BY DR. LINDA NIELSEN
CHARACTERISTICS OF SHARED
An issue raised in regard to shared parenting is
that these fathers are somehow “better” than other
fathers to begin with. If this is true, then whatever
benefi ts are associated with shared parenting
might have accrued even if these children had
lived mainly with their mothers. To my knowledge,
no study has compared the quality of father-child
relationships before and after divorce to the type of
parenting plan the parents chose. However, there
are at least three reasons not to assume that the
majority of shared parenting fathers are far “better”
parents than fathers who only see their children
every other weekend.
First, many “weekend” fathers say they wanted
shared residential custody. For some, their work
schedules or their low incomes made it unfeasible
for their children to live with them. For others,
they could not afford or did not believe that
they could win a legal battle for shared parenting.
Consequently, these fathers yielded to the mothers’
wishes that the children live with her (70–72). In the
Stanford Custody project, for example, only 30% of
the fathers who wanted joint residential custody
were awarded it (62). And, according to 320 college
students who lived with their mothers after their
parents’ divorce, half of their fathers had wanted
equal parenting time (34). We have no reliable way
of determining how many fathers have wanted, but
were denied or never pursued, shared residential
custody. Whether or not a father has a shared parenting
plan is not the most reliable way to assess
how much he may have wanted to share the parenting,
It is not the aim of this article to assess how
accurate fathers are in their assumptions about
bias against them in family court. Some evidence
suggests that the fathers might be wrong. For
example, in a survey of 345 divorcing couples in
North Carolina, 20% of the fathers were awarded
shared parenting by a judge, versus only 5% who
Shared Residential Custody:
Review of the Research (Part II of II)
DR. LINDA NIELSEN
Linda Nielsen, Ed.D. is a professor of Adolescent
and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University
in Winston Salem North Carolina. Her areas of expertise
are father-daughter relationships and shared parenting
after divorce. Her work on fathers and daughters, with
an emphasis on divorced fathers, has been featured on
PBS, NPR and in numerous magazines and newspapers
internationally. In addition to numerous journal articles,
she has written four books on father-daughter relationships
and a college textbook on adolescent psychology.
A member of the Association of Family and Conciliation
Courts and the Southeastern Psychological Association,
she has made numerous presentations on shared parenting
and divorced fathers and has served as an expert
witness on shared parenting research. More information
about her work is available on her website www.wfu.
edu/~nielsen or through email firstname.lastname@example.org.
124 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW
had reached their shared parenting agreement with
a mediator and 10% with a lawyer (73). On the other
hand, lawyers and judges in several surveys have
stated that there is a bias against fathers in the family
courts (74–78). Likewise, in a recent study of
367 people who had been summoned for jury duty,
nearly 70% said that children should live equal
time with each parent. However, only 28% believed
that a judge would make that decision (79). The
important point is that a father who believes that a
judge or his state’s custody laws are biased against
fathers is less likely to try to negotiate a shared parenting
agreement than a father who believes that
there is no bias. This situation is acknowledged in
the legal profession as “bargaining in the shadow
of the law” – meaning that even though only 10%
of divorced couples have their case decided by a
judge, 100% of them are nonetheless infl uenced by
their state’s custody laws in regard to shared residential
parenting (80). Given this circumstance, it is
overly simplistic to assume that those fathers who
have a shared residential parenting agreement are
always more dedicated or somehow “superior” to
fathers whose children live with their mother.
OUTCOMES FOR CHILDREN: ACADEMIC,
BEHAVIORAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, PHYSICAL
How well do most children fare in shared parenting
families? Compared to children who live
with their mother, are they signifi cantly better or
worse off on measures of academic, social, psychological
or physical well-being? The twenty fi ve
studies presented in Tables 1 and 2 address these
Beginning with the oldest studies, the most methodologically
impressive is the Stanford Custody
Project, where data were collected over a four year
period (1984–1988) from 1100 divorced families with
1386 children. Four years after the divorce, the dual
residence adolescents were better off academically,
emotionally, and psychologically than the sole residence
children. These children were less likely to
be stressed by feeling the need to take care of their
mother. On the other hand, when their parents were
not getting along well, these teenagers were more
likely than those in sole residence to feel caught in
the middle of the disagreements. Fortunately, their
parents were not more likely than other divorced
parents to drag them into their confl icts. Moreover,
having a closer relationship with both parents generally
offset the negative impact of the parents’ confl
icts. Children in both types of families were more
stressed, anxious, and depressed when there were
large discrepancies in their parents’ parenting styles.
