Divorce is tough on everybody involved. But in most cases -- unless
there is intense parental conflict or an abusive or mentally ill parent
-- children fare better if there's a joint custody agreement. That's
the advice from one researcher, after analyzing numerous studies of
child adjustment after divorce.
In joint custody arrangements, children have less behavior and emotional
problems, higher self-esteem, and better family relations and school
performance than children in sole-custody settings, says Robert Bauserman,
PhD, a psychologist in Maryland's Department of Health and Mental
His report appears in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
The term "joint custody" can refer to shared physical custody
-- with children spending equal or substantial amounts of time with
both parents. It can also mean shared legal custody, with primary
residence remaining with one parent, usually the mother.
In any event, joint custody implies ongoing close contact with both
parents, says Bauserman.
"Typically this means that at least 25% of the child's or adolescent's
time was spent with each parent ... a substantial portion of time
actually spent living with each parent," he writes.
The 33 studies he analyzed -- all conducted between 1982 and 1999
-- involved a total of 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children.
His findings: "Children in joint-custody arrangements were as
well-adjusted as intact family children. ... Joint-custody children
showed better adjustment in parental relations and spent significant
amounts of time with the father, allowing more opportunity for authoritative
Important caveat: "Children do not actually need to be in joint
physical custody to show better adjustment," he writes. It's
the amount of time spent with both parents that is critical.
Another significant point: Many of the studies did not address parental
conflict as a factor in this scenario. In fact, couples choosing joint
custody may be experiencing little conflict in their divorce proceedings,
which is reflected in the children's adjustment, Bauserman says.
Exposing children to intense, ongoing parental conflict could be
detrimental, he says.
Also, joint custody is not always the best solution.
"It is important to recognize that the results clearly do not
support joint custody as preferable to, or even equal to, sole custody
in all situations," Bauserman writes. "For instance, when
one parent is clearly abusive or neglectful, a sole-custody arrangement
may be the best solution. Similarly, if one parents suffers from serious
mental health or adjustment difficulties, a child may be harmed by
continuous exposure to such an environment."
This is a reprint of an article by Jeanie Davis,
WebMD, March 25, 2002 --
By Charlotte Grayson, MD
© 2002 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
See also: USA Today article.
See also: Emotional divorce advice: How to handle the emotions of a difficult divorce with dignity & integrity