In this fertile time for the growth of new ideas and new ways of working with separated families, I thought it might be useful to look around at the current thinking on solutions to the problem of children’s relationships (or lack of ) with both parents. I was prompted to do this by the arrival in my inbox of a paper by Michael E Lamb entitled ‘ A wasted opportunity to engage with the literature on the implications of attachment research for family court professionals,’ which was sent to me by the Fatherhood Institute. Michael Lamb’s paper is a rebuttal of Jennifer Mcintosh’s position on attachment theory as set out in the Family Court Review – July 2011
Michael’s key points for the Family Court Community are –
• Most children in two-parent families form attachments to both of their parents at the same stage in their development.
• Relationships with both their mother and father profoundly affect children’s adjustment, whether or not they live together.
• Professionals need to be careful when generalizing from research which may have involved families in circumstances quite unlike those experienced by the individuals they are trying to assist.
Which clearly sets out the case for fathering after separation in opposition to Mcintosh’s case for primary care of infants by their mothers.
Mcintosh’s recent research, which is influential in Australia and often used in the UK by opponents of shared care concludes the following –
‘The healthy emotional development of children depends upon their early experience of a continuous, emotionally available care-giving relationship, through which they are able to form an organised attachment, and to develop their human capacities for thought and relationships.’
Mcintosh’s anxiety then is located in the risk of there being a lack of continuous, emotionally available care-giving relationships in a young child’s life when parents are separated. Which leads her to conclude, presumably, that the relationship with a father is secondary and therefore disposable if there is conflict interrupting the continuous, emotionally available care-giving.
As is usual then, when thinking about family separation, Mcintosh and Lamb take up opposing positions in favour of mother and father.
Looking closer to home, the Mindful Policy Group tells us that
‘Structures in the brain require time and experience to mature, so in the meantime, babies must learn to regulate their internal world through their attachment relationship. This is accomplished by establishing an alignment of states of mind with parents, establishing a conduit of empathic attunement, basically an emotional umbilical cord.’
This brain based, neuroscience approach to ensuring that babies and young children receive the right kind of nurture that activates nature, acknowledges the importance of mother and father and seems to me to encapsulate the key issues that we need to think about when we are reforming our family laws around children’s meaningful relationships with both of their parents. For it is this kind of information that tells us that babies and young children do indeed need both their mother and their father and that each of them will play a significant part in the development of the child’s brain and the organisation of the attachment processes that will kick off the positive development of neural pathways that lead to health and well-being.
What it also tells us however, is that the kind of nurture that is needed is that which provides for the child a ‘conduit of empathic attunement’ which is created when the state of mind of each parent is aligned with the child’s own.
In short, babies and young children benefit when mothers and fathers are focused upon the child’s changing needs and the relationship is child focused and not parent focused.
For me this blows away all of the arguments around parental rights and refocuses the mind upon the rights of the child to enjoy peaceful alignment and attunement to the different things that their mother and father can bring to their developing brains and selves. It neither upholds Mcintosh’s anxieties about the problem of young children having overnight stays with their father, nor Michael Lamb’s rebuttal, in fact for me, it renders both of these standpoints void. Just like the arguments about the rebuttal presumption of 50/50 shared care, meaningful relationships for children and both of their parents cannot be furthered using parental view points, the only way of looking at this is from the experience of the child.
That is not to say that the arguments do not include issues about the child’s relationship with both parents, because if the neuroscientists are to be believed, all babies and children benefit enormously from a relationship with both. If we are to go down this route, a meaningful relationship between a child and each of its parents is one in which both parents have the opportunity to offer the child that conduit of empathic attunement. In many cases, this is the kind of relationship that the child will have been enjoying with both parents up to the separation.
It often puzzles me that we have not yet worked out on a policy level that when a family separates, a child is often routinely divested of one of those conduits overnight. I have lost count of the number of CAFCASS reports that I have read in which the loss of the relationship with a father is accepted as collateral damage. Those same CAFCASS people will often be up in arms at the prospect of a child spending time away from its mother in a shared care arrangement. It is clear, from the work that I do, that the loss of that conduit of emotional attunement with a father is seen as disposable, whilst the loss of the conduit with the mother is seen as sacrosanct. And yet, the evidence before us suggests that the loss of either is detrimental to a child and further, that reduction of that conduit to brief encounters across large voids of time is not good for the child either.
The consultation on shared parenting that is currently underway is evidence of the coalition government’s commitment to improving children’s relationships with both of their parents after separation. Disappointed though the father’s movement is at the consultation and dismissive of its ability to deliver anything different, it is clear that there is serious intention within government departments to change the current culture.
In order to make sure that the evidence is sifted and weighed in the balance of what is in the best interests of children, those reviewing evidence from the consultation will, in my opinion, need to refocus their view-point from that of the parents to that of the child. Because it is from there that the solutions to the conundrum become self-evident.
Looking at this whole issue through the lens of the needs of the child and keeping in mind the neuroscience of the development of the children’s sense of self and well-being, it becomes clear that there is evidence of the need for both parents in a child’s life.
Unfortunately, many children do not get the opportunity to have a relationship with both parents, precisely because of the way in which this country, like others, has viewed the issue through the lens of parental rights. I have written widely on the issue of single parent social policy and the way it has prevented children from having relationships with both parents. There is, to my mind, a clear and present need to shift the focus of social policy from single to dual parenting and away from parental rights to the right of the child. Reading the consultation paper, it is clear that the government have every intention of doing this, it is less clear however, how the outcomes they seek to achieve will be delivered within the framework that they have set out.
