May 12, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Like a jungle explorer, Dr. Linda Nielsen continues to slash her way through the conflict-based arguments against shared parenting. By now, she’s cut quite a swath, but is nowhere near to being finished.
Yesterday, I reported that her paper on conflict and joint physical custody (JPC) showed existing science finding that, post-divorce, there was no significant difference between conflict levels for JPC couples versus sole physical custody (SPC) couples. So, contrary to the claims of those who would stand between kids and their fathers, JPC cannot be said to result in greater conflict after the divorce orders have been signed.
Nielsen’s next question is whether, given roughly equal levels of conflict between JPC parents and SPC parents, JPC kids do significantly better or worse than those who live with one parent?
17 studies have taken account of parental conflict in comparing the well-being of children in JPC and SPC families. In some studies there were no significant differences in conflict between the two groups of parents, meaning that conflict could not account for any differences in the outcomes for these two groups of children. In other studies the researchers eliminated the influence of conflict on the outcomes by including parental conflict in the statistical analysis as a moderating variable.
So 16 of 17 studies found no significant differences in the effects conflict had on JPC kids and SPC kids. Ah, but what about number 17? It’s our old friend Jennifer McIntosh again. She indeed managed to find that toddlers were worse off if they were in joint care than in sole maternal care. How’d she manage to do what 16 others couldn’t? As I’ve reported before, she simply made up certain indicia of child well-being that had never been validated as measuring same.
In contrast to the other 16 studies, this government sponsored study (republished in a 2013 journal article, McIntosh et al., 2013) has been widely criticized for its limitations—above all for using measures with no established validity or reliability, which means the data cannot be interpreted with any confidence since there is no way of knowing what was actually being assessed (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011; Lamb, 2016; Ludolph & Dale, 2012; Nielsen, 2014a; Warshak, 2014).
So desperate was McIntosh to find something negative to say about joint care that she actually used one measure that had been validated previously. A child’s watchfulness, i.e. turning to one parent to gauge his/her response, has been validated as an indication that the child is about to begin using words. That is, it’s a positive indicator of a child’s healthy maturation. Not for McIntosh. Children exhibiting that behavior she considered fretful and fussy, and that enabled her to put a black mark against JPC. In fact, those kids were just about to begin acquiring language, something no one but McIntosh considers a bad thing.
Meanwhile, Nielsen summarizes the other 16 studies this way:
In all nine studies that assessed children’s relationships with their fathers and/or their stress-related health problems, the JPC children had better outcomes. In the nine studies that measured behavioral problems (aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, or drug and alcohol use) JPC children had better outcomes in six studies and equal outcomes in three studies. In the 12 studies that assessed social and emotional problems (depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, overall dissatisfaction with life), JPC children had better outcomes in eight studies and equal outcomes in four studies. The fewest differences were in grades and cognitive skills, where the JPC children were only better off than SPC children in two of the five studies and equal in the other three.
Here’s Nielsen’s takeaway from the science on conflict and JPC:
Six salient messages, however, do emerge from these studies. First, the level of conflict and the quality of the coparenting relationship are often not as closely correlated with children’s well-being as the quality of the parent– child relationship. Second, the connection between conflict and children’s well-being is mediated by the quality of the children’s relationships with their parents. Third, parents’ settling their custody disputes in court or through protracted legal negotiations has not been linked to worse outcomes for children. Fourth, JPC is associated with better outcomes for children than SPC even when their parents do not initially both agree to the parenting plan and even when the conflict at the time of separation or in subsequent years is not low. Fifth, most JPC parents do not have substantially less conflict or more collaborative coparenting relationships than SPC parents. And sixth, limiting the time that children spend with one of their parents through SPC is not correlated with better outcomes for children, even when there is considerable conflict and a poor coparenting relationship.
In short, with the exception of serious domestic violence or child abuse, the level of conflict between parents should play little-to-no role in a judge’s decision about whether to order joint physical custody.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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