But the impact was the worst on the children who
rarely got to spend time with their father, and not on
those in dual residence. What is especially noteworthy
about this longitudinal study is that even after
controlling for parents’ educations, incomes, and
levels of confl ict, the shared residential children had
the better outcomes (47;62).
Overnight time provides a more natural
A number of smaller studies conducted at
around the same time as the Stanford Study also
found equal or better outcomes for children in
shared parenting families. Four years after their
parents divorce, the 11 children in dual residence
were not signifi cantly different from the 89 children
in dual residence in regard to stress, confusion, or
insecurity (54). In a larger study, three years after
the divorce, the 62 dual residence children were
less depressed, stressed, and agitated than the 459
children in sole residence. What is especially noteworthy
is that all of these children had similar
scores on these measures at the time their parents
divorced (55). In a much smaller study by the same
researchers, there were no differences on these
measures between the nine children in dual residence
and the 144 children in maternal or paternal
residence. Given the very small number of shared
parenting families, it is not surprising that family
income, confl ict, and domestic violence accounted
for half of the differences in children’s well-being
Table 1 Dual Residence Families:
Changes in Parenting Plans over Time
Years Separated Unchanged
Brotsky 1.5 80%
Cashmore 2–4 55%
Kaspiew 3–4 70%
Kline 2 80%
Lodge 2–3 67%
Maccoby 3.5 50%
McIntosh 4 65%
Melli 3 90%
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 125
in all families. In a San Francisco study where parents
were receiving free counseling for their ongoing
confl icts, the children in the 26 dual residence
families were better off in regard to stress, anxiety,
behavioral problems, and adjustment to moving
between homes than the children in the 13 sole
residence families. It is important to note that the
children whose parents needed the most counseling
initially to make shared parenting work ended
up as well off as children whose parents initially
were getting along fairly well (53). Similarly in a
Canadian study, 85% of the shared parenting couples
said that they felt close to their children and
that the children had adapted well to living in two
SIMILAR CONCLUSIONS IN MOST
More recent American studies reach similar
conclusions. In the Wisconsin study with
Table 2 Outcomes for Children
Shared Residence (35–50% Overnight time Share) or Sole Residence
Bjarnason 2200 25,578 better better
Breivik 41 409 equal better better
Brotsky 26 13 better better
Buchannan 97 150 better better better better better
*CSA 440 148 better better better
* LSAC 84 473 better better better
Campana 207 272 better better
Fabricius 30 201 better
Fabricius 337 686 better
Fabricius 130 136 better better
Frank 16 90 better
Jablonska 443 2920 better
Janning 5 17 better
Kaspiew* 645 7118 better better
Kline 35 58 better equal better
Lee 20 39 better
Lodge 105 518 equal equal better
Luepnitz* 11 89 equal equal
Melli* 597 600 better better
McIntosh # 17-70 14-624 mixed mixed equal
McIntosh 42 44 better equal better
Neoh 27 37 better
Pearson* 62 459 better better
* 9 83 equal equal
Spruijt 135 350 better
* number of families, not number of children
# The number of children measured on each variable varied considerably
126 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW
590 shared parenting families, these children were less
depressed, had fewer health problems and stressrelated
illnesses, and were more satisfi ed with
their living arrangement than the children in the
590 sole residence families (Melli & Brown, 2008).
The children were 30% less likely to have been left
with babysitters or in daycare. Nearly 90% of their
fathers attended school events, as compared to only
60% of the other fathers. Almost 60% of the mothers
said that the fathers were very involved in making
everyday decisions about their children’s lives.
In fact, 13% of the mothers wished that the fathers
were less involved. Likewise, 80 college students
from shared parenting families had fewer health
problems and fewer stress-related illnesses than the
320 students who had lived in sole residence (81).
For middle and high school students, children were
less depressed, less aggressive, and had higher selfesteem
when their divorced parents had an authoritative
rather than a permissive parenting style. But,
because the 207 children in shared residence were
more likely than the 272 in sole residence to have
two authoritative parents, their outcomes were better
(82). With younger children aged six to ten, the
20 children in shared parenting families were less
aggressive and had fewer behavioral problems
than the 39 children sole residence (83). In a very
small convenience study with only eleven elementary
school children in shared parenting families,
the parents and the children agreed that making
friends and maintaining their contact with friends
was not a problem even though the parents’ homes
were in different neighborhoods (84).
