Research on Shared Care

Caring for Children After Parental Separation: Would Legislation for Shared Parenting Time Help Children?
Family Policy Briefing No. 7. University of Oxford, UK: Department of Social Policy and Intervention.  Fehlberg, B., & Smyth, B. M. (2011).


Legislating for Shared Time Parenting After Separation
A Research Review. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 25(3), 318-337. doi:10.1093/lawfam/ebr015 .   Fehlberg, B., Smyth, B., Maclean, M., & Roberts, C. (2011).

These articles examine a number of studies that have looked at the outcomes for children in shared family care. The main findings from this review are:

  • There are benefits to children of having a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation.
  • The best interests of children after parental separation are most strongly connected to the quality of parenting they receive, the quality of the relationship between their parents, and practical resources such as adequate housing and income – not to any particular pattern of care or amount of time.
  • Quality of contact is more important than the frequency of contact.
  • Good outcomes for children were more likely when non-resident fathers had positive relationships with their children and took an ‘active parenting’ role, including both warmth and setting boundaries.
  • That there is no single optimal amount of time that benefits children. What is clear is that there is no evidence showing a clear link between the amount of shared time and improving outcomes for children.
  • Shared time arrangements work well when they are child-focused, flexible and cooperative. They are almost always arrived at by private agreement without involvement of lawyers or the courts.
  • Children are more likely to feel positive when shared time arrangements are flexible and child-focused, when their parents get along and when they have input into decisions about the details of their living arrangements.
  • Frequent moves between households bring added practical and emotional difficulties for children, but the level of difficulty depended on a range of factors including distance between homes, frequency of moves, level of conflict between parents and the child’s personality and preferences.
  • High on-going parental conflict, family violence and abuse, and rigidity  makes shared parenting difficult for children and the stress and burden outweighs the benefits.
  • Shared time arrangements present particular risks for children in three main contexts. These are:
  1. When mothers express on-going ‘safety concerns’,
  2. Where there is high on-going parental conflict
  3. When children are very young – or some combination of these.  Regardless of wealth or parenting cooperation, shared overnight care of children under four years of age had an independent and damaging impact. Very young children could be adversely affected by overnight agreements.

Shared parenting is most successful when parents agree to shared cared outside of court orders.

  • That children benefit from continuing and regular contact with both parents when parents cooperate, communicate, and have low levels of conflict. 
  • There is no evidence showing a clear link between the amount of parenting time and better outcomes for children. 
  • Shared care is more risky for children than other arrangements where there are safety concerns, high ongoing parental conflict, and for children younger than 4 years old.

Key words: equal time, conflict, young children, shared care, safety concerns.

Closing The Gap Report: April 2014 Special Edition of Family Court Review (the Journal of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts AFCC).

This report includes a series of articles on shared parenting. The article titles are listed below.

Key points raised in this report are:

  • The child’s best interests (health, safety and welfare) are the most important things to consider in making any decision about parenting time /arrangements.
  • Shared parenting outcomes are based entirely on the parents relationship, personal wellbeing and parenting resources.
  • The need for both parents to be involved and for a child to have ongoing stability can be competing priorities.

Overnight care of Young Children: (part 1 and 2)

  • Little is yet known about the impact on young children’s development as a result of overnight shared care, including extended family carers, race and cultural practices.
  • Successful outcomes for children in overnight care are linked to parents wellbeing, access to support, the relationship between the parent (especially conflict) and the nature and quality of the parent-child relationship before separation.
  • Children aged 0-3 need flexible overnight arrangements that are based on the child’s needs for security and attachment.

Children aged 0-3 need a specialised plan based on the many factors within that family.

Legislating for Shared Parenting: Exploring Some Underlying Assumptions.
McIntosh, J. E. (2009).  Family Court Review, 47(3), 389-400.

This article looks at Australian legislation relating to overnight access and shared parenting.  It highlights that shared cared arrangements are a preferred outcome because it is thought children from separated families will benefit from the ongoing, warm and available involvement of both parents when there is little parental conflict.   This article looks at what happens if there is conflict between parents and suggests;

  • Shared care is not preferable for children in high conflict separation
  • Does not improve cooperation between parents
  • Children are not less affected by their parents’ conflict.

Key words: conflict, shared care, overnight, young children, divorce.

