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I get many letters from parents who want to know whether joint custody makes divorce easier.
Divorce has a negative effect on children. There is not much evidence that custodial arrangements per se have an effect.
We used to think children belonged with the mother. Prior to the 1980s mothers were almost always awarded custody after a divorce. But the roles of men and women are changing. We have learned that the presence of a father is of paramount importance in a child’s life and many mothers work full time today.
Both legislation and the courts have moved in the direction of joint custody with the majority of states enacting laws to permit joint custody. But states and jurisdictions vary as to the arrangements.
Joint legal custody means both parents share responsibility for major decisions about the children (school, vacations, what doctor to go to, etc.) Joint physical custody means that the child spends time in each parent’s home although the time and the transitions vary widely. It also means the parents must live in the same town and either both live close to the child’s school or plan to do a lot of driving.
Judith Wallerstein, who has written widely on the effects of divorce in children, notes that parents have different reasons for opting for joint physical custody. Some are committed to the child’s ability to have a continuing and ongoing relationship with both parents. Some elect joint custody because of the demands of their jobs. Sometimes this option is selected because, sadly, neither parent wants responsibility for the child.
Is the type of custody important when it comes to the psychological well-being of the child? One study comparing sole and joint custody showed that neither the type of custody nor the frequency of visitation with the non-custodial parent had an effect on the child’s adjustment. What affected the children was how the parents functioned and dealt with each other prior to the divorce and the degree of post-divorce conflict.
In families with a high degree of conflict, court-mandated joint custody negatively affected children — obviously being forced to be with two parents locked in a pattern of fighting is not conducive to mental health. But in the case of voluntary joint custody when parents are committed to making it work, children seemed to benefit.
Joint custody works best when both parents give parenting high priority and make life decisions based on their commitment to this priority; are sensitive and respectful to their children’s wishes and needs; respect each other as parents and can communicate effectively about the child; can accept the fact that there will be household and parental differences and work together to minimize the child’s confusion over bedtime, TV, nutrition and other day-to-day issues; and are able to help the child make a smooth transition between households.
The children have a lot of adjusting to do. They must be able to go back and forth and fit into each household without disruption of educational and social activities. They must adjust emotionally to some pretty radical life changes. Elementary school children seem better able to adjust to joint physical custody than do preschoolers or adolescents.
I have found that children in joint custody adjust to living in two households better than I could. Much as I love to travel I also love coming home to my own nest and the thought of moving twice a week is unsettling. In my experience what kids complain about is the logistics of two sets of friends (“I can’t play with you on Wednesday because I will be at my father’s house”). Also some disorganized kids complain that what they need or want is always at their other house.
There is no question that divorce is really tough on children. They lose their intact family, the house which contained their intact family, their sense of security that their parents will always be there for them just like before. Their world turns upside down not because they wanted the divorce to happen but because someone else did so the kids feel extra helpless. They are often, somewhat surprisingly because divorce is so common, ashamed of their new status and have trouble telling their friends.
According to Dr. Wallerstein, the issues during and after a divorce that negatively affect children are: continued fighting, abandonment by one parent, continued litigation about custody and visitation, emotional disturbances or mental illness in parents, diminished parenting (fairly common as divorce uses up much of a parent’s energy), poor relationships with step-parents, little support from outside the nuclear family, and economic hardships.
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