International studies have also found children
in shared parenting families doing equally as well
or better than other children of divorce. In a large
Swedish study, the 443 children in shared parenting
families had more close friends and had fewer
problems making friends. They were no more
likely than the 2920 children in sole residence to
be aggressive, violent, or abuse drugs and alcohol
(85). A Norwegian study also found that
41 shared parenting adolescents were no more
likely to drink or use drugs than the 409 in sole
residence. However, they were less likely to smoke,
to be depressed, to engage in antisocial behavior, and
to have low self esteem (86). In a small Norwegian
study where all 15 adolescents had lived in dual
residence from three to ten years, all but one was
satisfi ed with shared parenting – mainly because
it enabled them to maintain close relationships
with both parents (87). Likewise, in a Dutch study
with 135 adolescents in shared parenting, the girls
were less depressed, less fearful, and less aggressive
that the daughters in the 250 sole residence
Because Australia revised its custody laws in
2006 in ways that were more favorable to shared
residential custody, this research has attracted
considerable attention. The largest is a random
national survey of 645 dual residence parents and
7118 sole residence parents one to two years after
separation (57). Despite the fact that the shared parenting
couples were just as likely as others to report
domestic violence before their separation, there
was no evidence to suggest that this had any more
negative effect on the dual residence children than
those living in sole residence. Even after accounting
for parents’ levels of education and violence, the
shared parenting children had marginally better
outcomes on the behavioral and emotional measures
than those in sole residence. As expected,
regardless of their living arrangement, children
whose parents had a history of violence had more
behavioral and emotional problems.
Daughters were more than 2.2 times as likely
to have diffi culty talking with their fathers.
The other large Australian government report
presents data from two separate studies (59). The
fi rst was a longitudinal study of 84 dual residence
and 473 sole residence families with children who
were fi rst assessed at ages four to fi ve and again
two years later – the Longitudinal Study of Australian
Children (LSAC) survey. The second was a survey
of 440 parents with dual residence and 419 with
sole residence (CSA). In the CSA survey, according
to the fathers, the children in shared care were
doing better socially, emotionally, and academically.
According to the mothers, the children were
no better or no worse in shared care. In the LSAC
study, according to teachers’ reports, at the end of
the two year period, the shared care children had
fewer peer problems, fewer academic diffi culties,
and less hyperactive behavior than those in sole
residence. Even though there was too much variation
in scores within each group to achieve statistically
signifi cant differences, the shared care
children had higher scores on socio-emotional and
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 127
language development. Even though violence, family
income, and parents’ educational levels were
more strongly correlated with children’s outcomes
than was the parenting plan, the authors conclude
that, “[o]verall this research paints a positive picture
of shared care both in terms of parental satisfaction
and children’s wellbeing.”
These conclusions are confi rmed in several
smaller Australian studies. Comparing 105 adolescents
living in shared care, 398 living with their
mother and 120 living with their father, the shared
care children had the best relationships with both
parents, their stepparents, and their grandparents
two years after their parents’ separation (58).
Interestingly, even though the shared care parents
reported being no more cooperative than the other
divorced parents, their children reported them as
getting along better than did the children living
with the mother or their father. The shared care
children were just as well adjusted socially and
academically as the other children, but they were
much more likely than the children who lived with
their mothers to confi de in their fathers (80% versus
45%) and to say they had a close relationship with
him (97% versus 65%). In small study with 27 children
in shared residence, 37 in maternal residence
and 24 in intact families, the children in sole residence
were signifi cantly more hyperactive than the
others. All children’s stress levels were in the normal
range, although those in shared parenting had
somewhat higher scores. The children were equally
satisfi ed in shared or sole residency. But the parents
in the shared care families were more satisfi ed and
less stressed (88).
The largest, most recent and most internationally
representative study further confi rms the benefi
ts associated with shared parenting (89;90). Data
were gathered from 36 Western countries from
nearly 200,000 children: 148,177 in intact, 25,578
in single mother, 3,125 in single father, 11,705 in
mother/stepfather, 1,561 in father/stepmother,
and 2,206 in shared parenting families. The children
were 11, 13, and 15 years olds who were in
the World Health Organization’s 2005/2006 nationally
representative data base. The shared parenting
children were the least likely to say they had a
“diffi cult” or “very diffi cult” time talking to their
fathers about things that really bothered them
(29%) than the other children, including the children
in intact families (32%). As Table 3 illustrates,
children living with their single mother or with
their mother and stepfather had the most diffi –
culty communicating with their fathers (42% and
43% respectively). When asking how satisfi ed they
were with their lives, the children in intact families
were the most content. As Table 4 illustrates, the
shared parenting children were more satisfi ed with
their lives than the children in all other families,
except intact families. Even when the children’s
perceptions of their families’ fi nancial situations
were factored in, the children with separated parents
were still less satisfi ed than those with married
parents – and the shared parenting children
were still the most satisfi ed.
