Like so many areas pertaining to the psychology of family law, our clinical wisdom far outstrips empirical knowledge based on research. Despite this limitation, we have some ideas about ways in which shared parenting benefits children and families.
Parents and children living in shared parenting arrangements, in which children spend significant amounts of time with both parents, report greater satisfaction with the arrangements than do their sole custody counterparts. The children see both parents more often than do children in sole custody arrangements, and the children like staying close to both parents. Children in families with joint legal custody, as well as those with joint physical custody, report greater father involvement than do children in sole custody families. The parents, both mothers and fathers, are happier with the arrangements, even when they were not initially in favor of them. Click here for a website of shared parenting resources.
It is important to note, however, that these families may be self-selected, meaning that they were able to work out these arrangements between themselves as part of their divorce. Most of these families were not involved in bitter custody disputes. Parents in shared parenting families generally have lower conflict from the beginning and describe their ex-spouse as an involved parent. Thus, in most studies people chose shared parenting voluntarily because of the values they share about mutual parenting.
Although studies are sparse enough to be suggestive only rather than conclusive, there is some evidence that shared parenting arrangements benefit children in several ways. The children have fewer behavioral and emotional problems and report fewer negative experiences with the divorce. Boys derive special benefits from shared parenting, and the contact it affords them with their fathers. Adolescent boys, in particular, choose shared custody arrangements over more traditional ones. In addition, dual residence teens of both genders report less depression and better grades than their sole custody counterparts. However, the research on this group also shows that children can do well in various types of arrangements as long as the parents provide support and firm guidance, combining closeness with parental control. This parenting style may be facilitated by shared parenting arrangements.
Mental health researchers have been especially interested in the effects on very young children, as this is the fastest growing segment of the divorcing population today. For young children, frequent father-child contact and the fathers’ sustained involvement before and after divorce were associated with a positive father-child relationship. Interestingly, fathers losing contact with children was less frequent among infants and toddlers who stayed overnights with their fathers. This would seem to recommend overnights as a vehicle for fostering paternal responsibility and closeness to their infants; yet many experts recommend forestalling overnights until children are older. This paradox requires that parents take into careful consideration how well their children are able to tolerate separations from their mother, the child’s temperament, and the strength of the father-child bond prior to divorce, and weigh all this against the likelihood of the father staying in the child’s life over time if the paternal role is established as central early on. Children can bond with more than one person, but creating a secure environment with both parents necessitates that parents organize childcare roles as soon as possible after separation, so that fathers establish themselves as another primary figure in the child’s life. Click here for more on shared parenting.
Excerpted from Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001). For more information: http://www.yourdivorceadvisor.com/.
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- Shared Parenting (Co-parenting) versus Custody
- What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Shared Parenting?
- Physical Custody
- Other Considerations Regarding Children
- Finding a Schedule that Fits Your Family