Does Joint Custody Benefit Adolescents?
Many people opt for a joint custody following a divorce so that children can keep seeing both parents regularly. However, for some of the children, it might actually be more problematic.
By Tara Kuther
Joint custody in which parents share physical custody of their children after divorce is an increasing trend in many Western countries. The benefit of joint custody is that it ensures continuity of contact with both parents, including the physical and emotional resources both can provide. Yet commuting between two homes can be stressful and requires flexibility on the part of children. Is joint custody a good idea?
Sodermans and Matthijs (2014) studied whether the type of custody, sole or joint, was associated with well-being in 506 Belgian 14-21 year old adolescents. Three aspects of well-being were measured: feelings of depression, feelings of mastery or a sense of control, and life satisfaction. They included family process factors such as adolescents’ perceptions of the quality of their relationships with their parents and the frequency of conflict between parents. Personality characteristics were also studied as a way to consider whether individual differences among adolescents might moderate the relationship between custody and well-being.
Adolescents’ perceptions of their relationships with their parents and the frequency of parental conflict were associated with well-being but the type of custody arrangement was not. Instead adolescents’ personality characteristics interacted with custody arrangement to determine well-being. Specifically, adolescents high in conscientiousness reported fewer depressive feelings and more feelings of mastery when they lived in single custody rather than joint custody households. Those low in conscientiousness, on the other hand, showed higher levels of well-being in joint custody homes. As a personality trait, conscientiousness is a form of self-regulation or impulse control that facilitates task oriented and goal directed behavior and problem solving. Sodermans and Matthijis explain that the demands of joint physical custody arrangements, such as making frequent transitions to living in two places with differences in lifestyle and surroundings. This is contrary to the tendency of conscientious adolescents who seek order and thrive when they are able to plan and control their activities and environment. They may be less able to cope with multiple ongoing transitions, may suffer more from the disruptions experienced by living in two homes, and show better adjustment in a more consistent family context living with one parent.
Well-being was also predicted by an interaction between the personality trait extraversion and type of custody. Extraversion refers to a sense of sociability, an energetic and active approach to the social and material world. When coupled with a joint custody arrangement, high levels of extraversion were negatively associated with adolescents’ sense of mastery. Sodermans and Matthijs argue that extraverted youth may thrive under the consistent social interaction and support that is associated with sole custody. The disruption of friendships and social networks that often accompanies joint physical custody may interfere with these needs.
Joint physical custody is often viewed as beneficial as it allows youth to maintain contact with both parents; the ongoing transitions between contexts however, can create stress. Although many studies have shown that type of custody arrangement is not associated with adolescent well-being, findings in the current study suggest a more complex picture: a person x environment interaction. Specifically, individual difference factors such as personality interact with the type of custody arrangement to predict child adjustment.
Sodermans, A. K., & Matthijs, K. (2014). Joint physical custody and adolescents’ subjective well-being: A personality × environment interaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(3), 346-356. doi:/10.1037/a0036713