Overall then, children in shared parenting families
are better off in terms of academic, psychological,
emotional, and social well-being, as well
as their physical health. But are there relationships
with their fathers any more meaningful or
any closer and more enduring than those children
who live with their mother and see their fathers
OUTCOMES FOR CHILDREN:
RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS
As previously discussed, nonresidential fathering
time is closely related to the quality and the
endurance of the father-child relationship. Given
this correlation, fathers and children in shared parenting
families should be expected to have better
relationships than those who only see each other a
few days a month. But do they? Is shared parenting
Table 3 Shared Physical Custody:
Children in 36 Western Countries
Percent of Children Who
Find It Diffi cult Very
Diffi cult to Talk to their
Father About Things that
Really Bother Them
13 & 15
stepfather 43% 11,705
Single mother 42% 25,578
stepmother 39% 1,561
Single father 33% 3,125
Intact families 32% 148,177
custody 29% 2,206
Bjarnason, T. et al (2012). Joint physical custody and
communication with parents: A cross national study of children
in 36 western countries. Children & Society, 26. 51–62.
128 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW
correlated with stronger or more enduring bonds
between fathers and children?
To begin, it is worth noting that even when the
children live with their mother, spending overnight
time in their father’s home is associated with closer
relationships. For 60 adolescents, those who spent
overnights at their father’s home had a closer relationship
with him than those who only saw him
during the day. This held true even when the overall
amount of time they spent together was equal
and regardless of the amount of confl ict between
the parents. Apparently, overnight time provides a
more natural, familial setting where children and
fathers can relate in more meaningful, more relaxed
ways. Then too, this kind of time together may help
adolescents and their fathers experience and appreciate
their bond in more powerful ways (29).
Amount of Time Together
But are the number of days spent living with
their father related to the quality of their relationship
years after their parents’ divorce? Is their
relationship any better if they spent more than
a couple of weekends a month together and are
greater amounts of time associated with better relationships?
In answering this question, the most
methodologically sophisticated study is based on
1030 young adults whose parents divorced before
they were sixteen (91). Nearly 400 of them had
lived in shared parenting families. The number
of days they lived with their fathers each month
and the present quality of their relationship was
highly correlated. The more days they had lived
together each month, the better their relationship.
The researchers also addressed the complicated
question: was spending time together associated
with any better relationship for those who did not
have a particularly good one? In other words, for
the worst relationships, was spending more time
together still associated with a higher rating? To
answer this question, the researchers separately
analyzed data for the top 20% with the highest ratings
and the 20% with the lowest ratings. In both
groups, spending more time together was still
associated with higher quality relationships. Those
who lived together more of the time, had the better
relationships – especially those who had lived
together 35% to 50% of the time. Beyond 50% time,
the quality of relationships was not highly correlated
Many other recent studies confi rm these results.
For 400 university students, almost all (93%) of the
80 students who had lived in dual residence families
said that this had been the best parenting plan
for them, as compared to only 30% of the other students.
Nearly 70% of the sole residence students
felt that it would have been in their best interests
to have lived more with their father. More than half
(55%) said that their fathers had wanted equal residential
custody, but their mothers had opposed it.
Even those who spent two weekends every month
with their fathers said that this was not nearly
enough time together. The dual residence children
had closer relationships with their fathers and their
mothers than the others (34). Likewise, three years
after their parents’ divorce, 80% of the children in
the 597 shared parenting Wisconsin families were
spending just as much time with their father and
were more satisfi ed with their relationship with
him. In contrast, more than half of the children in
sole residence families were spending far less time
with their fathers and were unhappy about this
loss. A number of their relationships had ended
altogether (56). In a much smaller study, the fi ve
young adults from shared parenting families had
better relationships with their fathers and were
more likely to feel their parents had equal authority
than the 15 who had lived with their mother
and spent varying amounts of time with their
International Studies, Same Conclusions
International studies reach the same conclusion.
In the Netherlands, 135 children in shared parenting
families had as close a relationship with both
parents as the 2000 children from intact families.
