March 25, 2002 -- Divorce is tough on everybody involved. But in most cases -- unless there is intense parental conflict or an abusive or mentally ill parent -- children fare better if there's a joint custody agreement. That's the advice from one researcher, after analyzing numerous studies of child adjustment after divorce.
In joint custody arrangements, children have less behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, and better family relations and school performance than children in sole-custody settings, says Robert Bauserman, PhD, a psychologist in Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
His report appears in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
The term "joint custody" can refer to shared physical custody -- with children spending equal or substantial amounts of time with both parents. It can also mean shared legal custody, with primary residence remaining with one parent, usually the mother.
In any event, joint custody implies ongoing close contact with both parents, says Bauserman.
"Typically this means that at least 25% of the child's or adolescent's time was spent with each parent ... a substantial portion of time actually spent living with each parent," he writes.
The 33 studies he analyzed -- all conducted between 1982 and 1999 -- involved a total of 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children.
His findings: "Children in joint-custody arrangements were as well-adjusted as intact family children. ... Joint-custody children showed better adjustment in parental relations and spent significant amounts of time with the father, allowing more opportunity for authoritative parenting."
Important caveat: "Children do not actually need to be in joint physical custody to show better adjustment," he writes. It's the amount of time spent with both parents that is critical.
Another significant point: Many of the studies did not address parental conflict as a factor in this scenario. In fact, couples choosing joint custody may be experiencing little conflict in their divorce proceedings, which is reflected in the children's adjustment, Bauserman says.
Exposing children to intense, ongoing parental conflict could be detrimental, he says.
Also, joint custody is not always the best solution.
"It is important to recognize that the results clearly do not support joint custody as preferable to, or even equal to, sole custody in all situations," Bauserman writes. "For instance, when one parent is clearly abusive or neglectful, a sole-custody arrangement may be the best solution. Similarly, if one parents suffers from serious mental health or adjustment difficulties, a child may be harmed by continuous exposure to such an environment."