PHOTO: Brian Kyed
Text: Nicoleta Casangiu and Alejandra Misiolek
In this blog we are going to talk about shared custody, how children experience it and their relationships with their parents.
Shared custody (also known as shared care or co-parenting) refers to agreements made between parents, after separation, that children spend equal time with each parent.
Shared custody arrangements are becoming increasingly common. In developed countries, approximately 20% of children do not live with both parents in the same household.
The increase in joint custody has been influenced by several factors, such as the increased participation of women in the labor market, the greater involvement of fathers in their children’s daily lives, and the increased expectation that both parents will share childcare after separation.
Many recent studies claim that shared care is better than other arrangements for the psychological well-being of children because it offers children the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. This is something that children often desire and benefit from if there is not an ongoing level of conflict between the parents.
Shared care demonstrates parental engagement and allows parents to participate in a range of caregiving activities and routines together with their children. At the same time, it allows mothers to participate in social networks and leisure activities outside the home better than they would otherwise.
According to studies, caregiving and sharing activities separately with each parent are considered important for facilitating closeness in the relationships between parents and their children. However, attachment experts stress the importance of quality interactions and avoiding stress or conflict when making any arrangements between parents.
Attachment theory asserts that the security of a child’s emotional connection with his or her parents and his or her development depend on parental availability and responsiveness.
Recent studies, including children’s views of the shared custody experience reveal that, despite the challenge of physically and emotionally transitioning from one home to another, children appreciate that the shared custody arrangement offers them the opportunity to enhance their relationship with each parent separately.
Children’s security and satisfaction are enhanced by parents’ willingness and ability to be together, without conflict, and to share enjoyment and pride in their child, for example, at family gatherings and sporting events.
The children in the mentioned studies placed great importance on their parents being able to laugh together, greet each other with genuine good cheer and create a sense of an integrated family, even when they were separated. Their security also increased when their parents were willing to help them connect or be with their other parent in times of need; and when each parent was responsively, actively and protectively present for them.
Another conclusion drawn from the same studies was that children are more likely to feel good about shared custody when: the arrangements are flexible, child-centered, and foster an ongoing, meaningful relationship with both parents and with their siblings; when their parents respect and integrate the children’s feelings and concerns, get along, protect them from conflict; and children have ongoing involvement in decisions about their living arrangements.
Studies also indicate that, for children, time with each parent in joint custody gave them the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with and experience a high level of commitment from both parents.
However, joint custody itself does not guarantee a close and positive relationship with secure attachment between children and their parents.
Other studies indicate that parental commitment and care are necessary; that the quality of relationships is important for both children and parents.
When parent-child time and interactions are of poor quality, either because one parent is described as manipulative/abusive or unavailable/attentive during their time together, shared care is experienced negatively, and parent-child relationships suffer in the short and long term.
For some children, the psychological demands of living in two households can be especially difficult when one or both parents begin a relationship with a new partner. However, a new blended family sometimes involves new step-siblings as well, which may add a dimension that can be enjoyable and enrich family life.
Similarly, a poor relationship with a new step-parent or step-sibling could derail the shared care experience. This change could become a source of conflict and rupture in relationships that were previously experienced as harmonious.
In conclusion, it could be stated that while shared custody can improve the child-parent relationship, it also has varied and complex effects on children and works best when each parent is committed to cultivating a positive relationship with their child at home.
Also important is the sensitivity and love of parents and “step-parents” toward children when one parent has a new partner.
It is hoped that appropriate parental support and counseling, as well as a better understanding of the multifaceted experiences of children and youth in relation to shared custody, will lead over time to improved post-separation arrangements and shared custody experiences for children and youth.
Sources: Tracy Merson, Keith Tuffin & Rachael Pond (2023): Young people’s reflections on their experiences of shared care and relationships with their parents, Journal of Family Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2023.2179526