Psychologists studying the impact of shared parenting vs. sole custody on child adjustment have reached some very different conclusions. Here’s a brief summary of key research useful to those working with parenting plans.
By Dr. Daniel J. Hynan, Clinical Psychologist
In general, active and positive parental involvement tends to have a beneficial effect on children’s well-being. In that regard, research tends to focus on father involvement because males are less likely than mothers to be actively involved with the children. For instance, a study that relied on the National Longitudinal Study of Youth investigated the role of father involvement in adolescent well-being. A good deal of the difference in adolescent adjustment between divorced and two-parent homes could be explained by the active role of the father. Somewhat similarly, in low-income families, active father involvement was found to be associated with decreased delinquency in adolescence.
The Impact of Shared Parenting on Children of Divorce
When the focus is on families of divorce, there has been a somewhat mixed picture in terms of the impact of the type of custody on child adjustment. A number of studies have not found consistently significant differences in child adjustment based on the type of custody arrangement.
In contrast, other research has found an association between the type of custody and child adjustment. Boys who were six through 11 years of age in joint custody were found to have better behavioral functioning than those whose mothers had sole custody. A study of both girls and boys reported that children in joint custody described having had a greater number of positive experiences and manifested higher self-esteem than those in sole maternal custody.
A different pattern of results was found by a research project that studied primarily high conflict families who litigated about children over a period of one to four years. It found that the type of custody designated by the courts was not associated with the level of child adjustment. However, higher levels of actual child access by the nonresidential parents were associated with increased child adjustment problems.
As noted above, a meta-analysis investigated the differences in child outcome between sole and joint custody families. However, the report had a number of limitations associated with the available research that was reviewed, including partial reliance on numerous nonpublished dissertations, which comprised the majority of the studies analyzed, and combining different types of joint custody families. Specifically, joint custody based on time-sharing and joint custody based on decision-making were combined into one category in that meta-analysis. Overall, the review found that joint custody families manifested better child adjustment than sole custody ones, though the size of the effect was small.
Contact with Fathers and Emotional Security
More recently, William Fabricius and his colleagues reported on the experiences of university students whose parents had divorced. The behaviors investigated included histories of living arrangements with each parent, relationship quality with the father, and physical health. Greater amount of time with the father was associated with both a positive relationship quality with him and better physical health.
Other findings from that research group were that there was a significant positive correlation between the percentage of time the student spent with their fathers, up through 50 percent, and emotional security experienced with the fathers, with no loss of emotional security with the mother. An examination of the data indicated that the strongest portion of the correlation was the portion between having spent zero days with the father and one through three days with him in a 28-day period. The next strongest portion of that association was between one through three days with the father and four through six days with him.
Additional data received from Prof. Fabricius indicated that approximately 18 percent of those students had not been seeing their father at all and 38 percent saw him less than once per week. As a result, it seems that the highest magnitude of the positive correlation between contact time with the father and emotional security with him could be attributed to the understandably low emotional security of individuals who had no or relatively meager contact with the father. It seems likely that a significant proportion of the zero-contact fathers had left the child, or that there was such a negative father-child relationship that a no-contact pattern developed. It is also possible that conflict between the parents contributed toward the father having been absent or having a relatively minor role in the child’s life.
There is limited published research evidence available regarding how unusual it is that such a large proportion of the Fabricius sample saw their fathers so little. That limited evidence included a much earlier research report that described, two years after having started that study, children younger than college-age had an average of only four days of contact with the father per month when there was sole maternal custody, though under conditions of joint custody there were 10 contact days per month. A more recent report estimated that approximately one-quarter to one-third of nonresident fathers maintain little to no contact with their children.
The research findings briefly summarized here tend to present shared parenting in a generally positive light, and it may be that such parenting plans, for appropriate families, encourage healthy development and functioning for children of divorce. However, the generally positive outcomes for shared parenting are also likely to reflect, at least in part, beneficial individual and family characteristics that had been in place before the divorce and that contributed to the shared parenting arrangements.
Successful Shared Parenting Depends on Cooperative Co-Parents
It is noteworthy that Dr. Michael E. Lamb, a scholar whose work frequently describes the benefits of father involvement, has noted, along with others, that if parents manifest long-standing conflict with one another without a history of successful cooperation in parenting, children may be unlikely to benefit from shared parenting.
There is vigorous controversy about the interface between interparental conflict and considerations of shared or joint custody, and it has been focused upon a great deal as it pertains to very young children. That debate is manifested both in scholarly work and family law practice.
(Chapter 5 of Parenting Plans: Meeting the Challenges with Facts and Analysis concentrates on controversies regarding time-sharing for very young children. Chapters 6 and 7 focus in more depth on dilemmas related to conflict, including domestic violence, and time-sharing, beyond the realm of very young children.)
In general, stability in family life is valued, and there are concerns about whether shared parenting may have a higher risk for residential changes than custody primarily with one parent, which is typically characterized by that parent having the child approximately 70 percent of the time or more. Relatively early research projects that retrospectively examined residential changes found that they occurred somewhat more frequently in joint custody as compared to sole custody families, though one report noted that residential changes in joint custody families tended to take the form of a different type of joint custody arrangement and not a change to sole custody. A 1992 longitudinal study reported that children who resided in a shared parenting arrangement about six months after the marital separation were much more likely to have made a residential change, to sole custody, about three years later than were those who lived mainly either with the mother or with the father. As described in a later report, children who were living in a shared parenting arrangement about six years after the separation were also more likely to have made a subsequent residential change than those who had been living mostly with the mother or with the father.
