9 Jun 2015

One half of all marriages in New Zealand end in divorce

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 9 June 2015
Dr Penelope Leach

Dr Penelope Leach Photo: Supplied

When parents divorce or separate children under the age of 4 should remain with their primary caregiver, usually the mother, until a deep attachment is formed with both parents says world renowned British parenting expert and research psychologist, Dr Penelope Leach.

Dr Leach says 50/50 custody can be harmful to a child’s development. “It all depends on the relationship that the child and the parent had before,” says Dr Leach.

“I’m not anti-father, I’m anti-caregivers who don’t know their children. It’s almost like being sent off with a foster parent”.

Dr Leach is critical of 50/50 custody arrangements that are often the default position in courts without considering who the baby is attached to.

“One of the things that is bad luck for the guys is that attachment begins in the womb. And therefore the very first attachment has got to be to the owner of the womb and that’s not him that’s her. I can’t do anything about that sorry if it looks unfair but that’s just the way biology is,” says Dr Leach.

She says it is possible for fathers to develop this level of attachment and offers advice for separating parents in her new book, When Parents Part: How Mothers and Fathers Can Help Their Child.

Parents play a vital role in the brain development of their children from birth says Dr. Leach. She says it has nothing to do with the gender of the parent, but about the relationship. She says biochemically, links forming between neurons occur at an astonishing rate in the first year of life.

“Because it’s all happening so quickly it’s very vulnerable to things going wrong. The younger the baby is the more important these relationship issues are. If a baby has a lot of fear separation that affects the way the brain ends up and it lasts for life” Dr Leach warns.

Children whose parents have separated talked to Dr Leach about their view of divorce and separation.

“One of the messages from children ages 6 to 13 years is a desire not to be confided in by parents particularly about affairs and misery,“ says Dr. Leach.

She says it usually works best for child can keep their parenting and partnership separate and not to take sides.

Dr. Leach acknowledges that what she advocates is not easy. One thing, she says, can make an enormous difference.

“Try to go within living within easy walking distance from each other. Nothing makes more difference to keeping arrangements for th children relatively easy than geography."

Follow Afternoons on Facebook