Joint-custody arrangements good for children of divorce -- but only if there is no parental conflict

November 21, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study suggests children of divorced parents can benefit when they split time between their parents' homes -- but the positive impact can be offset by ongoing conflict between the parents.

The results showed that without parental conflict, children in physical joint-custody arrangements showed fewer behavioral problems than children under the custody of a single parent.

But when the former spouses had frequent disagreements, the children were likely to feel sad, actively intervene into the parental conflict, and behave less cooperatively, said Mo-Yee Lee, author of the study and associate professor of social work at Ohio State University.

"A high-conflict environment, especially when it places children in the center of parental arguments, is detrimental for children. It completely nullifies the benefits that the dual-residence arrangement can provide," said Lee.

The results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Family Issues.

The study involved 59 children and their divorced mothers who were recruited from two social agencies and a children's drop-in center in a large city. The children were 6 to 12 years old.

The children's mothers were asked to report on the type of custody agreement their child was in, and the degree of conflict with their former spouse. To determine how well the children were coping with the divorce, the researcher had the mothers complete a checklist that assessed their children's behavioral adjustment.

Children were also interviewed to determine the range of emotions they felt and how they coped with negative emotions such as sadness or anger. Lee showed them cartoons of parents living in separate households and arguing with each other and asked them to describe their emotions and ways to make them feel better if similar situations occurred in real life.

Lee said one key reason she conducted the study was that she perceived children as active players in post-divorce situations, although many existing studies did not include children's perspective in understanding the phenomenon.

"I have been working with children for 8 years as a clinical social worker and I know that they are not passive. Children actively appraise the situation they are in and respond to it with different emotions and coping strategies," said Lee.

The results of this study showed that children who reported becoming actively involved in their parents' divorce-related issues were more likely to exhibit more behavior problems.

"Children's involvement may turn inter-parental problems into parent-child problems, so that the negative emotions of the parents may be directed at the children as well," she said.

The best thing divorced parents can do, Lee said, is set clear parent-child boundaries so that children are protected from disagreements and issues regarding the divorce. This allows children to have a better chance to establish appropriate distance for themselves regarding parental issues.

While the study did show some advantages to dual-residence arrangements, Lee said the results showed that it is not the type of custody arrangement that matters most for children's well-being but the degree of and the way parents address conflict between them.

"Both sole and joint custody can be good parenting arrangements and both can be bad. It all depends on what happens in the arrangement," said Lee.

She points out that children are likely to thrive in low-conflict environments, irrespective of the type of custody they are in. To ensure the well-being of children, the researcher advises divorced families to keep the number of disputes to the minimum and prevent children from witnessing them or getting involved in the conflict. Lee also hopes that her study shows the importance of taking into consideration the children's perspective in decisions on policies regarding postdivorce custody arrangements.

"The debate on custody arrangements is a complicated one, involving interests of many groups. It is therefore important to stay focused on the most important factor in all of this -- the welfare of a child", she said.
Written by Olesya Govorun, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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