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Chapter 9

Shared Custody: Increasing Benefits and Reducing Strains

Children's adjustment to divorce
What makes the difference?
Parenting apart
Suggestions for two-home parenting
Rules for shared custody
For further reading

Divorce is a long process a process of reorganizing family life. When the couple has children, the parents continue to have a relationship not as spouses, but as co-parents.

For many years, research on divorce focused on the adults. Now researchers are beginning to focus on how divorce impacts children. What happens to children after their parents divorce?

The answer to this question is not simple. Outcomes for children depend upon many factors. One thing we know for certain: the way parents manage the process is very important to children's adjustment. The better you do, the better your children do.

Children's adjustment to divorce

When marriages come apart, most children are moderately to severely distressed. They may continue to experience confusion, sadness, or anger for months. Sometimes it can be longer. Research shows a great deal of variation in short-term reactions of children--even children in the same family. We know even less about long-term effects of divorce on children. Again, there seem to be a lot of differences among children. Some do quite well while others suffer long-term harm. Most researchers agree that the first year or so after divorce is generally the most difficult for both parents and children.

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What makes the difference?

Three key factors appear essential to children's positive adjustment following divorce.

  1. The parents function effectively. Parents who cope with the disruption of divorce can be more effective parents. They keep their day-to-day work and home lives going. They provide love, nurturance, consistent discipline, and a predictable routine.
  2. The parents do not engage in a great deal of conflict. Following the divorce, even the simplest disagreement between parents can be upsetting to children. When parents are able to cooperate in childrearing after a divorce, children do better. We also know that children living in two-parent homes full of conflict do poorly.
  3. Children are able to maintain a positive relationship with both parents. The idea of two involved parents is supported by child development theories. It is an ideal worth pursuing unless one parent has problems that endanger the well-being of the child.

Parenting apart

Parents who have divorced have had trouble getting along. Still, some parents are able to communicate and share parenting responsibilities quite well, even after their divorce. This is referred to as cooperative parenting.

This style of parenting after divorce is the ideal. While more and more divorced parents currently reflect this type of parenting, they are still the minority.

Here is an example of cooperative parenting. Mike and Carrie have been divorced for 4 year. They share physical custody of their one child, Sharon, age 6, as well as nearly all childrearing responsibilities. The child live with Mike for 2 weeks, then with Carrie for 2 weeks, and so on. The parents both live in the same school district.

Mike and Carrie talk with each other several times each week. They try to be consistent on things they consider most important: curfew, bedtime, homework, and participation in sports. The rules are generally the same at both houses. When something isn't going well, they can usually find a solution through compromise. Mike and Carrie are friends. Once in a while, they and their child get together for dinner.

If you and your former spouse find cooperation too difficult, it may be more realistic to adopt a style of childrearing called parallel parenting. Parallel parenting is characterized by low conflict with a modest amount of consultation. These parents remain very involved with their children. They communicate when necessary. But they conduct their parenting separately.

Here is an example of parallel parenting: Carrie and Mike have been divorced for 4 years. They live 500 miles apart, but share custody of their one child, Sharon, age 6,. The children live with Carrie during the school year. They live with Mike during the summer and during winter and spring breaks.

Carrie and Mike's marriage was full of conflict. Their relationship after the divorce has been even more difficult. They have agreed to be respectful of each other. They never say negative things about each other to the child. While they have very different parenting styles, they trust one another to act in the child's best interests.

Carrie and Mike communicate with each other mostly by letter. However, the child communicate often with her father when she is not staying at his house. During the summers at his house, she call her mother weekly. For the most part, things go smoothly. Certainly there is less conflict in the family than before the divorce.

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Rules for shared custody
  • Support each other in your roles as parents. Your children need both of you.
  • Offer emotional support to your children as they move from one house to the other. Try not to display your own personal feelings of sadness and loss. This can provoke feelings of guilt and worry for the children.
  • Refrain from using the children as messengers. It is a strain for children to be responsible for managing parents' communication.
  • Avoid making negative comments about the other parent in the presence of the children.

Suggestions for two-home parenting

Not all these ideas may be feasible for every parent. Try them out to the extent that you think they might work for you.

You may believe your former spouse does not act in the best interest of the child. You may wish to retaliate or make it hard for the other parent. Unfortunately, the child will suffer the consequences.

The best situation for a child is to have two parents who act in the child's best interest. Next best is having one parent act in the child's best interest. The worst is having two parents who are so angry with each other that neither can keep the child's interests in mind.

You may be concerned that your present custody arrangement is not good for your child, and you may not be able to work out a better situation with your former spouse. You may be able to work out the situation with outside help. In that case, contact an attorney or family counselor to discuss alternatives. It is helpful if both parents can seek help together. However, if the other parent will not go, you can benefit from discussion with a mediator or counselor yourself. Shared custody has many benefits for children and parents. It takes hard work, personal sacrifice, and a great deal of maturity on the part of the parent. Without these elements, shared custody may not be in the child's best interests. Keep in mind what is most important for your children after divorce:

With that in mind, we encourage you and your former spouse to cooperate, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe and loving homes for your children.

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For further reading

Recommended reading for children of divorce:

Dinosaur's Divorce, by M. Brown (Little, Brown, New York, 1986). (Preschool and older)

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