Current research on the effects of divorce on children
American Psychological Association (APA) article: Summary by USA Today
Children in divorced families tend to do better in joint custody either physical or legal than those who live and interact with just one parent, says a major new study.
Children in joint-custody settings have fewer behavioral and emotional problems, have higher self-esteem, better family relations and better school performance than children in sole custody, usually with the mother, says the report in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.
That does not mean that those in sole custody are "clinically maladjusted or need some kind of therapy," says researcher and psychologist Robert Bauserman of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "It just means they don't do as well on average."
The newest findings are the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute over what is the best arrangement for the children of divorce. This meta-analysis, or scientific study of studies, comes down solidly in favor of both parents sharing all aspects of a child's life, as long as both are capable parents.
The study defines joint custody as either physical custody, in which the youngster spends time with each parent, or shared legal custody, in which the child lives with one parent but both share decision-making and stay involved. This keeps the father in the loop, which helps a child adjust to parental divorce, experts say.
Bauserman examined 33 studies that looked at 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children, as well as kids in 251 intact families.
He found that the bulk of the studies show that children in joint-custody arrangements are virtually as well adjusted as those in the intact families, "probably because joint custody provides the child with an opportunity to have ongoing contact with both parents."
These findings contradict experts who believe that joint custody disrupts the stability of a child's life, shifting back and forth between parents, or that it exposes the child to two parents who endlessly bicker.
To the contrary, Bauserman speculates that parents who contain their anger at the time of the divorce may self-select into joint custody.
They are quite capable of continuing to parent together without a lot of rancor, Bauserman says. It is the sole-custody parents who report continued high levels of conflict over parenting decisions with ex-partners.
Almost all states offer a joint-custody option, Bauserman says, although many judges still favor maternal custody and oppose joint physical custody.
Alan Booth, a sociologist and researcher at Pennsylvania State University, says Bauserman's research is solid. "This is very consistent with the things we find. If couples are able to cooperate in joint custody, we would expect the children to do better," Booth says.
Although joint custody may sound good, it does not automatically mean parents won't be in continued conflict, warns Lynne Gold-Bikin, past chairman of the American Bar Association Family Law section. "It is a no-brainer" that children will do well if their parents both continue to parent well after divorce, she says. But we are talking about parents who, when married, "couldn't decide on the toothpaste. Why will they get along now?"