March 24, 2002

Children Likely to Be Better Adjusted in Joint Vs Sole Custody Arrangements in Most Cases, According to Review of Research

Living situation not as influential as time spent with parent

WASHINGTON — 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 in most cases than children who live and interact with just one parent, according to new research on custody arrangements and children's adjustment.

Psychologist Robert Bauserman, PhD, of AIDS Administration/Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore, Maryland conducted a meta-analysis of 33 studies between 1982 to 1999 that examined 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children. The studies compared child adjustment in joint physical or joint legal custody with sole-custody settings and 251 intact families. Joint custody was defined as either physical custody — where a child spends equal or substantial amounts of time with both 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. This article will appear in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Children in joint custody arrangements had less behavior and emotional problems, had higher self-esteem, better family relations and school performance than children in sole custody arrangements. And these children were as well-adjusted as intact family children on the same measures, said Bauserman, "probably because joint custody provides the child with an opportunity to have ongoing contact with both parents."

These findings indicate that children do not actually need to be in a joint physical custody to show better adjustment but just need to spend substantial time with both parents, especially with their fathers, said Bauserman. Also, joint custody couples reported less conflict, possibly because both parents could participate in their children's lives equally and not spend the time arguing over childcare decisions. Unfortunately a perception exists that joint custody is more harmful because it exposes children to ongoing parental conflict. In fact, the studies in this review found that sole-custody parents reported higher levels of conflict.

It is important to recognize that the results do not support joint custody in all situations. 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, said Bauserman. The 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 a custody situation.

Furthermore, to address the question of how much the parents' emotional health compared with the custody arrangement influenced the children's adjustment, Bauserman explained that custody arrangement seemed to have more influence. By statistically controlling for past parental conflict (which indicates parental maladjustment), the joint custody children still were significantly better adjusted. This result was also found in other studies cited in Bauserman's review. More primary research is needed, said Bauserman, "on the past and current adjustment of joint custody and sole custody parents before this question can be completely answered."

Article: "Child Adjustment in Joint-Custody Versus Sole-Custody Arrangements: A Meta-Analytic Review," Robert Bauserman, Ph.D., AIDS Administration/Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 16, No. 1.

Robert Bauserman, PhD can be reached by telephone at 410-767-4322

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.