child support and some child adjustment factors (Furstenberg et al., 1987; King & Sobolewski, 2006; McLanahan, Seltzer, Hanson, & Thomson, 1994) and academic achievement (Argys, Peters, Brooks-Gunn, & Smith, 1998; King, 1994a). For example, positive benefits of paying support and continued contact include increased likelihood of the children completing high school and entering college (e.g., Menning, 2002; 2006).
  2. Geographical proximity (distance between homes, proximity to friends and proximity to schools/work for children): When children and parents live closer together, there is generally more sharing of parenting time (Cooksey & Craig, 1998; Le Bourdais et al., 2002; Manning, Stewart & Smock, 2003; Seltzer, 1991). Transitions are also easier and faster when parents live closer together and children have better access to their peer groups (which is associated with higher satisfaction with arrangements) (Cashmore et al., 2010).
  3. Financial capacity of both parents: Although parents may want to substantially share parenting time, it is more costly to create two homes for children with duplicates of all necessities (bedroom, toys, recreation). This may affect what arrangements are made for children – including decisions on alternative arrangements (e.g., parents alternating in and out of the family home or continuing to live together after divorce/separation for the sake of the children’s care).
  4. Parental Employment Situation: Parental availability may be affected by work schedules (shift work, night shift, seasonal work, out of town working) and whether there is flexibility possible in their working time. This availability may affect the arrangements that will be made.
  5. Potential of relocation: Whether one parent will want to or need to relocate at some point for various reasons (e.g., work, health, financial situation, family commitment/obligations). This issue is a very difficult one for families and the courts to resolve post-divorce/separation (Bala, Bertrand, Wheeler & Holder, 2012; Braver, Ellman & Fabricius, 2003; Saini, 2013).