Shared Parenting After Divorce: A Review of Shared Residential Parenting Research.
L. Nielsen.  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 52(8), 586-609.

This research looks at families where the children live at least 35% of the time in shared care where there is not high conflict or violence.  This article focuses on the benefits of shared care for father child relationships.  It concludes that most children in shared care do as well or better than those who live mostly with their mothers.

Key words: fathers, shared care, cooperation, benefits.

A 5-Year Retrospective of Post-Separation Shared Care Research in Australia.
Bruce Smyth (2009) Journal of Family Studies, 15(1), 36-59.

This article looks at all the research in Australia over a 5 year period. It has a good summary of the findings of the studies but advises that there is a very limited group of families studied and that research findings should not be the only thing that guides decisions about children – that each child has different needs and each family has a different ability to meet these needs.  It highlights the need to focus on quality of relationships between parents not quantity and for parents to address ongoing conflict through supports such as mediation.

Key words: divorce, parental separation, children, children’s living arrangements, joint custody, dual residence, meaningful relationships

Shared Residence: A Review of Recent Research Evidence.
Child and Family Law Quarterly, 22(4), 475-498. Trinder, L. (2010)

This article looks at the current research looking at the impacts on parents and children in shared care arrangements.  It makes the following conclusions:

  • Shared residence can be a positive outcome where parents are able to co-operate and where arrangements are centred on children’s needs.
  • Shared residence in higher conflict cases, typically following court action is often results in negative outcomes for children.
  • It is important that children are heard and enabled to have some influence over care arrangements.
  • It is not the arrangements themselves that matter, whether shared or not shared, but how parents manage these relationships that has the biggest impact on children’s wellbeing.Shared parenting time in Australia: Exploring children’s views.

Shared Parenting Time in Australia: Exploring Children’s Views
Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 34(3), 295-313. (Australia).
Campo, M., Fehlberg, B., Millward, C., & Carson, R. (2013).

This paper summarizes the outcomes of interviews with 22 children aged 10-18 years over a 3 year period.  The findings show:

  • That parenting arrangements changed over time (in most cases from shared time to primary care, but in some cases towards greater sharing of time).
  • Most children said they had input into their changed arrangements.
  • Parenting arrangements changes mostly because of conflict with step-parents or step-siblings, distance between homes and wanting one home as a base.
  • Children who spoke positively about shared time described close relationships with parents who cooperated, lived near each other and who were flexible about changing or swapping days.
  • Children who spoke negatively about shared time identified the distance between their parents’ homes and parental conflict as the main problems.

Shared Care Parenting Arrangements Since the 2006 Family Law Reforms: Report for: Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department,
Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, New South Wales.
Cashmore, J., Parkinson, P., Weston, R., Patulny, R., Redmond, G., Qu, L., Baxter,J., M. Rajkovic, M., T. Sitek I. Katz, I. (2010).

This report looks at changes to shared care since the Family Law changes in 2006.  It makes the following findings:

  • Shared care is increasing.
  • Any Shared care arrangements do not last, care arrangements return to a primary care model usually the mother.
  • The majority of shared care arrangements are made without intervention from courts.
  • Parents in shared care had fewer concerns about their own and their children safety.
  • Negative experience for children in shared care occurs when mothers have serious concerns about the children’s safety.
  • Many children who were in shared care arrangements reported positive benefits from shared care.
  • Children consistently reported that they would like to be involved in the decision making about their care arrangement, and children tended to be more satisfied with arrangements when they felt that their views had been taken into account.
  • There was no significant difference in children’s reported happiness with the arrangements between those in shared care and those who lived mostly with their mother or their father
  • Best outcomes for children were related to the nature of care and relationship between the parents not the type of care arrangement. 
  • Factors that best benefit children are:
    • Parents are able to cooperate about the arrangements for the children.
    • Parents have a say in making decisions about the child.
    • There is relatively little conflict between the parents.
    • Parents believe that each parent is paying their fair share of the costs associated with raising children

Shared Parenting or Shared Care?: Learning From Children’s Experiences of a Post-Divorce Shared Care Arrangement. 
Davies, H. (2013) Children and Society. doi: 10.1111/chso.12013 (UK)

This article examines three issues raised by three primary-aged siblings experiencing in a shared parenting arrangement.

