One of the most devastating events in a child’s life is the demise of his or her parent’s relationship. No matter how horrific the arguments were during the stressful days or months of splitting up, children want their parents to be in the same place. At home. For children, parents comprise their whole world.
Destructive divorces are even harder on children. Parents intent on hurting each other for real or imagined slights, oversights or infidelities, appear determined to find ways to get even with each other. “You hurt me, now I’m going to hurt you.”
Somewhere in the shuffle these parents forget, or do not care, about how their conflict is affecting the short and long term adjustment of their children. Parental aggression makes it more difficult for children to adjust to the realities of a shattered world. Children are far more likely to successfully adjust to their parent’s divorce in an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation.
Continuing research by Robert Bauserman, Ph.D., with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore, affirms that children do better in joint custody arrangements. His studies compared child adjustment in joint physical or joint legal custody, with sole-custody settings, with the adjustment characteristics of intact families.
Joint custody is defined as either physical custody, where a child spends equal or substantial amounts of time with either parents or shared legal custody, where a child lives with primarily one parent but both parents are involved in all aspects of the child’s life.
Bauserman concludes that living situations are not as influential as the time children are able to spend with each parent. Children from divorced families, who either live with both parents at different times, or spend certain amounts of time with each parent, are better adjusted than children who live and interact with just one parent.
Joint custody children had less behavior and emotional problems, had higher self-esteem, better family relations and school performance than children in sole custody arrangements. “And,” said Bauserman, “these children were as well-adjusted as intact family children. This is probably because joint custody provides the child with an opportunity to have ongoing contact with both parents.”
Joint custody is also better for parents. Couples reported less conflict, possibly because both parents could participate in their children’s lives equally, and not spend their time arguing over childcare decisions. It also gives each parent a break from continuous childcare responsibilities. Unfortunately, a perception exists that joint custody is more harmful because it exposes children to ongoing parental conflict. In fact, the studies in Bauserman’s review found that sole-custody parents reported higher levels of conflict.
Of course, joint custody is not always the best alternative. “When one parent is abusive or neglectful, or has a serious mental or physical health problem, sole-custody with the other parent would clearly be preferable,” cautions Bauserman. Judges, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and other professionals involved in divorce counseling and litigation should be aware of these findings to make informed decisions of what environment is best for a child in individual custody situations. They should also consider each parent’s hidden agendas.
Parents should come to terms with the fact that they could not get along on a great many topics. That was why they divorced. This fact will probably not change simply because they are separated. They should stop fighting the same old losing battles and focus on their children’s mental health and happiness. Let them love both parents, and both sets of grandparents.
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Jaine Carter, Ph.D., is the author of the book “He Works She Works” and wrote a national weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Dr. Carter is a relationship coach working with people to help break down barriers and build bridges toward win/win solutions.