Their relationships with their fathers were closer
than the relationships of children who had spent
time regularly with their father, but lived with
their mother (5). Likewise, 16 Canadian college
students in dual residence had better relationships
with both parents than the 90 students who
had lived with their mothers (93). In an exceptionally
large international study, as Table 4 illustrates,
data were gathered from 36 countries,
where 2206 children were in dual residence and
25,578 in maternal residence. The shared parenting
children communicated better with their fathers
than the children in all other family types, including
intact families. This is especially noteworthy
in regard to daughters, since the daughters were
more than 2.2 times as likely as sons to have diffi –
culty talking with their fathers regardless of living
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 129
Older studies reached similar conclusions. In the
Stanford Custody Study, four years after their parents’
divorce, the dual residence adolescents had
closer and more trusting relationships with their
fathers than adolescents who had only spent every
other weekend with their fathers (Buchanan &
Maccoby, 1996). Likewise, in two smaller studies
involving 110 shared parenting families one year
after divorce, 90% of the mothers said that their
children had good relationships with their fathers,
compared to only 50% of the sole residence
Most adolescents wish that they had more
say in when to switch homes.
Although not directly measuring the quality
of the father-child bond, several studies have
compared the fathers’ stress and dissatisfaction
in shared and in sole residence families. Stressed,
unhappy fathers are less likely to interact with their
children in ways that promote a meaningful relationship
(39). Given this, if fathers in shared parenting
are less stressed and less dissatisfi ed than other
divorced fathers, it is logical to assume that their
children will probably benefi t. And indeed, fathers
in shared parenting feel less stressed (88) and more
satisfi ed than fathers whose children live with their
In sum, children in shared parenting families
generally have stronger, more enduring relationships
with their fathers than children who lived
with their mother. Leaving aside the other benefi ts
associated with shared parenting, the quality and
endurance of the father-child bond in and of itself is
SHARED PARENTING: NEGATIVE OUTCOMES
In contrast to the majority of studies showing
equal or better outcomes for shared parenting
families, two Australian studies by one group of
researchers reached more negative conclusions (68).
These two studies have received considerable
media coverage, for example, in an ABC news story
entitled “Shared parenting hurting children” (94).
They are also frequently cited in academic journals
and at professional conferences for judges, lawyers,
and policymakers as arguments against shared
parenting (11;95–97) . Both studies were released in
a 169-page report commissioned by the Australian
government, but neither was peer-reviewed in an
academic journal. Understandably, many people
may only read the 20-page synopsis of this lengthy
report. Unfortunately, this can lead to misunderstandings
or misinterpretations of the actual data,
especially if readers are not aware of the methodological
shortcomings of the studies.
First and foremost, these parents and children
were not representative of most divorced families.
In the fi rst study, “the data are from a small nonrandom
select group of cases – high confl ict families
seeking help from community mediation” (p. 15).
“The small high confl ict nature of the sample means
that care should be taken not to generalize this fi nding”
(p. 14). A number of these parents had never
been married to each other, and the children were
more than twice as likely as children of divorce in
other studies to test in the borderline or high category
for psychological problems (p. 58). In the second
study, 90% of the infants’ parents had never
been married and 30% had never lived together –
neither had 57% of the parents of the two to three
year olds and 49% of the four to fi ve year olds.
Limitations in the Australian Studies
Other methodological problems have also been
pointed out by several renowned scholars (99,100).
First, the sample sizes were extremely small for
many of the comparisons. For instance, there were
fewer than 20 mothers in several of the groups providing
data on children’s wheezing, irritability,
visual monitoring, or persistence; and no more than
25 two to three year olds in shared care on any of the
seven factors being measured. Second, for children
under the age of two, shared care meant anywhere
from 4 to 10 overnights a month – a very broad defi –
nition that did not distinguish between parents who
were providing a great deal of overnight care and
those who were not. Third, “visual monitoring”
was measured and interpreted in ways that have
no established validity or reliability. The authors
devised their own measure and then interpreted the
results from their perspectives on attachment theory.
They chose three questions from the Communication
and Symbolic Behavior Scales and asked the mothers
to answer “yes” or “no” to each question: “When
this child plays with toys, does he/she look at you
to see if you are watching? When you are not paying
attention, does the child try to get your attention?
Does the child try to get you to notice interesting
130 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW
objects – just to get you to look at the objects, not to
get you to do anything with them?” On the basis of
these three questions, the researchers concluded that
shared care children were worse off because these
mothers said their infants and toddlers were more
likely to visually monitor them.
A fourth limitation is that the authors drew conclusions
about children’s stress and parent-child
attachment based on how frequently their mothers
said that they wheezed – which is of questionable
reliability and validity. Despite acknowledging
that the differences were not statisti cally signifi
cant until they added socio-economic status
(p. 135), the authors nonetheless concluded that:
“[h]igher rates of wheezing in the shared group
are congruent with the attachment/stress hypothesis.
