Parental separation can be traumatic for a child, with lasting effects. Longtime British parenting expert and psychologist Penelope Leach has a new book on the subject called "Family Breakdown," and it's causing a stir. Leach's advice has generated controversy in the past, but she's now facing the outrage of fathers for her unconventional opinion that children can be "damaged" by splitting their time between separated parents. In particular, she says that children younger than 4 years old should not spend the night with their father if their primary caregiver has been their mother.
"Leach's advice sounds like absolute poison and potentially terribly damaging to children's development," says a spokesman for the group New Fathers4Justice. "Overnight stays with fathers from as early an age as possible is crucial if children are to form strong attachments with both of their parents."
That view is backed by more than 100 psychologists, mostly American, who reject the validity of the study Leach cites as evidence supporting her theory.
"Policymakers and decision makers should recognize that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers could compromise the quality of developing father-child relationships," those psychologists wrote.
Leach says she's being unfairly maligned. She stresses that the best thing for a child is the parents staying together. In 2012, only 64 percent of children in the United States lived with both parents. She says she's hurt by the reaction of fathers: "In the vast majority of cases, it's the mother who is the primary attachment figure. Young babies need a primary caregiver, and being separated from that figure can cause them problems. If a father was the primary caregiver, I'd say the baby shouldn't be staying overnight with the mother."
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children function better through separation and divorce when parents minimize conflict between themselves and cooperate on behalf of the child. More parenting experts are suggesting children spend as much happy time as possible with each parent. One bit of Leach's advice most can agree on: "We can argue about all sorts of things around the edges, but we can't argue about the damage [using children as weapons of marital war] does."