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Does overnight separation negatively affect children?

This month has led to a furore amongst experts after Penelope Leach, a leading psychologist and author, claimed that overnight separation from a mother can lead to a variety of damaging psychological issues for the child.

This, she claims, is because women are usually the primary care giver and nothing should interrupt this, particularly for children under the age of five. The evidence supporting this is qualitative at best, and has been argued against by many.

Professor Charles Lewis of Lancaster University said to The Guardian: “Metanalyses [reviews combining the results of large numbers of studies] that look at whether or not it is better for the non-resident parent to have contact with the child show that the more contact there is with the non-resident parent, the better the outcome for the child.”

According to the Office of National Statistics, 42% of marriages now end in divorce, and in the East Midlands over 300,000 couples are living separately following some sort of separation.

No one can pretend that children with two parental homes are a small minority. So how does this affect the children in question? Most experts agree that maintaining a strong bond with both parents is the best way to ensure a happy, healthy childhood which should lead to a stable adulthood.

However, it seems hard to deny that separation will rarely be a positive experience for any child, unless of course there are extenuating circumstances such as domestic violence or abuse. Perhaps the answer lies with the parents maintaining a hospitable relationship, at least where offspring are concerned, to avoid the pillar to post situation many find themselves in.

Sheila Kitzinger speaks out in The Telegraph, “I believe we need to be more analytical and also more understanding of situations where a child may have more than one home at an early age. Obviously that includes asking the children what they feel – even three-year-olds are quite capable of expressing a sensible opinion. And remember, children are not our property to be passed between a warring couple un-consulted.”

Leach has said her worry is for children who are used as weaponry by parents in messy custody battles and divorces. Whilst no one will disagree that using a child as ammunition can never bode well, the idea that the mother even having a single night’s break could cause permanent damage to a child seems narrow sighted. Parents need a break, this is common sense. Does Leach believe that likewise grandparents should be banned from having sleepovers? What about staying with a friend from school?

When you become a parent for the first time, your world is blown asunder. For the first time, your happiness takes a back seat, much more than the sacrifices made in a relationship. Further down the line you realise that said happiness hasn’t really diminished, it is found in things that feed the soul.

After the hardest of days, seeing a child give you a goofy smile or a kiss on the cheek before they run off to dump an entire loo roll down the toilet — it makes it all worth while. Does this mean that as a mother we should forgo all of the liberties and freedoms that come with adulthood? And what of a loving father? Should he stand back and watch his children grow from a distance, longing to be more involved to create a bond formed in the earliest days that will last a life time?

These questions are probably best answered by the experts: parents and their children.