Several studies confi rm a link between negative
emotional family environment and the onset
of asthma and wheezing in infancy.” (p. 147). The
authors have made a remarkable leap of logic by
implying that the stress of shared care was responsible
for the wheezing – and that this wheezing was
caused by stress, rather than by physical problems
such as bronchitis and asthma, which most commonly
cause wheezing in the general population
of children this age. Indeed, from infancy on, boys
are nearly twice as likely as girls to have asthma.
Consequently boys wheeze more than girls, with
25%–30% of infants having at least one episode of
wheezing before the age of one, increasing to 40%
by age four (98,101). Because there were more boys
in shared care than in primary care families, especially
for the four to fi ve year olds, the shared care
“children” (boys) would predictably have more
wheezing – as would any group of children who
had more boys. Second, wheezing is correlated
with many environmental factors having nothing
to do with stress – allergens in the child’s food, in
the home (including cockroach feces, mold, and
dust mites), and in the air. As for the connection
between stress and wheezing, asthmatic children
who wheeze the most are also the most likely to
have mothers who are more anxious, depressed,
stressed, and demoralized (102,103). However, this
correlational data should never be used to suggest
that these mothers “caused” their children’s wheezing.
It could very well be that having an extremely
asthmatic child who wheezes frequently causes
mothers to become more stressed and depressed.
The point is that wheezing, in and of itself, is not a
valid or reliable measure of stress, and should not
be used to make assumptions about stress or parent-
child attachment in shared care families.
As is true for any lengthy report, merely reading
the synopsis might lead to overly simplistic
and overly negative conclusions about shared
care. For example, according to the synopsis, “not
surprisingly” shared care families “tended” to
revert to primary mother residence and were more
than twice as likely to fail if the plan came about
through mediation (p. 12). Looking closely at the
data, we see that 53% of the 131 families started
out with shared care, decreasing to only 43% four
years later. Over four years, 18% of shared care
families changed to primary and 14% of primary
care changed to shared, so, apparently, both types
of families were about equally likely to revert to a
different plan (p. 35–36). In the “more than twice
as like to fail” group, there were only 23 couples –
couples who had a number of factors working
against them that may have had an equal or greater
impact on their failure than having a mediated
parenting plan. Compared to the 46 couples who
maintained shared care, these 23 couples started
out with more confl ict, more children, worse fatherchild
relationships, and less income and education.
Reading Reports in their Entirety
A few other examples highlight the importance
of reading reports in their entirety. The synopsis
states that shared care children were the least
satisfi ed of all care groups and reported the most
confl ict. Later in the report, we see that 13 of the
44 children in continuous primary care and 20 of
the 42 in continuous shared care were dissatisfi
ed with their arrangement – a difference of only
7 dissatisfi ed children. The least satisfi ed children
were those in “rigid” shared care. But these
were the families where the parents’ high ongoing
confl icts were creating the most distress for
the children. What readers may also overlook in
the synopsis is that, overall, the shared care children
were not more distressed by their parents’
confl icts than primary care children. Moreover, we
might have concluded that being in shared care
somehow increased children’s problems with inattentiveness
and hyperactivity, since the synopsis
states that they had “greater diffi culties in attention,
concentration, and task completion by the
fourth year of this study” (p. 14). As it turns out,
the shared and the primary care group means were
within the normal range on the test for hyperactivity
and inattention. The only children who were
in the “borderline” range (borderline x = 5.0 − 6.0
for boys) for hyperactivity/inattention were the
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 131
10 boys in “rigid” shared care whose score (x =
5.2) was much higher than the general population
mean (x = 3.1) (p. 63). Then, too, the synopsis
states that amounts of overnight time were not
associated with children feeling that their father
was more emotionally available. This might easily
confuse readers who do not read later in the report,
“[g]reater amounts of overnight time with a father
confi dent in his own parenting ability from the outset
was important to children’s perceptions of their
fathers’ capacity to understand, be interested, and
responsive to their needs” (p. 54).
Changing parenting plans over the years is
not necessarily a bad thing.
Other misunderstandings might occur in regard
to the synopsis statements about children under
the age of three. “Infants under two years of age
living with their non-resident parent for only one or
more nights a week were more irritable and more
watchful and wary of separation than young children
primarily in the care of one parent” (p. 9 ). The
shared care children “showed signifi cantly lower levels
of persistence with routine tasks, learning, and
play than children in the other two groups” (p. 17).