  • The focus on parent–child relationships, overlooks children’s relationships with siblings.
  • The focus on shared parenting fails to fully recognise the large amount of social and material resources needed for shared parenting arrangements to work.
  • That it’s believed that shared parenting promotes gender equality for fathers and mothers, despite the fact that society experiences gender inequality. Meaning shared care does not equal gender equality in parenting roles.


Children’s Perspectives on Everyday Experiences of Shared Residence: Time, Emotions and Agency Dilemmas.
Children & Society, 24, 112-122. (Norway)   Haugen, G. M. (2010).

This article is based on a study with Norwegian children and examines some problems faced in shared cared model.  Research showed:

  • Shared care can be a pleasure and a burden for children.
  • Shared care does not benefit children  in high conflict families.
  • Adults and children have very different experience f shared care, and there is a risk that care arrangements benefit adults needs and time over children’s.
  • Adults assumptions about what children want and need limit the ability of the child to know and state their own needs.
  • Children should have a say in care arrangements, however care should be taken to not expose children to adult/legal concepts such as equal time.  Children also experience guilt / responsibility to please parents when discussing care preferences.

Drifting Towards Shared Residence.
Family Law, 33, 904-908. (UK) Neale, B., Flowerdew, J., & Smart, C. (2003)

The focus of this study was on children’s experiences of shared care over time. This study focused on 30 children who had lived in shared care arrangement over a 4 year period. The study found things that contributed to children feeling positive about shared residence were situations were:

  • The needs of children were prioritised.
  • There was flexibility over arrangements.
  • Children could feel settled or felt truly at home in both households.

Where shared residence is problematic and children experienced considerable problems when;

  • The needs of parents were prioritized.
  • There was inflexibility over arrangements.
  • Children did not feel settled or felt like visitors or lodgers in one parent’s house.

Perhaps the most important issue that interviews revealed was that almost all these children found it incredibly hard to try to change a 50:50 arrangement once it was in place.

Equal Shares: Rights for Fathers or Recognition for Children?
Critical Social Policy 24 (4), 484 – 503. eScholarID:1b7928 | DOI:10.1177/0261018304046673 (UK) Smart, C. (2004).

This article looks at the pressure from men’s groups who want a equal time parenting and outlines the risks of this approach being:

  • This ignores entirely the experiences of children
  • It reduces children to passive objects who can have no voice
  • It promotes a system designed only to create equality between adults.
  • It argues policy should be based on recognition of child needs not rights of parents.

The Experience of Children in a Joint-Custody Arrangement: A Report of a Study.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51(3), 403-14. (USA)  Steinman (1981).

This is a study of the psychological experience of 32 children living in a joint-custody arrangement with their parents. Its finding are simple – the experience and reaction of every child is unique and shared parenting is not a simple solution but requires a huge investment from both parents.

Shared Parenting After Separation and Divorce: A Study of Joint Custody.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 49(2), 320-329. (USA).  Abarbanel, A. (1979).

This is a study of 4 families in shared care arrangements following divorce. It findings are:

  • Shared care offers advantages and disadvantages to all family members.
  • Shared care works well under certain conditions – where parents cooperate and share important information about children.
  • It’s is neither ‘good’ not ‘bad’ compared to other care models.
  • Routine changes were disruptive to children but the impact was ‘evened out’ when the stay was long enough and the routine remained the same in each home.
  • Children remained attached to both parents when parents were psychological involved with children.

Shared Post-Separation Parenting: Pathways and Outcomes for Parents. 
Family Matters, 86, 33-39. (Australia) Fehlberg, Millward and Campo. 2011

The focus on 32 in-depth interviews conducted in 2009 with parents in post-separation shared care arrangements.  Outcomes of this study show:

  • Professionals and families often believe shared care is an expected outcome following separation.
  • Most of the shared care mothers took the main responsibility for children’s schooling, medical and other needs both before and after separation.
  • Where one parent had safety concerns for their children, shared care arrangements caused significant upheaval and uncertainty for these children and affected their capacity to parent well.
  • Shared care operated most smoothly when the law seemed to have played no role in dictating arrangements.
  • Recommends the value of re-focusing on what works best for each child when making post-separation parenting arrangements.

Freedom, Desire and Power: Gender Processes and Presumptions of Shared Care and Responsibility After Parental Separation.
Women’s Studies International Forum, 29, 184-196. (Australia)  Lacroix, C. (2006).

