Joint Custody Better for Kids

Children from divorced families who spend time with each parent after the divorce are better adjusted, in most cases, than children who live and interact with just one parent, a new study reports.

The study, published in the “Journal of Family Psychology,” found that children in joint-custody arrangements had fewer behavior and emotional problems, better family relations and better school performance than children in sole-custody arrangements.  In fact, these children were as well-adjusted as those living with married parents, says psychologist Robert Bauserman, Ph.D., the study’s administrator.

“[This is] probably because joint-custody provides the child with an opportunity to have ongoing contact with both parents.”  Also, according to Bauserman, joint-custody couples reported less conflict, possibly because both parents participated equally in their children’s lives.

Making Joint-Custody Work
Contrary to popular belief, the divorce rate in the
United States is not skyrocketing upward.  In fact, the number of divorces in this country actually declined over the last decade, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  With that said, however, there are still nearly 20 million American divorcees, many of whom have children.

For these kids, understanding and coping with divorce is often confusing and emotionally draining.  “I had no idea what divorce meant, let alone how it would affect my living situation,” recalls Katy McKeon, 15, whose parents divorced when she was 7. “My parents were very upfront and honest with me. They told me that they loved me very much and would make sure that I spent plenty of time with both of them, which I did.  It isn’t easy, but we make it work as best we can.”

The art of compromise, says Bauserman, is essential when discussing a joint-custody arrangement.  Here are some guidelines to help make a messy situation manageable.

  • Remain Positive. Do not badmouth the other parent, especially in front of your child. For starters, your child may internalize that as a reflection on them. Secondly, ill feelings toward your former spouse may hamper communication and teamwork, elements essential to making joint custody work.

  • Know Your Geography. Studies have found that joint custody is most successful when both parents live near each other. The fewer trips between the two homes the better.  You might ask yourself, “Can I dash over to my former husband’s house with the homework or jacket that my daughter forgot to pack?”

  • Always Drop Off; Never Pick Up. On “switch day,” have your former spouse drop off your child. That way, they can have a proper good-bye without feeling rushed. Also, picking up your child may imply that you’re taking her away from her other parent and interrupting their fun.

  • Avoid the Gift Wars. Gift giving should be a loving, tender exchange between you and your child. Unfortunately, the holidays and birthdays can quickly dissolve into duels for affection, as parents try to trump one another with lavish, expensive presents.  Resist this temptation, and try not to become agitated or disgruntled if your child boasts about a gift he received from your former spouse.  Also, take your child shopping so he can buy gifts for his other parent.  If you don’t, probably no one else will, and your child will feel bad about not having a gift to give. Better yet, encourage your child to make gifts for friends and family.

  • Keep Discipline Consistent. While every parent has differing views on discipline, for your child’s sake, sit down with your former spouse and set clear expectations for your child at each home.  For instance, enforce the same bedtime, and if you plan on limiting television viewing or computer use, ask your former spouse to do the same.

Further Reading
For more on helping children cope with divorce, check out these features:

Additional reporting by Jonathan Whitbourne