“Thus regardless of socio economic background,
parenting or inter-parental cooperation, shared
overnight care of children under four years of age
had an independent and deleterious impact on
several emotional and behavioral regulation outcomes”
and was associated with “severely distressed
behaviors in their relationship with the primary
parent” (p. 9). What is not stated until Appendix 1
is that the shared care infants had exactly the same
irritability score as the 3851 infants from intact
fami lies (x = 2.50) and had almost the same score
on visual monitoring as the 4041 infants from intact
families, x = 2.48 and 2.41, respectively. Moreover,
the authors later acknowledge that the differences
in the ratings for infant irritability and visual
monitoring became signifi cant only after parenting
warmth, confl ict and SES were added to the model
(p. 132–133). (Italics are mine)
More Nuanced Conclusion
In sum, the limitations of this study call for
a more nuanced and less negative conclusion
than what is offered at the end of the synopsis:
“[b]y implication shared care should not normally
be the starting point for discussions about parenting
arrangements for very young children” (p. 10).
These two Australian studies are certainly not alone
in having shortcomings and limitations. Indeed,
all studies have their fl aws and limitations. What
is troubling, however, is that they are so widely
disseminated and so often cited as evidence that
shared parenting is “bad” for young children.
Moreover, putting so much emphasis on these two
studies may lead to overlooking the more positive
outcomes in the other 25 international studies: children
in shared parenting families generally have
equal or better outcomes on measures of emotional,
behavioral, psychological, physical, and academic
well-being. Above all, they generally have far better
relationships with both parents than children who
live with only one of their parents.
ON SHARED PARENTING
Leaving aside the academic, behavioral, or psychological
benefi ts, how do the children themselves
feel about shared parenting? Most researchers have
not asked the children how they feel about living
with both parents. However, those that have
are remarkably consistent in their results. So how
happy or satisfi ed are most of these children? Do
they feel that the stress and hassle is worth it? Or
do they feel like “suitcase kids” who are “bounced
around” and “homeless”?
Fortunately, most children feel the benefi ts outweigh
the hassles and inconveniences of living in
two homes. In a survey with 136 Australian children,
most of those in shared care liked living with
both parents – mainly because they appreciated the
importance of having a close relationship with both
parents. Although many said it was inconvenient
keeping up with their things in two homes, this
was also true for children who only spent weekends
with their fathers (59). In another Australian
study with 105 adolescents in dual residence, most
agreed and were satisfi ed with their parents’ decision
(58). Similar results emerged from a British
study with 73 shared parenting children. Despite
having to adjust to different household rules and to
make the emotional shift when changing from one
home to the other, most preferred living with both
parents to living with only one. Given their busy
social lives, adolescents felt more inconvenienced
than younger children. Some children wished they
132 AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FAMILY LAW
could live in one home because they found the
other parent boring, because that parent had fewer
creature comforts to offer, or because they disliked
a stepparent or stepsiblings. Still, most felt that
having a close relationship with both parents outweighed
the hassles – and many enjoyed having
a break from each parent from time to time (104).
Likewise, in depth interviews with 15 Norwegian
children ages nine to 18 who had lived three to
10 years in shared families found that only one of the
children would have preferred to live in one home.
Although some said that it would be more convenient
to live in one home, they felt dual residence
was the best choice because they loved both parents
equally (87). Similarly, in the Swedish national
health and welfare study, most dual residence children
said that they were glad to have the chance
to develop close relationships with both parents.
Although some wanted to live in only one home,
they did not want to hurt their parents’ feelings by
suggesting a change (8). For another 31 American
adolescents living in dual residence four years
after their parents’ divorce, most felt that this was
the best arrangement for them (47). Likewise,
80 American college students at the University of
Arizona reported that living with both parents had
been in their best interests, in contrast to 70% of the
other 330 students who wished that their divorced
parents had allowed the children to live in both
Overall then, most children feel that living with
both parents is a sacrifi ce, a compromise, and a
trade-off. But it is one they generally feel is worth
making for the payoff: a better relationship with
both parents. Not surprisingly, most children –
especially adolescents – wish that they had more
say in when to switch homes and how long to stay
with each parent. Understandably though, the kind
of ever-changing “fl exibility” that children would
ideally like to have would be diffi cult, if not impossible,
for most parents to provide, given their own
demanding schedules at work and at home.
STABILITY OF SHARED PARENTING FAMILIES
A fi nal concern about shared parenting is that
these children may have a less “stable” lifestyle,
meaning that these families cannot maintain this
lifestyle. Consequently, these children will have to
undergo the stressful ordeal of moving back to live
with their mother – a move that results primarily
from the stress and unhappiness of “experimenting
with” shared parenting. Several studies from 25 to
30 years ago found that many children who started
out living in both homes moved back to live fulltime
with their mothers in a relatively short period
of time. Most of these studies, however, were based
on small, non-representative samples of extremely
high-confl ict couples, many of whom were still in
the midst of legal battles over custody (105). This
kind of instability appears to be far less common
today, as Table 4 illustrates.
