June 23, 2003 -- It's a sticky problem for divorce courts: Should a custodial parent and child be allowed to relocate? Parents and judges must be mindful of the possible effects of divorce on children, experts say.
"It's one of most difficult problems for courts to resolve -- ask any judge, and they'll say that," says researcher William V. Fabricius, PhD, a psychologist with Arizona State University in Tempe.
His study of this relocation issue appears in the current Journal of Family Psychology. He calls it "a wake-up call for parents who think they can move without it affecting their children."
Relocated Children Less Happy
His study -- the first of its kind -- involved students in freshman psychology classes, who completed extensive questionnaires. They were asked -- among other things -- if their parents were divorced and if they had moved more than one hour's drive away from the family home.
Students were also asked various questions to determine how hostile, happy or unhappy, and healthy they were -- and to what extent the divorce affected their overall view of life.
About 600 of the 2067 students who completed the form had divorced parents, reports Fabricius. Those students whose parents relocated were more "disadvantaged" in most areas of their lives, he tells WebMD.
The relocated students:
- Were generally more hostile
- Viewed their non-custodial parents as not being good role models or sources of support
- Reported their parents were less likely to get along
- Rated their "general life satisfaction" was lower than kids who stayed close to both parents
- Had worse physical health
When the non-custodial father moved away, the effects on children were similar, he adds. "Yet the courts don't have any means in which to stop a non-custodial parent from moving," says Fabricius.
"Courts should not presume that when parents want to move away, it's in the best interest of the children," he tells WebMD. "There are negative outcomes." He would like parents, courts, and legislatures to pay more attention to the child's best interest -- to pay close attention to the potential effects of divorce (and relocation) on children.
"The reality is that divorce is difficult for children, no matter what the circumstances are," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and is chief psychologist at the Grady Health System, both in Atlanta.
"Parents have to be sensitive to the child's emotional reaction," she tells WebMD. "Assuming there's no domestic violence or child abuse, the more consistent contact the child can have with both parents, the better."
What's Best For The Child?
In 1996, the California State Supreme Court handed down a decision that has set a nationwide precedent -- allowing a custodial parent to move away with their child, Fabricius tells WebMD. "That has influenced many other states to essentially make it easier for custodial parents to move."
In that case, several social psychologists and legal scholars weighed in their expert opinions, arguing that "more often than not, it's in the best interest of the child to relocate if it benefits the custodial parent," says Fabricius.
"In essence, they said that what's good for the custodial parent is therefore good for the child -- which implies that a well-established and cared-for home is more important than contact with the non-custodial parent," he adds.
But Relocation Can Work
How you handle the relocation decision should depend, to some extent, on the child's age, says Kaslow. If the "child" is a high school senior, let him or her stay with a friend from their old school, she says.
"Talk to the child upfront about the reasons for the relocation," she tells WebMD. "Don't just spring it on them. Have them be part of the process, go with you to choose the house they're going to live in."
Also, the child should talk with both parents every day, either on the phone or via email. This will help minimize any effects of divorce on children, she says.