CHILDREN of divorced parents do not feel secure in shared care unless there is a high level of parental co-operation, according to new research, which finds that equal time and a lack of conflict between parents is not enough to foster contentment.

Researcher Christina Sadowski did a qualitative study through the University of Ballarat, interviewing 16 Australian children aged eight to 12 in depth on their experiences of security and contentment — or lack thereof — in shared-time living arrangements.

Ms Sadowski said her study challenged existing assumptions about shared care, suggesting that while children in shared care are often keenly aware of the ethos of equality and parental rights, equal periods of time do not determine a child’s capacity to feel secure and content in a post-separation living arrangement.

She will present her findings to a conference of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

In the Child Support Scheme, introduced in 2008, shared care is defined as the child spending 35 to 65 per cent of nights with each parent.

The law was designed to encourage co-operation between parents after divorce, but has been criticised for leaving children vulnerable to violence.

It has since been pared back, with key changes to the Family Law Act (1975) passing through the Senate late last year. But critics say it still puts too much emphasis on shared time, when this may not be in the best interests of the child. “Parental attunement, responsiveness and co-operation underpinned the child’s experience of security,” Ms Sadowski writes, rather than an equal time with each parent.

Children felt most secure when parents, both individually and together, created a “sense of living in one integrated world” and when “both parents shared moments of pride and delight in their child, in each other’s presence”.

Children also said they were most secure when they could freely access their “absent” parent without any sense of guilt or concern about disrupting the balance of equality.

“Parental focus on rigidly maintaining equal time arrangements at the expense of the child’s needs can severely compromise a child’s capacity to feel secure and content in shared care,” Ms Sadowski says.

“Parents and children interpret the living situation differently. Parental reports on their own should not be viewed as true indicators of the child’s experience, or of ‘outcomes’ in general.

“The threshold of parental co-operation required by children to evoke security and contentment . . . appears to be much higher than borne out in previous research. In this light, conflictual parenting relationships after separation, and even disengaged forms of co-parenting, are unlikely to provide the degree of co-operation a child requires to feel securely shared.

“Whilst shared care presents an opportunity for positive relationships with both parents, children do not experience their parents as interchangeable just because they spend equal amounts of time with them.”

Elspeth McInnes, University of South Australia researcher and policy adviser to the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, said: “We need to be much more connected to child development, and that points to children needing a secure base as the first priority. That will be different for every child, rather than putting a template of shared care on every child.”