Athens Shared Parenting conference

The 2023 International Council on Shared Parenting conference in Athens brought together delegates from 34 countries to hear from over 100 speakers, including the following presentations:

Judge Pedro Raposa de Figueiredo from the Centre for Judicial Studies in Portugal described how Portuguese family judges generally consider shared parenting to be in the best interests of children and that sole residency should be only be ordered in exceptional cases. The judge has to stay neutral, listen actively, encourage communication between parents, focus on the children and set boundaries. If shared parenting is imposed, parents usually end up accepting it – and if the court order is broken then penalties are imposed for non-compliance. Early intervention is crucial and judges should be looking for clear and detailed parenting plans.

Reeta Tolvonen and Hanna Ristimaiki from the Finnish Association for Child and Family Guidance (KASPER) described the Children’s Divorce Groups that they run for groups of 5-9 children aged 7-12. Children from divorced families attend these sessions to talk about how the divorce has affected them. The sessions cover: what brings us together; what do your remember about divorce; the children’s emotions and coping skills; hopes, wishes and advice to parents: and personal resources. The whole group writes a letter from all the children to all the parents saying what they feel and what could change, presented to the parents at the final meeting of the group. By supporting the children through this group work KASPER helps the parents to co-operate. When questioned, 96% of participating parents said that this group work had a positive effect on their relationship with their child. 56% said that it had also helped their co-parenting, Comments included “It was a joy to hear good feedback about our child and felt good to be proud of him together” and “My own burden was relieved when the child got help and that gave me more resources”.

Neuropsychological effects of parental conflict in child development were described by Maria Filomena Ribeiro de Fonseca Gaspar from Coimbra University, Portugal. Excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain in the first eight years of life. Children respond impulsively or feel threatened when there is no real threat and remain anxious afterwards. Providing online co-parenting education on this topic can help parents, and in Portugal this training is also provided to teachers to help them understand and cope with the behaviour of children who have been affected by conflict. If children have a safe and dependable relationship with an adult such as a relative or a teacher this can provide a protective factor. In dealing with this issue, the aim is not to take away parents because of high-conflict but to help these parents to understand how they are affecting their children. 8 weekly 2-hour group sessions (Crianças no Meio do Conflito) help parents to develop communication and emotional regulation skills so that they can co-parent and shield their children from the conflict.

Jesper Lohse of the World Parents Organisation from Denmark described how they are taking out a human rights discrimination case against the Danish Government relating to discrimination on a range of issues including parental leave, sharing of information, welfare benefits and unequal support for fathers suffering from domestic violence.

Emma Johnson the founder of and Moms for Shared Parenting drew on her marketing experience to suggest better ways of promoting shared parenting, although she suggested that equal parenting was a better and clearer cause than shared parenting. Her idea for an effective slogan: “Scores of studies find that when parents live separately, equal schedules are best for kids”.

Don Hubin from the National Parents Organization in the USA and George Piskor and Brian Ludmer from the Equal Shared Parenting Group in Canada showed that on average 75% of the public in North American and European polls support shared parenting, and this support is consistent across gender, age groups and political affiliation in the USA.

In a fascinating session on the neuroscience of parenting, Susana Carmona from the CIBERSAM Mental Health Institute in Madrid described how mothers show significant changes in brain structure during pregnancy and for the following three years. Fathers show smaller changes during this period. Jodi Pawluski from Rennes University in France talked further about links between father’s caregiving beliefs, brain structure and father-child brain-to-brain synchrony.

The range of subjects covered showed that now there is international recognition of the benefits of shared parenting, the focus shifts onto how research and practice can best contribute to achieving this aim.