Should a parent have overnight time with young children?

It is a common question in most Family Law matters, whether a child should spend overnight time with the non-resident parent. Studies have been conducted trying to address three important 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?
What the studies say?

Studies 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 years who spent 1 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 2-3 night 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 on attending to or completing tasks and learning new things and distressed behaviour towards the primary parents such as crying, hanging on to the parent and not wanting to be separated, excessive worry and upset, refusing to eat, hitting, biting or kicking the parent.

The Findings

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 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 co-operative parenting relationship can make many things possible, the developmental needs of the young child and the additional 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 older children, where parents can work together, are attuned to the child and can respond to their needs, then the benefits of a shared overnight arrangement can be more evenly weighed.

Most importantly, the qualities that you entail as a parent will have an impact on how your child/ren will cope. Respond to your child/ren at each stage of their developmental progress and in accordance with their emotional needs.

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