Is Joint Custody the Best Solution for Children With Divorced Parents?

Joint custody has its advantages. According to many forensic psychology degree information sites and other authoritative research sources, children who grow up with equal involvement from both parents have better educational, physical and mental health outcomes. However, other experts argue shuffling children between parents is not in the child’s best interest. Ultimately, no matter the custody arrangement, parents can follow certain practices to make sure their children grow up healthy, happy and loved.

Arguments in Favor of Joint Custody

A 2003 study in the journal Family Relations found divorce had a strong negative effect on the father-child relationship. In fact, children of divorce had negative relationships with their fathers 35 percent more than children of an intact marriage. Fortunately, another study from the University of Arizona found the father-child relationship improved in a dose-response fashion. In other words, the more time the father and child spent together, the stronger the relationship tended to be.

Joint custody’s biggest benefit is it keeps children connected to their fathers. In cases where the mother had custody, a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 32 percent of non-custodial fathers hadn’t seen their children during the previous 12 months. In contrast, fathers who participated in their children’s lives were more likely to keep up to date with child support payments. These payments demonstrated a positive effect on their children’s educational outcomes. 

Arguments Against Joint Custody

On the other hand, some experts argue joint custody arrangements can be harmful. For instance, when infants or small children have overnight visits with the father away from the mother, they are likely to develop a disorganized attachment pattern when they are with their mothers. In other words, they have no uniform behavioral strategy for responding to stressors. Research demonstrates these children are at higher risk for a range of psychological disorders including psychopathologies.

According to a 1990 study reported in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, parents with joint custody arrangements were the most likely to be dissatisfied with their custody arrangements one year after the divorce. Other studies have found two years post-divorce, children in joint custody arrangements are no better off than children in sole custody households.

Parents Are Key

Despite some differences, researchers agree cooperation between parents is the primary factor in determining the success or failure of joint custody arrangements. Parents in these setups interact frequently; children can easily feel caught in the middle of conflicts between them. Certain key parental behaviors will produce the best outcomes:

  • Respecting one another. Parents should never put each other down in front of their children. Furthermore, they should never allow friends or family members to disparage the other parent in front of the kids.
  • Cooperating on discipline. If possible, parents should work together to set consistent guidelines across households. 
  • Participating in the children’s activities. Parents should come together for important activities in their children’s lives. At the same time, one parent should be careful not to overschedule the child. This may interfere with the child’s time with the other parent.
  • Being civil about gift-giving. One parent should never make children feel uncomfortable about accepting a gift from the other parent. If a child wants to take a gift from one parent to the other parent’s house, then the behavior should not be chastised.
  • Sharing educational decisions. Cooperative parents attend conferences together, and they both maintain positive communication with their child’s school.

No matter what, children are proven to benefit from a strong relationship with their custodial parent. In a joint custody situation, children can thrive and form attachments to both parents when mothers and fathers are cooperative and supportive of one another.


About the Author: Mary Eccles is a graduate of a forensic psychology master’s program. Her master’s thesis focused on child custody issues.