Beginning with the oldest studies, in the
Stanford Custody Study, roughly 50% of the children
moved from dual to sole residence, but
another 20% moved from sole to dual residence.
Moreover, the moves took place over the course
of four years. Most children who moved back
to live with their mother full time did not move
because of family stress and unhappiness. Most
moved for economic reasons. Either their fathers
could no longer afford to maintain housing suitable
for the children or he had to move out of
town to fi nd a job. Interestingly, too, as children
approached adolescence, they were more likely
to move full-time to their father’s home than to
their mother’s (47,62). In smaller studies from
the 1980s, most dual residence families were still
functioning two years after the divorce: 65%
in 48 families (53), 94% of 440 families, 80% in
110 families (55) and 80% in 38 families (61). More
recently, in the Wisconsin study with 597 shared
parenting families, three years after their divorce
Table 4 Children’s Satisfaction with Life
Compared to Children from Intact Families
After Controlling for
Their Perceptions of
Their Family’s Economic
Intact Family Contrast Contrast
Shared custody − .26 * − .21 *
− .41 * − .33 * +
Single mother − .44 * − .28 * +
Single father − .58 * − .49 * +
− .63 * − .62 * +
* Children are signifi cantly less satisfi ed than those in intact
+ Children are signifi cantly more satisfi ed after factoring in
their economic situation but remain statistically less satisfi ed
than children in intact families.
SHARED RESIDENTIAL CUSTODY: REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH (PART II OF II) 133
90% of the children were still living in dual residence
(106). Likewise, 94% of the 440 families
in a recent Australian study were still sharing
the parenting two to four years after separating
(59). Understandably, young, never married, low
income, poorly educated ,or physically abusive
couples are the least likely to succeed at maintaining
their shared parenting family (68).
Overall then, shared parenting families are stable
when the parents have formerly been married,
are not physically abusive, and are not struggling
with poverty. It is also worth noting, however,
that changing parenting plans over the years is
not necessarily a bad thing. These changes might
refl ect the kind of fl exibility that better meets children’s
needs as they age. Just because some children
move from dual to sole residence or vice
versa does not necessarily mean that there will be
a “bad” outcome or that the family is “unstable.”
“Instability” should not be confused with “fl exibility.”
Making a change in the initial parenting
plan may mean that the parents are being fl exible
and responsive in ways that will benefi t their
Given what decades of research have taught us
about the importance of nonresidential fathering
time, the benefi ts associated with shared parenting,
the characteristics of these parents, and the
over-emphasis on divorced parents’ confl ict, it is
unfortunate that this body of research continues
to be ignored in a number of recent publications
(italics are mine). For example, “Research shows that
the best interests of children are not connected to
any particular pattern of care or amount of time”
(with their fathers) (95). “No convincing argument
can be made on behalf of shared care for the
children’s benefi t.” “The research makes clear that
father presence and frequency of contact in and of
itself is not a signifi cant factor.” The message from
this research should be clear: it is of crucial importance
in every case to try to minimize the degree of
confl ict between the adults, even if this leads us to
the now almost heretical conclusion that to continue
to expose the primary career and child to
continuing confl ict through the promotion of contact
with the father may be doing more harm than
good. Moreover, the levels of confl ict between
parents show no sign of diminishing with time (97).
“It is clear from recent Australian research that
many shared care arrangements are tried out on
a temporary basis but do not endure long term.”
“In fact, there is little if any evidence that the mere
amount or frequency of contact (with fathers) is
better or worse for children” (11). Given the growing
popularity of shared residential parenting, policymakers
and professionals who work in family
court, as well as parents, should fi nd the research
compelling. As demonstrated in this review,
overall, these studies have reached four general
• First and foremost, most of these children
fare as well or better than those in maternal
residence – especially in terms of the quality
and endurance of their relationships with
• Second, parents do not have to be exceptionally
cooperative, without confl ict, wealthy,
and well educated or mutually enthusiastic
about sharing the residential parenting in
order for the children to benefi t.
• Third, young adults who have lived in these
families say that this arrangement was in
their best interest – in contrast to those who
lived with their mothers after their parents’
• And fourth, our country, like most other
industrialized countries, is undergoing a shift
in custody laws, public opinion, and parents’
decisions – a shift towards more shared residential
With the research serving to inform us, we can
work together more effectively and more knowledgeably
to enhance the well-being of children
whose parents are no longer living together.
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