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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Overnights, Divorce, and a New Article By Richard Warshak

I was not a little surprised and somewhat puzzled (yikes, does this mean people read this blog??) when I received in my inbox this morning a message from Dr. Richard Warshak, sending along a copy of his recent article about parenting plans and referring to my post from three years ago,

Dr. Warshak (whom some readers will recognize as the parental alienation man, and who has been working on issues strongly related to father custody since the beginning of his professional career) pointed out that the research I had cited was of questionable quality. His recent paper, “Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report” (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20, 46-67) makes well-deserved hay of a number of research reports on matters relevant to overnight visits of young children to parents who do not share the households where the children live most of the time. It is all too true  that the research in this field is exceedingly weak and does not provide a good foundation for practical decisions made in the best interests of children. This statement is not a condemnation of  the researchers concerned, but just a recognition of the extreme difficulty of doing high-quality research when it is impossible to use a randomized design (not the random sample characteristic of some studies Warshak cites), when access to families is limited by their interest in cooperating (thus omitting from the studies a most interesting group of people), when there are no universally accepted assessment methods  available, and when the existing assessment methods were developed to use for research with large groups rather than for prediction of an individual outcome. As a result of these problems, there is no high-quality research to support either the idea that overnight visits for young children are advisable, or the idea that they are inadvisable.

To make a decision about overnights based on the existing research, theory, and other relevant information is a judgment call, and Dr. Warshak, with the agreement of over a hundred well-known researchers and theorists, has judged that the information supporting the advantages of overnight visits for young children is more compelling than the information showing their disadvantages. In my own 2011 references to some existing research, I did not make such a general judgment, but used the evidence for distressing effects of overnights on some children as an introduction to some thoughts about individualizing plans, anticipating problems, and fine-tuning visits as child responses are observed.  

 I am concerned that general recommendations about overnights, if adopted as guidelines by courts, could make it more difficult for divorcing parents to work on individualizing their parenting plans with respect to children’s ages, developmental stages, temperaments, special needs, and situational variables. I anticipate difficulty in periods or relationships of high conflict when one parent says “this isn’t working well” and the other replies “the judge said we have to do it this way”. Just as there were problems created when the courts accepted the idea of monotropy in attachment (that is, that one parent is always much more important than the other), problems will be created either if courts assume that overnights are never indicated for young children or that they are always indicated, and it would be my prediction that some attorneys and some judges would take one of those simplistic views if encouraged.

One section of Dr. Warshak’s paper caught my particular interest, and I am delighted to see it stated in print. He says, “our recommendations apply to children who have relationships with both parents. If a child has a relationship with one parent and no prior relationship with the other parent, or a peripheral, at best, relationship, different plans will serve the goal of building the relationship versus strengthening and maintaining an existing relationship” (p.60). In other words, methods that facilitate maintenance of an established parent-child connection are different than those that help create a relationship between a child and a person who, though biologically related, is essentially a stranger.

This comment is in my opinion one of the most critical in a paper that is likely to be very influential, and I hope that those who take guidelines from Dr. Warshak’s article will read it through to the end. I am thinking of the mistaken application of good rules about ordinary parenting to situations where a parent has had little contact with a child, or perhaps not even known that there was a pregnancy or a child born. For example, in a case known to me recently, a woman who found she was pregnant by her employer, whom she had come to distrust and even fear, went away to her parents in another state. The employer sought her out, and learning that she was pregnant, denied paternity. A later test showed that he was the biological father. At that time, he petitioned for full custody of the child. Because of evidence of violent behavior in the past, he was given supervised monthly visitation during the first year, then unsupervised visitation during which he took the child back to his home state for weekends and had him cared for by a nanny during those visits. The child appears to have responded with distress to the visiting schedule and events---  a schedule and events that (except for the nanny and some experiences that may have occurred) might have been perfectly appropriate if there had been an existing relationship. (I say this with complete awareness of the fact that toddlers can be stressed by many ordinary changes; this child’s response went beyond the ordinary level even for an irritable or low-threshold child.) I hope that the statement about building relationships made by Dr. Warshak, and supported by a large group’s consensus, will be given full consideration by courts dealing with cases of this type.  


  1. Thank you for your comments about my paper. I agree about the critical importance of emphasizing that recommendations for children who have relationships with both parents cannot be automatically applied to situations where children have a relationship with one parent and no prior relationship with the other parent, or a peripheral, at best, relationship. For this reason I mentioned this very early in the article (at the end of the Introduction) and in recommendation #7 in the Conclusions section. Also, to underscore the importance of understanding the context in which the recommendations are applicable, the list of recommendations begins by referring the reader to the limitations spelled out in #7.

    The paper is clear that we cannot conclude that the current state of evidence supports a blanket policy or legal presumption regarding overnights. But the scholars who endorsed the recommendations agree that a policy of discouraging overnights, as some advocate, is not evidence-based and that the theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development.

    Recommendations such as those in my paper can serve as a context in which parents create individual plans that fit their circumstances. Anecdotes are helpful in fleshing out the way ideas are translated into practice, particularly when they are presented in the context of empirical data. But policy makers and decision makers must be careful not to rely on the emotional appeal of an anecdote as a substitute for rational and critical thinking. Among others, Kahneman has shown how arousing emotion can bypass appropriate interpretation of data. In her recent article, Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court, Linda Nielsen underscores how advocates rely on dramatic stories that convey an unbalanced and simplistic view of difficult issues. In so doing, the advocates misuse data to support their agenda and they mislead the public. Just as I have consulted on cases where courts have ordered placements and residential schedules that did not appear to meet young children’s needs, I have worked on many cases where children missed out on meaningful contact with a parent and grandparents because the other parent insisted on leaving children with a succession of babysitters and daycare attendants. The case you described is not at all typical of the average family. Such cases require sensitive judicial management. But they should not dictate policy for the majority of children being raised by parents who live apart from each other.

    Thanks, again, for reading the consensus report and calling your readers’ attention to it. I welcome dialogue about the paper.

  2. Dear Richard-- Thanks so much for these extensive comments. I want to write more about this in the next few days, so perhaps we can have some further dialogue.