A Cross-National Study of Children in 36 Western Countries

Joint Physical Custody and Communication with Parents : A Cross-National Study of Children in 36 Western Countries


Thoroddur Bjarnason
Arsaell M. Arnarsson
University of Akureyri


An increasing number of divorced parents in Western countries have joint physical custody of their children. A comparative study of children in 36 European, Mediterranean, and North American countries found that 0–4% spend about half their time in two homes. Such arrangements were virtually unknown in many Southern and Eastern European countries while they were more common than single father households in Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden. Impaired communication with both mother and father was significantly less likely in joint physical custody than in other non-intact families. Impaired communication with mother was equally prevalent in intact families and joint physical custody families while impaired communication with father was in fact less prevalent in joint physical custody than intact families.

The children of divorced parents in Western societies generally live with their mothers and visit their nonresident fathers on a regular or irregular basis. Such arrangements are consistent with the traditional division of labor between mothers as caregivers and fathers as providers (Bernard, 1981; Coontz, 2000) and the assumption that strong attachment to a single primary parental figure in a single primary home is crucial for the well-being of children (Kelly, 2007; Moxnes, 2000). However, as fathers have gradually become more involved in child care (Bianchi et al, 2000; Hook, 2006; Juby, Le Bourdais, & Marcil-Graton 2005), they have also become increasingly reluctant to leave their children behind when marriage comes to an end. The growing research literature on the potentially negative effects of divorce and single parenthood on the well-being of children has also affected public perceptions and encouraged parents and policy makers alike to seek alternatives to traditional single-mother households (Kelly, 2007).

A major conclusion of the present study is that children living in joint physical custody have equal or less problems communicating with their parents than their counterparts in intact families and less such problems than children in other types of non-intact families. Children living in joint physical custody are equally able as children in intact families to talk with their mothers about important matters and they are better able to talk with their fathers about such matters than those living in intact families.

First, joint physical custody may result in better communication with both biological parents by mitigating divorce-related stress factors such as the economic hardship and time constraints associated with single parenthood. The actual cost of supporting a child is likely more equally divided between the parents in joint physical custody than when the nonresidential parent pays child support to the residential parent (Bender, 1994). As a result economic strain and perceived economic injustice is less likely to affect the relationship between children and their parents. Joint physical custody also offers opportunities for sharing parental responsibilities and having regular discussions with the other parent on the challenges of raising a child (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004). Regular communication between the parents and a joint strategy for parenting may well contribute to easier communication between the child and both parents. Single parents with joint physical custody also have more opportunities than single parents with sole custody to be ‘single’ as well as a ‘single parent’. The social and psychological benefits of more degrees of freedom for single parents with joint physical custody may well contribute to better relations with their children.

Second, although the child only spends half of his or her time in the home of each parent, the quantity and quality of time actually spent together may increase in joint physical custody. Arnarsson and Bjarnason (2008) found that children spend significantly more time with their fathers in joint physical custody than in intact families, more than making up for the time lost by the mother. Joint physical custody may lead to increased paternal involvement in parenting, as well as the sharing of tasks and responsibilities between parents (Kline, Tschann, Johnston & Wallerstein, 1989). Fathers in joint physical custody arrangements may thus be more firmly established in their parental role than either fathers in intact families or ‘weekend dads’ that may be more in the role of entertaining their children. Joint physical custody may thus help ensure that both parents remain a fixed feature in their children’s lives and that lines of communication remain open.

Third, children are not randomly selected into joint physical custody. There have been some concerns that joint physical custody may expose children to more parental conflict (Johnston, 1995; Twaite & Luchow, 1996) and that such arrangements may in themselves be a source of friction between parents (Braver & Griffin, 2000; Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004). However, in his meta-analysis of studies on joint physical custody Bauserman (2002) found on average less conflict and better cooperation between parents choosing joint physical custody than between parents choosing some form of sole physical custody. Fathers seeking joint physical custody are also likely to be more involved with their children prior to divorce and have less difficulties communicating with them. Conversely, mothers agreeing to joint physical custody are likely to believe that the fathers are willing and able to maintain such an arrangement in a manner that benefits the child. The selection of parents into joint physical custody may therefore account for a significant portion of the relative ease with which children in such arrangements communicate with their parents in general and with their fathers in particular.

It is likely that factors such as less economic hardship and fewer time constraints, regular communication between parents, greater quality and quantity of time children spend with fathers in particular, and social selection into joint physical custody all contribute to better communication between parents and their children in such living arrangements. Further studies must disentangle these factors and attempt to establish any causal mechanisms at work and establish to what extent they are culturally invariant. Nevertheless, our results strongly suggest that parents willing to share physical custody do not need to fear a negative impact on their relations with their children. Impaired communication with the mother is no more likely in such living arrangements than in intact families and the lowest prevalence of impaired communication with father is found in joint physical custody. While this may in part reflect patterns of communication prior to divorce, children in joint physical custody have on average at least as good communication with their parents as their counterparts in intact families.

Read the full article here : Parental-communication-Bjarnason-and-Arnasson-2011