Quick Facts About Child Custody

Charles Emmrys PhD


Parents trying to find the best custody arrangement will often struggle with finding the science supported facts about what is good for the child and what is not. The following are the facts that are supported by clinical research as of 2012.

  • For quite some time, we have known that children estranged from a parent do not seem to do as well as children with two parents. Increases in delinquency, drug addiction, school failure, criminality and relationship failure as adults are noted. Most of the research focuses on the children who have lost contact with their father, but we can assume that losing contact with a mother would have just as important a negative impact on later development and some studies do show that.
  • Children from families who are intact and with high levels of conflict have markedly poor outcomes and are similar to children from separated families where parents are in high conflict situations. In other words, the conflict among parents seems to be the principal and most important factor affecting stress and negative outcomes in children, be they in intact or separated families.
  • In high conflict separations, conflict is not lessened with sole custody arrangements. Rather, such arrangements risk exacerbating the pre-existing conflicts with the resulting negative effects on the children.
  • Boys are more intensely affected by divorce conflict than girls are for the most part. The primary symptoms shown by boys are behavioral.
  • Children of parents who have shared responsibility for their children and who maintain these responsibilities with low levels of conflict have children that are just as well adjusted as those who are from well-adjusted two parent intact families.
  • The most advantageous physical arrangement seems to be for both parents to live in the same neighborhood and within walking distance from each other so the children feel they have access to both parents, can play with the same friends regardless of where they are sleeping and can attend the same school without excessive travel.
  • Fully assuming one’s financial responsibilities as a parent is seen by the children as important. For both parents to respect the other for their contribution is also very important.
  • The data looking at the impact that the amount of time that a child spends with each parent indicates that the way time is apportioned is not as crucial as the quality of the relationship maintained between the two former parents. In other words, 50/50 kids do not fair significantly better or worse than 25/75 kids when the parents share legal responsibility, are present in the children’s lives and are civil with each other. There is some literature that suggests that 50/50 timeshares are seen by children as inherently more fair. This would be especially true when they are between the ages of 7 and 12, an age where fairness is intensely valued.
  • The data in Australia indicates that shared equal time arrangements are on average less stable than first predicted. The arrangement tends to breakdown within 3 years on average in that country. This is not universal but life changes and professional obligations tend to precipitate shifts in arrangements where one parent eventually has to take on the principal caretaker role. Education on the importance of properly assessing and carrying out one’s short and long term commitment to the children helps increase stability in arrangements.
  • Though there are varying views in the research literature on when sleeping in a different house is appropriate, the age of 4 is seen as the ideal time to start sleeping with the non-primary custodial parent in some studies. There is no doubt that the cognitive skills required to understand that two places can both be home are far better consolidated by age 4 and if the parents are to ere on the side of caution, the age of 4 would be established as the age for regular sleep overs with the non-custodial parent.
  • By the age of 11, the children will often ask for changes in the custodial arrangement that suit them best. This tends to favor one parent over another, usually the mother. Most experts will urge the parents to become flexible and respectful of their children’s wishes re these requests for changes in how time is apportioned between parents.
  • New partners for mothers seem to have a negligible effect on the children in terms of long term outcome and the quality of their relationship with the mother. New partners for the father tend to be a positive factor that improves the quality of the relationship between the children and the father.

Over 80% of parents are able to agree on custodial responsibilities without having to go through lengthy court proceedings. Our goal is to facilitate this process by offering good information to parents as they carry out the difficult post separation work of deciding how their co-parenting will be arranged. What are to be avoided are long protracted negotiations that leave the question essentially unaddressed for years at a time. The “children in limbo” literature suggests that moving on in life is important after a separation and being in limbo prevents this.


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