In our view, at the Centre for Separated Families, there are three things in family law, that we have to consider if we are going to offer the next generation of children better outcomes.
- The paramountcy principle (every case is different)
- The definition of a meaningful relationship
- The issue of time
The Paramountcy principle is that sacred sentence that supposedly prevents us from being able to make generalisations and definitions. The principle tells us that the welfare of the child is paramount and that every case is different. There is no definition however, of what the welfare of the child looks like and no guidance anywhere that enables a uniform understanding of it.
Therefore, what the Paramountcy principle actually does, is enable all and sundry to make their own generalisations and their own definitions about what benefits a child after separation. Rather than every case being different, what we really deliver is the outcome that every case is subjected to the different personal interpretations of the court professionals who work on it. Whilst I have absolutely no problem with the welfare of the child being paramount in every case, I have equally no doubt whatsoever that the best interests of the child are not routinely being delivered. And in any event, how would we know what the outcomes are, no-one keeps records and no-one making these decisions has any guidance to refer to in the first place.
The paramountcy principle therefore requires us to think about guidance and training for the people charged with delivering upon it.
The second issue that we have to think about is the definition of a meaningful relationship and once again this a hugely contested area. From Jennifer Mcintosh to Michael Lamb and all in between, everyone has an idea of what makes a meaningful relationship. To my mind, the evidence from the Mindful Policy Group shows us that the most meaningful relationship that a child can have, at any stage in his or her upbringing, is any relationship which enables the nurture that activates the nature. In short, a child’s best interests lie in having the opportunity to be with the adults who are able to offer unconditional positive regard, emotional attunement and a focus on changing needs.
A meaningful relationship then, requires us to think about how children can be helped to maximise the positive opportunities that are available to them for relationships of this kind. And it makes it incumbent upon us to ensure that good enough relationships with either parent are not destroyed by the deliberate actions of either parent.
Time is the issue that no-one wants to go near, everyone is afraid of determining how much time is enough time with each parent. It would appear however that if we are to define a meaningful relationship with both parents from a child’s perspective, it has to incorporate significant portions of time with each. Research evidence from Jan Pryor in New Zealand suggests that the least beneficial pattern of care for a child is every other weekend, perhaps because the large wasteland of time between seeing a parent does not allow that conduit of attunement to flow so easily.
That would suggest that relationships should be continuous and should not involve large blocks of time away from either parent.
The tricky task is, of course, working out how these three issues can be interpreted and translated into individual co-parenting packages that offer children the very best of what their parent’s have to offer. How do we achieve better outcomes for children through the maintenance of their relationships with both parents, especially when those parents are separating/separated and potentially at war with each other.
Achieving that, it seems to me, doesn’t have to be complicated. The key issue that has been missing for too many years is guidance on what makes a meaningful relationship and the evidence that supports that. Here, the Mindful Policy Group are unequivocal in their findings, the evidence that a child needs a meaningful relationship with both parents is found in the neuroscience. Helping children achieve what they need therefore, means helping parents to get over the conflict and move away from their own personal rights and towards working around their children’s changing needs. It’s what we have been saying for more than a decade at the Centre for Separated Families, parenting after separation means that both parents have to compromise something of their own needs so that children don’t have to.
Getting parents to that place of compromise however is not going to be easy, especially when we are working in a space where the move from the model of primary care/secondary care towards dual care is a long way from completion. Given that the government are now committed to this path, what remedies could be put quickly into place that could give us the outcomes that we are looking for, increased co-operative parenting after separation.
There is a route to resolution of the conundrum which takes into account all three of the issues outlined above and refines them into an individualised package that delivers tailored outcomes for every child. This solution has been refined and reformed into an early intervention that I firmly believe could bring significant change to the UK. The Early Interventions Project (EIP), delivers the kind of guidance, by the kind of family support professionals, that delivers tailored arrangements for children and ensures that they benefit from meaningful relationships with both of their parents.
Rather than being underpinned by presumptions or vague and undefined notions of the welfare of children, the EIP offers guidance from child focused professionals, who understand that children need both of their parents and who are skilled at helping parents to work out arrangements that suit their own children. EIP offers parents, information about how to build parenting plans that work over time and how to ensure that conflict is resolved so that those plans run smoothly. More sophisticated than the PIPS courses currently offered in court and far more child focused than any previous intervention, the EIP offers individualised help that ensures that families are supported to rebuild co-parenting relationships effectively. In short, the EIP is a short cut to ensuring that children maintain relationships with both parents in ways that are of best benefit to them and it is invested with the skill and the knowledge that protects children’s needs for those ongoing conduits of emotional attunement.
It sounds like a miracle but it is not. What EIP offers is a simple solution to a problem that is often over complicated. Working within the court arena, the EIP ensures that the cases that can be resolved are resolved early and those with risk factors are fast tracked to where they need to be. You would be forgiven for thinking that this is what CAFCASS could and should be doing! In my opinion it is. But EIP is child focused and not routinely delivered through the lens of maternal attachment theory and is underpinned by gender analysis to ensure that mothers and fathers are able to overcome barriers to co-operation. Finally, the EIP, in its current format, ensures that all children, at all ages, get the time to build and/or maintain meaningful relationships that allow the flow of emotional attunement.
The EIP has been developed, refined and is ready for testing and has, in the past, received the support of a wide range of people, including Ministers in this coalition government. In my view it offers a ready to go solution to the problem that will still remain when this consultation closes, it is evidence based and it is child focused. In my opinion, if one seed of change should be brought to flower in these changing times in family law, it is this.