A review of research on outcomes for children whose parents are separating concludes that poor outcomes for a child are much more closely linked to damaged parent-child relationships than to parental conflict or poor coparenting. Reduced conflict, effective coparenting and strong child-parent relationships are all important for children, of course, but child-parent relationships are most important of all.

This is true in all but the most extreme cases of violence. Even when some types of domestic violence have occurred in the parents’ relationship, children can benefit from shared custody. The evidence doesn’t support the claim that the negative impact of domestic violence is worse when parents share custody of children after they separate.

That finding suggests that we need a major readjustment in the functioning of family courts, where the norm is for the removal of children from conflict to be prioritised over the protection of the child-parent relationships. Family courts generally assume that joint custody, especially physical custody, is only suitable in low-conflict situations. That assumption may lead to insufficient protection of child-parent relationships in high-conflict situations. The only circumstances where a child-parent relationship should be unequivocally severed, the research suggests, is when that relationship itself is abusive or negligent.

Professor Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, USA, recently reviewed the available evidence. Her analysis reaches six conclusions:

  1. The quality of the parent-child relationship is more closely correlated with child well-being than conflict or the quality of the coparenting relationship.
  1. Shared physical custody is linked to stronger parent-child relationships, which helps to mitigate the negative impact of conflict.
  1. Joint physical custody is associated with better outcomes for children than sole custody, even when parents are in high conflict relationships and even when the parents didn’t initially agree to share physical custody.

Two scenarios make it easy to understand this point. Children with emotional, behavioural and stress-related health problems are more likely to have parents in high conflict with each other. In such high-conflict situations, joint custody might be particularly helpful so that each parent has time off. Similarly, conflict is closely linked with parental depression, substance abuse, mental disorders and negligent or abusive parenting. Joint custody can reduce a child’s exposure to troubled parenting.

  1. Parents with shared physical custody don’t have less conflict or better coparenting relationships than parents with sole physical custody. Children in joint custody arrangements are not more likely to be drawn into the middle of disagreements and conflicts between the parents (a key justification for courts to reject joint custody in high-conflict situations).
  1. Limiting the time children spend with one of their parents through sole custody is not correlated with better outcomes for children even in high-conflict families.
  1. Parents settling their disputes in court or through protracted legal negotiations is not linked to worse outcomes for children.

Nielsen says that what she calls “woozling” bedevils the field of divorce and separation. “Woozling is the process by which faulty, partial, or misinterpreted research is repeated and misrepresented so often that it becomes widely accepted as true,” she writes.

Nielsen is careful to point out that it would be possible to woozle the findings of her own review of research. It would be woozling to say that frequent exposure to intense, ongoing, frightening and physically aggressive conflict has no negative impact on children. Also it would be woozling to claim that strong parent-child relationships, good parenting and joint physical custody eradicate all of the negative impacts of children being exposed to  high, ongoing  conflict.

The woozle-free message, however, remains clear: shared physical custody is linked to better outcomes for children even in high-conflict families where parents don’t get along well.

Header photo: Igor Spasic. Creative Commons.

References

Nielsen L (2017), Re-examining the research on parental conflict, coparenting, and custody arrangements, Psychology, Public Policy and Law 23.2