As a family lawyer, it is important to consider the adolescent’s personality when contemplating a joint physical custody schedule.
By Dr. Linda Smith and Dr. Eric Frazer, Forensic Psychologists
A sociopolitical shift towards shared physical custody is occurring nationally and internationally. The argument is that children should be able to spend “equal” time with both parents so that they may develop a meaningful relationship with each parent. This doctrine of “shared custody” would replace the “best interests of the child” doctrine, although advocates of shared custody argue that shared custody by default is in the best interests of the child.
There is an inherent tension between the concept of “fair” sharing of parenting time, and the flexibility demands placed on children living in a joint custody arrangement. (i.e., the best interests of the child). Whereas some children are highly flexible and adapt to being mobile, others do not. Previous research on physical custody outcomes has generally demonstrated an absence of findings: children did not seem to do better or worse in any specific custody arrangement. However, notably missing from previous research in this area are the child’s unique characteristics such as personality and temperament. Previous studies have instead primarily focused on family-based factors such as parental conflict, the parent-child relationship, and demographics such as age and gender of the child. What has been understudied is the personality of the child, and how different personality traits may be more or less amenable to a joint physical custody arrangement.
Personality begins to develop at a very young age. A young child’s temperament is considered to be the internal system that contributes to emerging personality traits during adolescence, and later the formation of adult personality characteristics. The five core personality factors are neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience. Individuals (including children) demonstrate these core characteristics in varying degrees. A child’s unique personality profile may be more or less of a “fit” for different types of parenting plan arrangements.
Adolescents and Joint Physical Custody
Crafting developmentally appropriate parenting plans is guided by research pertaining to different age groups, and risk and protective factors to consider within various parenting arrangements. By the time children reach adolescence, some courts accept input from an adolescent about their parenting time preferences. In addition, many think that adolescents are now suited for the rigor of a shared physical custody schedule given their higher-level cognitive and emotional functioning.
One recent study (Sodermans & Matthijs, 2014)1 examined adolescents’ sense of well-being and personality attributes within joint physical custody arrangements. This study revealed that conscientious teens, those who generally are more organized, planful, and ordered, experienced a lower sense of well-being in joint physical custody arrangements. Similarly, extraverted children, those who have strong social networks and activities, demonstrated decreased well-being through lower feelings of mastery. Thus, conscientious and extraverted children may be at higher risk in joint physical custody arrangements. These types of children may benefit more from a ‘home base’. A home base offers greater consistency, predictability, and a better anchoring to a primary social network. Conscientious and extraverted teens may, therefore, feel better with a primary base.
As a family lawyer, you should consider the adolescent’s personality when a shared physical custody schedule is being contemplated. Parents should be informed about some of the potential concerns that may be present with conscientious and extraverted children. Guardians ad Litem and advocates for children should also consider the adolescent’s personality in trying to understand if a shared parenting schedule will be in the child’s best interests. In high conflict divorces, additional risk factors will also need to be considered (e.g., high co-parenting conflict), since these additional risks will further tax the child’s resilience. So to answer the question, “Does personality matter for adolescents in joint physical custody?”, the answer appears to be “Yes.”
1 Joint Physical Custody and Adolescents’ Subjective Well-Being: A Personality Environment Interaction (Journal of Family Psychology, June 2014), by A.K. Sodermans and K. Matthijs,
Co-Founders of Child Custody Analytics, Drs. Eric Frazer and Linda Smith, are forensic psychologists with more than two decades of expertise in child custody matters. Through past and current academic appointments at Harvard Medical School, Tufts University Medical Center, and Yale University of Medicine, Drs. Frazer and Smith understand the important contributions psychological research brings to family law practices. Child Custody Analytics enables family lawyers to search and use psychological information simply and efficiently. www.childcustodyanalytics.com
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