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STANFORD -- Rather than being harmful to children, joint custody may be the best solution in divorce when parents can communicate, cooperate and avoid using their children as messengers or spies, a new study suggests.
Stanford University researchers found that when divorced parents were not in conflict 3-1/2 years after they had separated, adolescent children living in joint custody were less likely than adolescents living primarily with one parent to feel torn between parents.
While some other studies have indicated that joint custody may lead children to feel caught between parents, those studies tended to interview families where parents were having trouble resolving their custody disputes.
The Stanford study was based on a wide cross section of divorcing families in the San Francisco Bay Area, including many having less-troubled divorces. Included in the study were interviews with 522 adolescents in the families. The study found that only when parents were still actively fighting did joint custody exacerbate children's feelings of being torn between parents.
Adolescents who felt torn between parents were more likely than other adolescents to exhibit poor adjustment. They were more likely to feel depressed and to be in involved in such deviant behavior as smoking, drinking and cutting classes, researchers Christy Buchanan, Eleanor Maccoby and Sanford Dornbusch report in an article scheduled to be published in the next volume of the journal, Child Development.
"However, the custodial arrangement in and of itself did not increase or decrease the likelihood of those feelings," said Buchanan, the researcher who directed the study at the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth.
"Although some joint-custody children appeared to be at risk because parents were still in high conflict, many of them were functioning at least as well, if not better, than adolescents in sole- custody arrangements," she said.
"The biggest predictor of feeling caught between parents was having parents who were in a high degree of conflict."
"Parents who were in high conflict were more likely to ask their children to carry messages between parents, or to ask their children for information about their ex-spouse's household, behaviors that appear to be stressful for children," Buchanan said.
For instance, it was not uncommon for one parent to ask a child about the other parent's new partner, she said. And, many of the parents in conflict tried to use their children as messengers about child-support payments or involve them in disputes over who would buy something the child needed.
"If parents had a lot of conflict between themselves but refrained from this type of behavior with their children, the adolescents we studied did not show higher levels of depression or deviance as a result of the conflict," Buchanan said.
Concluded Dornbusch: "Therefore, by avoiding such behavior, it is possible, even for parents in a high state of conflict, to minimize the impact of parental troubles on their children."
That is the key, Maccoby said.
"Certainly divorce is often intensely distressing for children," she said. "But when divorce occurs and parents are faced with a decision about custody, joint custody can be a positive alternative."
In the Stanford study, more than three quarters of parents who were using joint custody 4-1/2 years after their separation were not in active conflict. In fact, approximately 25 percent of the parents using joint custody were actively cooperating, Maccoby said.
The study results suggest that it may be unwise for lawyers, family counselors and others who negotiate child custody settlements to urge joint custody on parents who can't agree on custody arrangements, Maccoby said.
"However, when both parents favor joint custody, it can be a good solution for the child," she said.
The study involved interviewing the adolescents in 1988 and 1989, approximately 4-1/2 years after their parents had filed for divorce in two California counties. The children's parents were also interviewed several times over a 3-year period following their filing for divorce.
The series of studies were supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth.
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