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Research shows that the quality of the parenting of both parents the child lives with influences joint custody outcomes – higher quality parenting is associated with fewer child problems.
Two recent studies from Arizona State University recommend that when considering joint custody, family courts should carefully consider the quality of parenting of both the mother and the father, including in high-conflict situations.
The research shows that the quality of the care provided by each parent influences child development; specifically higher-quality parenting is associated with fewer behavioral and mood problems on the part of the child. Moreover, parenting quality is not fixed: more parenting time may be linked to higher parenting quality. These findings were consistent in both high-conflict and lower-conflict situations.
The findings contradict the idea that in high-conflict situations, joint custody automatically leads to worse outcomes by exposing the child to more conflict.
Earlier research on joint custody has confirmed repeatedly that children do better when post-divorce parenting is of better quality, whether on the part of the mother or the father. Comparing the experiences of children in different families, the new studies found that the combination of more parenting time and lower-quality parenting produced poorer results, and that less time with such parents—whether they were mothers or fathers—was associated with better outcomes.
This issue is significant. In the first study, involving 472 mothers and 353 fathers (all from different families), 34% of the mothers and 18% of the fathers were in the more-time, lower-quality-parenting category, the category associated with the lowest child outcomes.
The second study producing more findings of direct interest to family courts determining joint custody arrangements. For example, in high-conflict cases, the quality of the father’s parenting is generally higher if he spends more time with the child—but only until he reaches around 12 days per month with the child, after which this relation no longer holds true. Meanwhile, if the child spends more than about 10 days per month with the father, the quality of the mother’s parenting starts to fall. That means there is an optimum point: around 33%-40% of the time with one parent and the rest with the other.
This study also produced a warning for joint custody parents who draw their children into the middle of covert conflicts (for example, making disparaging comments about the other parent, or making the child carry messages). If either parent does this, the child rates that parent’s parenting quality lower and the other’s parenting quality higher.
The first research project took place in 2015-16 in Arizona, with a sample of parents diverse in ethnicity and education who were not involved with child protective services. Four things were measured:
- Parenting time: parents were asked how often in the past 30 days they had spent two or more hours with the child when both were awake, and how many overnight stays the child had in their home.
- Parental conflict
- Parenting quality: this was assessed through four measures – acceptance/rejection of the child, consistency of discipline, quality of communication with the child, and maintenance of family routines.
- Child outcomes: parents were asked about behavioral problems (externalising) and the mood problems (internalising).
The second research project involved 141 9- to 18-year-old children who were experiencing high-conflict divorce, accessed through a family court program for high-conflict separating parents. Similar things were measured:
- Parenting time: number of overnight stays with father in last 30 days.
- Parental conflict: this was measured in two ways: the frequency and intensity of overt conflict and the extent to which the child felt caught in the middle of more covert conflict.
- Parenting quality: the child was asked to assess discipline, acceptance and how much they felt they mattered to their mother/father.
- Child outcomes: for this measure of behaviour and mood problems (externalising/internalising), parental reports were also sought.
These studies provide valuable new evidence that family courts can use when dealing with high-conflict divorce and separation and determining joint custody arrangements.
O’Hara, KL, Sandler IN, Wolchik SA, Tein J-Y & Rhodes CA (2019), Parenting time, parenting quality, interparental conflict, and mental health problems of children in high-conflict divorce, Journal of Family Psychology
Elam KK. Sandler IN, Wolchik SA, Tein J-Y & Rogers A (2019), Latent profiles of postdivorce parenting time, conflict, and quality: Children’s adjustment associations, Journal of Family Psychology, 33.5