More than two decades after the movie "Kramer vs Kramer" dramatised the traumas of a hostile divorce, a Maryland researcher has found that children raised in joint-custody settings do better than those in sole custody and almost as well as those from two-parent homes.
Overall, children in joint arrangements tended to be better adjusted than those in sole-custody situations, with less anxiety and depression, fewer behavioural problems, and they fared better in school, the new study found.
Joint-custody children better adjusted
"It's very clear that the joint-custody children show somewhat better adjustment than the sole-custody children," says Robert Bauserman, a behavioural scientist at the Maryland Department of Health in Baltimore who conducted the study.
"That doesn't mean that sole-custody children are maladjusted. But if you look at the overall pattern of results, kids [in joint-custody situations] seem to be doing better in a large variety of areas," from self-esteem to school performance, he adds.
Situation also determines what is best
Joint custody isn't a good option for every splintering family, especially those in which a spouse is abusive, mentally ill or otherwise unstable, according to experts.
Parents need to behave like adults
Joint custody "is an idea whose time has come," adds Richard Warshak, a well-known divorce expert in Dallas and author of Divorce Poison.
"The more we learn about how children experience their parents' divorce, the more we find they can be shielded" from harm, as long as "the parents behave like adults, and they don't expose their kids to all the conflict," he says.
Not only do children in joint custody report more satisfaction with the set-up than those in sole custody, Warshak says, but they stick to that assessment as adults.
Not much previous research
In his day job, Bauserman studies the social impact of AIDS. However, as a child of divorced parents, he has long been interested in the impact of a torn marriage on the children.
A review of the scientific literature told him that much of what happens in divorce court has little, if any, basis in research.
"It's really surprising to me that there hasn't been more research done on what's really beneficial for those kids, and what should be encouraged legally and socially," says Bauserman, whose study appears in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Bauserman analysed 33 previous studies, of which 11 were published and 22 were unpublished (almost all doctoral dissertations), comparing outcomes of children living in either joint- or sole-custody arrangements.
Joint custody can refer to physical timesharing, in which children split residence between parents. It can also describe children who use one parent's home as a base, but spend at least 25 percent of their time with the other parent. Joint physical custody is less common than joint legal custody, although both have become increasingly popular in recent years, Bauserman says.
One of the factors at play here could be that joint-custody parents may have better pre- and post-divorce relationships than those who opt for sole custody. But Bauserman says that even after accounting for reported levels of strife, joint custody still seemed easier for children to handle.
"You still find an advantage in the joint-custody children. When you have ongoing positive contact with both parents, that's going to be beneficial to the children," he says.
Children thrive when parents co-operate
David Royko, director of marriage and family counselling for Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, agrees.
"I think a joint legal custody situation encourages and assumes cooperation and communication between parents, which is critical to parenting, whether you're married or divorced or separated," Royko says.
Children thrive when their parents communicate well. Yet, in divorces with less-cordial splits, they often manipulate their parents to stimulate any interaction at all - even if that means acting out to keep some ember of a relationship glowing, he adds.
"They use conflicts just to keep [parents] communicating," Royko says.
Opinions differ on benefits however
Not all divorce experts agree that joint physical custody is a good alternative.
"I think it's inappropriate to split a child down the middle like a piece of property," says Alton Abramowitz, a Manhattan divorce lawyer and former president of the New York State chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "Children need a home base. Children tend to thrive better in a situation where they're not moving back and forth every week or every month."