Where do the kids live after divorce? What the research says is best

Kelly E.

Shared custody is never easy, but you can make it work

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Deciding custody arrangements isn't easyKelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Even before I officially separated from my ex, I thought about child custody arrangements. The idea of being away from my kids for any time at all was painful for me — I’m a homeschooling, work-from-home mum and had been with them pretty much 24/7 up until then. But I’d read the research and because of it, I knew I had to put my feelings aside and do what was best for my kids.

I suggested custody arrangements that were as close to 50/50 as my ex could manage with work. He’s a good dad and I believed it was important for my kids to feel they had a family with two parents who loved them and wanted to spend time with them — even if it was in two separate houses.

Joint physical custody is definitely an option to consider; it’s my preferred option for cooperative parents. But it’s only one of many options that can work for divorced parents and for children. Robert Emery, Ph.D.

As long as both parents are competent and positive for the children, 50/50 (or close to it) is ideal. It’s better for the kids if they have lots of access to both parents, and it means both parents get child-free time to work. Unfortunately, many situations make joint custody difficult.

When it doesn’t feel safe

If there’s been a lot of fighting, infidelity, verbal or physical violence, mental health problems, or control tactics the children will probably want to avoid a parent they believe to be an unsafe one. (Obviously, many of these situations mean the kids are unsafe and shouldn’t go.)

Even if there hasn’t been any of the above though, kids sometimes take sides in a separation or feel clingy to one parent — usually their mother. This is especially true the younger they are.

If you’re child tells you they don’t want to go to the other parents house, examine the reasons behind it and ask yourself whether they are feeling unsafe.

  • Are you 100% sure they are safe?
  • If they are, do they simply need more reassurance?
  • If there is any doubt, and you have good reason to think they might be unsafe, then it’s important to do what you need to for their protection.

Ask your child, “Why don’t you want to go?” Open questions like this are better because they don’t lead your child in anyway. Children can be easily influenced by parents. At times, children will tell you what they think you want to hear.

Closed questions like, “Do you feel unsafe at Dads?” are likely to influence your child’s thinking. You may get a “yes” when actually they just miss you a lot and don’t know how to express that.

Clinginess

If they are feeling clingy, or you think they might be taking sides, try to make arrangements with your ex that your child can call you whenever they want to. They might cry or get angry about going to the other parent’s house. All you need to do here is listen and reassure.

When they come home, ask them to tell you some of their favourite moments while they were away. (Children will sometimes tell you a list of complaints about the other parent and skip the fun stuff.) Focusing on the positive moments will help them build back a damaged relationship.

Also, the more flexible and cooperative you and the other parent can be — the better for your children.

  • Can they take the kids for a 30 minute ice-cream trip during the week?
  • Are you able to pop over and read one story before bed in the very early days?
  • It’s not always a good idea to ring the kids when they are away though. Sometimes this can unsettle them. Let them ring you when they want to instead.
  • Snapchat and other ways to send photos or short messages can be helpful for kids to feel connected when they want to. Again, let them lead this.

When shared care works and doesn’t

Even though a lot of the research says joint physical custody is the best for children, it can also in reality be the worst.

Robert Emery, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and divorce expert, says:

It’s the best when parents can cooperate enough to make joint physical custody work for children. It’s the worst when joint physical custody leaves children in the middle of a war zone.

When you share a lot of care with your ex, it can mean a lot of contact with them too. My kids come back and forth between houses every week — a lot — and that takes a fair bit of communication.

Logistically, it can be a real hassle. My kids often end up with no pants at one parent’s house, forget their togs on swimming day, or leave their library book at dad’s. Arranging catch ups with their friends is more difficult too.

To make joint custody work, co-parenting needs to be going well.

Joint physical custody is definitely an option to consider; it’s my preferred option for cooperative parents. But it’s only one of many options that can work for divorced parents and for children, says Emery.

SUMMARY

  • Ensure that your children are safe
  • Listen and reassure
  • Be as flexible and cooperative as possible

It’s not always easy, or even possible to co-parent with your ex. Sometimes parallel parenting, where you have as little contact with your ex as possible, is best. Sometimes no contact at all is the only safe option for everyone.

If you are able to however, putting the kids first by allowing and encouraging them to build a strong relationship with both parents is much better for them in the short and long-term. It’s important to put our differences aside and focus on creating family for our children — even if it’s in two houses.

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