A much more recent Australian study that used a high-conflict mediation sample manifested the same general pattern. The authors collected information over four years after mediation and reported that the shared parenting children experienced less residential stability than did those who had been in sole custody. As a highly relevant example of the necessity of examining specific family characteristics when devising parenting plans, the shared custody parents who exhibited relatively good cooperation with one another also manifested a greater likelihood of successfully maintaining shared care over time than did the parents who were not able to attain adequate cooperation and decreased conflict.
A 2008 study based on a sizable Wisconsin sample found a different pattern from the one described above. It compared children in shared parenting arrangements with those in sole maternal custody over about three years following the divorce. Overall, the residential stability was equally high for the shared parenting, equally shared parenting, and sole maternal custody groups. Although this study is an outlier, it may represent a gradual shift towards shared parenting taking place more frequently.
Should Shared Parenting be the Default for Parenting Plans?
Overall, however, most of the evidence indicates that equally shared parenting occurs in a modest proportion of cases and that there is somewhat less residential stability for shared parenting children generally. It is absolutely necessary that the characteristics and circumstances of each family need to be considered in parenting planning, and there is a great deal of reason for caution about potentially relying on a default or anchor position of plans that require equally shared parenting.
 Marcia J. Carlson, Family Structure, Father Involvement, and Adolescent Behavioral Outcomes, 68 J. MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY 137 (2006).
 Rebekah Levine Coley & Bethany Medeiros, Reciprocal Longitudinal Relations between Nonresident Father Involvement and Adolescent Delinquency, 78 CHILD DEVELOPMENT 132 (2007).
 E.g., BUCHANAN et al., supra note 65, at 288; Marsha Kline et al., Children’s Adjustment in Joint in Sole Physical Custody Families, 23 DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 430 (1989); Jessica Pearson & Nancy Thoennes, Custody after Divorce: Demographic and Attitudinal Patterns, 60 AM. J. ORTHOPSYCHIATRY 223 (1990).
 Virginia M. Shiller, Joint Versus Maternal Custody for Families with Latency Age Boys: Parent Characteristics and Child Adjustment, 56 AM. J. ORTHOPSYCHIATRY 486 (1986).
 Sharlene A. Wolchik et al., Maternal Versus Joint Custody: Children’s Postseparation Experiences and Adjustment. 14 J. CLINICAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY 5 (1985).
 Janet Johnston et al., Ongoing Postdivorce Conflict: Effects on Children of Joint Custody and Frequent Access, 59 AM. J. ORTHOPSYCHIATRY 576 (1989).
 Bauserman, supra note 44.
 William V. Fabricius & Linda J. Luecken, Postdivorce Living Arrangements, Parental Conflict, And Long-Term Physical Health Correlates for Children of Divorce, 21 J. FAMILY PSYCHOLOGY 195 (2007).
 William V. Fabricius et al., Parenting Time, Parent Conflict, Parent-Child Relationships, and Children’s Physical Health, in PARENTING PLAN EVALUATIONS: APPLIED RESEARCH FOR THE FAMILY COURT 188, 195 (Kathryn Kuehnle & Leslie Drozd, eds. 2012).
 EVALUATION, supra note 1, at 65.
 Kline et al., supra note 73, at 434.
 Paul R. Amato & Julie M. Sobolewski, The Effects of Divorce on Fathers and Children: Nonresidential Fathers and Stepfathers, in THE ROLE OF THE FATHER IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 4th ED. 341 (Michael E. Lamb, ed., 2004), at 348.
 Lamb, supra note 42, at 189; Smyth et al., supra note 44, at 157.
 Lamb, supra note 42, at 192.
 E.g., Jennifer E. McIntosh et al., Responding to Concerns about a Study of Infant Overnight Care Postseparation, with Comments on Consensus: Reply to Warshak, 21 PSYCHOLOGY, PUBLIC POLICY, AND LAW 111 (2015); Marsha Kline Pruett et al., Parental Separation and Overnight Care of Young Children, Part I: Consensus through Theoretical and Empirical Integration, 52 FAMILY COURT REVIEW 240 (2014); Richard A. Warshak, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report, 20 PSYCHOLOGY, PUBLIC POLICY, AND LAW 46 (2014).
 E.g., DIVIDING, supra note 2.
 Kline et al., supra note 73; Pearson & Thoennes, supra note 73.
 Pearson & Thoennes, supra note 73.
 DIVIDING, supra note 2.
 Cloutier & Jacques, supra note 4.
 Jennifer E. McIntosh et al., Post-Separation Parenting Arrangements and Developmental Outcomes for Infants and Children, Pt. I: Longitudinal Study of School-Age Children in High Conflict Separation, FAMILY TRANSITIONS, NORTH CARLTON, AUSTRALIA (2010), https://www.ag.gov.au/FamiliesAndMarriage/Families/FamilyLawSystem/Documents/Postseparationparentingarrangementsanddevelopmentaloutcomesforinfantsandchildrencollectedreports.PDF
 Lawrence M. Berger et al., The Stability of Child Physical Placement Following Divorce: Descriptive Evidence from Wisconsin, 70 J. MARRIAGE AND FAMILY 273 (2008).
This article has been edited and excerpted from Parenting Plans: Meeting the Challenges with Facts and Analysis (American Bar Association, 2019) by Daniel J. Hynan (Ph.D., ABAP). This book combines practical considerations with extensive research, theory, and scholarly debate to offer a thorough, useful guide for attorneys. Specializing in child custody issues, Dr. Hynan is a sought-after child custody expert in the courtroom who also provides Work Product Reviews of others’ evaluations.www.drhynan.com
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