Study: 50-50 custody far less stressful for kids than sole custody. Here's why, and how to make it work.
"This Divorce Arrangement Stresses Kids Out Most", by Mandy Oaklander in TIME Magazine, summarizes a new study: Based on national data on almost 150,000 12- and 15-year-olds' psychosomatic health problems, including sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches and feeling tense, sad or dizzy; "Kids in nuclear families reported the fewest psychosomatic problems, but the more interesting finding was that students who lived with both of their separated parents reported significantly fewer problems than kids who lived with only one parent."
Study author Malin Bergström, PhD, said: “We think that having everyday contact with both parents seems to be more important, in terms of stress, than living in two different homes.” “It may be difficult to keep up on engaged parenting if you only see your child every second weekend.” Having two parents also tends to double the number of resources a kid is exposed to, including social circles, family and material goods like money. “Only having access to half of that may make children more vulnerable or stressed than having it from both parents, even though they don’t live together.”
Based on my 20 years of work in divorce and child custody, another major reason also seems obvious to me. All the inconveniences of "shuttling" between two homes, as real and bothersome as they are for many kids, are trivial compared to the disadvantages, pain and insecurity that comes from losing one parent from a fully parental role in the child's life. And when one parent take a lesser role, "he that hath little shall lose what little he hath," as the separated parents' competing employment needs, relocations and new relationships increasingly conflict with, and take priority over, co-parenting.
That is why I support 50-50 joint custody when it's possible. I don't think it's necessarily the best, most enjoyable, day-to-day arrangement for most children: in our current social arrangements, in the U.S., most mothers "naturally" do more of the parenting and are more attuned to the children's needs. But in my own experience and in the statistics, so many divorces lead to a parent completely disappearing from the child's life, and many more see one parent marginalized, vilified, infantilized, and/or disempowered. And children perceive that loss of a parent who can actually act as a parent, and of course it causes major stress for them. I think the 50-50 form is probably the most stable because, in it, neither parent assumes they have the unilateral power to make the changes which in turn make it practically necessary to reduce the other parent's role -- such as moving to a different school district or a faraway state.
But I am repelled by anyone who gushes that 50-50 joint custody, or any other custody arrangement, is just wonderful for kids. Any custody arrangement is a poor substitute for an intact family.
The study is Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children? (28 Apr 2015) by Malin Bergström, Emma Fransson, Bitte Modin, Marie Berlin, Per A Gustafsson, and Anders Hjern. J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205058
But it still takes work. "9 Rules to Make Joint Child Custody Work" by Kate Bayless on parents.com gives really good, tough-minded advice that would have prevented a lot of my clients' problems. Most of it is about how to act when working out a custody agreement, not how to implement it. Excerpts of each of the 9 Rules:
- "Badmouthing the ex will be internalized by the child because they are made up of both you and your ex."
- The divorce was about you, but custody is about the kids ... not about getting exactly what you want, or even demanding equity at any cost. ... "what is best for the child is not always what feels good for you as a parent."
- Be realistic about your own schedule and commitments.
- Choose a custody arrangement that accommodates your children's ages, activities, and needs.
- A bad spouse doesn't equal a bad parent. Almost always, "it is unquestionably best for children to have frequent and continuous contact with both parents."
- Find a method of communication that works for you and your ex.
- Pick your battles. "School choices, vacations, and parenting time are worth the fight. Things like food choices ... are not worth the fight." Save your energy and good will with your ex and the courts for those things that do matter.
- Let your children feel heard. But also make the best decision for their well being.
- From time to time, review the arrangement and adjust as needed.