This article looks at the relationship between separated parents’ attitudes to parental responsibility and their sharing practices.  It findings are:

  • Parents have very gendered attitudes about the parents roles and responsibility towards parenting – meaning there are clear men’s and women’s roles in parenting despite separation.
  • A fifty-fifty sharing of time does not mean an equal sharing of parental responsibility and one parent, (usually the mother) takes on more of the parenting responsibility.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Divorced Mothers’ Experiences With Co-parenting.
Family Relations, 61, 586-600. Markham, M.S. & Coleman, M. (2012).

This article studies 20 mothers who are co-parting following separation. It finds the following relating to mothers experiences of co-parenting:

  • There is a large amount of difference in the quality of co-parenting relationships in shared physical custody arrangements.
  • Being in a shared care arrangement does not create a cooperative relationship between parents.
  • Relationships between ex-partners are change throughout the shared care experience.
  • Mothers and fathers can improve co-parenting relationships and ways of sharing custody by making deliberate efforts to do so for their children’s sake.
  • Mothers with cooperative co-parenting relationships, unlike those with conflict in their relationships, are able to communicate directly with ex-partners about the children, have more options in the way they exchange their children, and can effectively deal with differences in parenting styles.

The Politics and Experience of Co-Parenting: An Exploratory Study of Shared Custody in Canada.
Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. (Canada) Morris, C. (1988).

This paper examines the research on shared care, and also looks at a Canadian study on 43 families in shared care situations. The paper is very long and academic focused, but the final section takes the findings from the research and study and makes the following key points about what to consider in making shared care plans:

  • A child who parents are separated normally wants and requires ongoing ‘parenting’ from a mother and father.
  • The child can expect to develop significant relationship with a step parent in the future, and this personal may become caring, responsible adults in the child’s life.
  • The child wants and maybe encouraged to maintain contact with both sets of grandparents and extended family members.
  • The child may well live with step siblings, or new siblings from the re-partnering of either parents.
  • The child may experience further changes in living arrangements such as a parent re-marring or moving in with a new partner.
  • The parents can expect to see more than one change in the family composition during childrearing.
  • Divorced fathers can expect to participate more fully compared with previous generations of father in child rearing.
  • Divorced parents are more likely than ever to maintain ongoing relationships focussed on child rearing and are not necessarily broken by new romantic relationships. 

Shared Parenting: The views of Separated Parents with 50:50 Care Arrangements.
Family Matters, 65, 48-55.  Smyth, B., Caruana, C., & Ferro, A. (2003).  Smyth, B., Caruana, C., & Ferro, A. (2003).

This paper looks at a case study of 12 families with 50:50 care arrangements and reports the following:

  • There was a lot of difference in how parents practically did 50:50 care.
  • Fathers were mostly motivated to enter in 50:50 care based on their rights to contact, where as mothers were motivated based on the child’s right to have a father involved and the fathers right to be involved.
  • Families in 50:50 care need access to family friendly work patterns, live near each other, have financial independence and child centred schedules.
  • 50:50 care allows parents to spend time with children of which quality time can then occur.
  • There are many practical and logistical challenges to 50:50 care and parental cooperation is key to working through these challenges.
  • Family separation is a huge change and fathers benefit from practical and emotional support, especially in relation to the roles changes and care for young children.
  • Parents who chose 50:50 care tend to get along and can put their children’s needs above their own.

Breastfeeding Throughout Legal Separation: Women’s Experiences of the Australian Family Law System.
Journal of Human Lactation, 26(4), 384-392. (Australia)  Sweet, L. (2010).

The study was aimed at highlighting the experience of a group of Australian mothers attempting to maintain breastfeeding through separation and shared parent­ing. The study found:

  • Mother’s experi­ence of negotiating parenting plans in the family court system is scary and stressful, leading to frustra­tion and fear and feeling powerless.
  • Shared parenting orders which separate breastfeeding mothers from their child, have signifi­cant negative impacts on women’s ability to breast­feed their infant and can result in how long mothers continue to breastfeed.
  • Care arrangements that lead to mothers having to stop feeding due to practical barriers are in fact not in the best interest of the child.

Key words: breastfeeding, family law, separation, best interests of the child