The term psychological parenthood was first introduced in 1973 through an influential book entitled Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. A psychological parent refers to a person who has a parental relationship with a child, whether or not the two are biologically related. The term is used mainly in legal discourse, in the context of custody disputes. A prime example of the concept would be a dispute between an adoptive parent who has raised a child since infancy and biological parent who later claims the child, although this is not the most common kind of situation in which claims of psychological parenthood might be made. Such claims might also be made in the following circumstances: divorce, disputes between a stepparent and a biological parent, between two biological parents not married to one another, or between same-sex partners who have raised a child together. At the start of the twenty-first century an increasing number of custody disputes have involved foster parents who want to adopt a child they have been raising and state agencies who want to shift the child to a biological parent or to relatives of the biological parent.
Traditionally, the law has had a presumption in favor of biological parents in disputes with other people. In many states today, unless a parent has abandoned a child or been declared to be "unfit" to raise the child, the rights of biological parents are all but inviolate.
In 1973 Beyond the Best Interests of the Child challenged this biological emphasis. The first volume of a trilogy, the book was a collaboration among a law professor (Joseph Goldstein), a child analyst (ANNA FREUD), and a child psychiatrist (Albert Solnit). Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit argued that whether or not the psychological parent was biologically related to the child or not, courts should preserve this bond because normal development depends on its continuity. They also stressed that for a child, being caught up in a custody battle is a psychological emergency. Since harm has already been done and the child is still at risk, the best the courts can do is resolve matters quickly. Above all, judges and lawyers should base their decisions on the child's immature sense of time and steady need for a continuing relationship with the person who has provided ongoing, loving care.
Psychological parenting is a legal term, not a psychological one. Although psychoanalytic theory has traditionally stressed the importance of early parent-child relationships, the ideas put forth in Beyond the Best Interests of the Child differ from later research and theory in developmental psychology. Attachment theory, based on the work of JOHN BOWLBY, has become the major conceptual framework in the early twenty-first century for understanding parent-child relationships. The most controversial aspect of Goldstein, Freud, and Solnit's book was the recommendation that in a typical divorce, the court should determine whether the mother or the father is the psychological parent and give that person sole custody of the child. In addition, they recommended that the chosen parent should be able to regulate or even put an end to visits between the child and the other parent.
More recent research has shown, by contrast, that a young child is capable of becoming emotionally attached to more than one person. Although one parent may be the primary attachment figure, children typically become emotionally attached to both, as well as to others who provide loving, attentive care. Despite these and other criticisms, the concept of psychological parenthood has been influential in drawing attention to the child's needs and perspectives in determining custody.
Goldstein, Joseph, Anna Freud, and Albert Solnit. 1973. Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. New York: Free Press.