There has been enormous outcry in recent weeks as a result of the media reporting that some child psychologists and parenting experts are of the view that some young children risk “brain damage” by sleeping over at Dad’s place. The media’s summation is both flippant and dangerous, but importantly it highlights a body of research which should be given some consideration by separated parents (and in some respects every parent).

The views arise from research undertaken around “attachment theory”, the idea that the optimal physical and emotional development of a young child relies upon a solid and reliable attachment to a primary caregiver.

The complexity of the theory is beyond this forum, but in very general terms the theorists maintain that if an attachment figure (and there can be more than one) is not readily available to a child, the child lacks security and can form internal coping mechanisms which can detract from their ordinary, and optimal emotional and physical development. Anxiety and insecurity in this regard is not always reflected in overt distress, but can also be reflected in certain behaviours including emotional withdrawal and regression.

So what relevance does the research and very existence of the theory have to a family law lawyer? The Court is increasingly, and properly in my view, influenced by psychological opinion relevant to what would be a optimal care arrangement for a particular child involved in a dispute, and that opinion, in turn, is heavily influenced by psychological and developmental research.

Like most research, there is enormous danger in the misapplication of the theory. That said, the research around attachment theory will, in many instances, facilitate insight and understanding into why young children react in the way that they do to the absence of a parent. This is not to say that a child is damaged every time they exhibit anxiety and distress around transitioning between separated parents, but care does need to be taken to avoid a child developing serious insecurity, anxiety, and/or behavioural regression.

Without doubt, the best course is for separated parents to work collaboratively with a psychologist who is experienced in this area and seek specific advice in relation to a child’s unique needs. Whilst there will be some infant children who are attached securely to multiple adults and able to move safely and securely between them, there will be children who cannot do so, and should not be endangered.