Trekking from Mom's home during the week to Dad's on the weekend may seem like a hassle for some children of divorced parents, but it just might be best for them in the long run, concludes a meta-analysis, published in the March Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 16, No. 1).
The study finds that children from divorced families are better adjusted when they live with both parents at different homes or spend significant time with both parents compared with children who interact with only one parent.
Robert Bauserman, PhD, of the Baltimore Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, reviewed 33 studies that examined 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children. Both groups of children were compared with a sample of 251 kids in intact families. Bauserman found that children in joint-custody arrangements had fewer behavioral and emotional problems, higher self-esteem and better family relationships and school performance compared with those in sole-custody situations. And he found no significant difference in adjustment among children in shared custody and those living in intact family situations. Joint-custody children probably fare better, according to Bauserman, because they have ongoing contact with both parents.
The contact with both parents, he argues, is the key ingredient in kids' adjustment, he said. The findings indicate that children don't necessarily need to be in joint physical custody to show better adjustment, they just need to spend substantial time with both parents.
Also, according to the research, couples with joint-custody agreements tend to experience less conflict--which speaks to the concern that joint custody is harmful to kids because it exposes them to ongoing parental strife. In fact, Bauserman notes, "it was the sole-custody parents who reported higher levels of current conflict." He found that some research shows that joint custody may actually reduce parental conflict over time.
Obviously, joint custody isn't always preferable to sole custody. When one parent is abusive, neglectful or has serious mental health problems or trouble adjusting after divorce, sole custody could be the best option for the children, Bauserman says.