Shared Parenting Pros and Cons

Is shared parenting better for children than sole custody? Successful shared parenting benefits both children and parents, but it is not appropriate for all families. Here are the pros and cons of shared parenting after divorce.

Divorce Law and Family Law

Successful shared parenting benefits both children and parents; it is a sharp contrast to the problems of having only one resident parent. Shared parenting is increasing in frequency nationwide: in some states, shared parenting is the norm for 75% of parents (California and Washington are two such states). In 16 states, shared parenting is expected. The court assumes this will be the parenting plan, unless there are particular problems. Strong evidence must be presented if there are problems; the evidence must show why shared parenting would not be best for the children. Remember that shared parenting means shared decision-making. The parenting time can vary from 50-50 shared time to 60-40 or even 65-35.

Advantages of Shared Parenting

  • Children in shared parenting have two psychological parents. Children in shared parenting plans maintain regular contact with both their mother and father. They get a clear message that both parents love them and both parents want them. They feel important to their family. They understand that their parents make great efforts to jointly care for them. They have access to both parents. They have psychological permission to love and be with both parents. Very few are confused by having two households and two sets of rules. The majority of children are not confused or tormented. Research shows that most like having easy access to both Mom and Dad. They find this better than being with only one parent at intervals.
  • Studies find reduced levels of conflict in shared parenting families. Studies show re-litigation (going back to court) is cut in half. In one study, none of those families had relitigated. But over half of the one-residence parents had returned to court at least once. They went to battle over access or money. Sometimes when courts order shared parenting, one parent opposes it. Relitigation rates were the same for them as one-residence families. Low levels of conflict are in the best interests of the child. Parents and judges should make reducing conflict between parents their main goal. A parenting plan that will minimize conflict should have highest priority.
  • Shared parenting can be a shield for children. It can soften the harmful effects of parent conflict. A child’s self esteem remains high in one-residence plans if parent conflict is low. But in shared parenting, a child’s self-esteem stays high, even with parent conflict. (Research has shown that continued conflict in shared parenting can be just as harmful as conflict in one-residence plans. Parents are sometimes still extremely bitter and angry. Conflict usually happens during exchanges of the child. In such cases, a neutral or public drop-off point may help. It might be at school, a mutual friend’s home, or a fast-food restaurant.)
  • In a recent study of support payments, about half of the sole residential parents received support checks regularly. Of those who shared parenting, none had to return to court. (Though several would have liked more money.) Many co-parenting nonresidential parents continue to provide financial support. They have an active parenting role. They do not feel like they have lost their children. They are not denied access. The power relationship remains balanced. Most of these parents continue financial support after age 18. This is especially important for children who want to go to college. Some absent parents refuse to help with expenses. Many good students are not able to go to college when this happens.
  • Shared parenting provides advantages for childcare. It can be a buffer against many of the problems of single parenthood. These moms and dads often rely on each other for substitute care. One-residence parents are often forced to rely on hired child sitters. This can make serious economic problems even worse.
  • Those who share parenting are less likely to “burn out”. Demands are intense when trying to raise children alone. Many single parents become burned-out.

Disadvantages of Shared Parenting

  • Persistent, high level of conflict causes harm to children. When high levels of conflict are continuing, it might be better to cut back on communications. Keep them as few as possible. Such pathological bitterness needs professional assistance. It helps parents redirect their lives in more positive ways. They can learn to let go of the anger they feel. If domestic violence has occurred, the safety-focused parenting plan mentioned earlier should be considered. See The goal should be parallel parenting with limited communication. Develop a business-like relationship for the safety each parent. When parents control their conflict, they are setting an example. This has long-term benefits for children, especially those who were exposed to violence.
  • Shared parenting may limit a parent’s mobility. Parents who are serious about co-parenting must make personal sacrifices. The parents need to decide which living situation is best for the child. That parent will be responsible for the child’s day-to-day care. A legal shared-parenting plan would still be desired. Then the less active parent’s role would not diminish. Long-distance parenting is very challenging. Both parents will need to make special efforts. They will need to maximize both physical and nonphysical contact. (See references at the end of this guide.)
  • It may trouble an anxious child to go back and forth between homes. Many parents separate when the children are infants or toddlers. They may have never lived together. One parent may have little experience parenting. They may not have good parenting skills. In this case, shared parenting may not be the best plan. Inexperienced parents still need contact with their children. A bond will form and that parent will want to stay in the children’s lives. Parents can improve their parenting skills by taking parenting classes or by using a good online parenting program. As their parenting skills improve, more shared parenting time may be appropriate. A shared parenting plan is usually best for children. (One parent should have primary responsibility for the physical care of the child.) Most children report that transitions are not a problem. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to parenting plans.
  • When couples have not been able to cooperate, they will do parallel parenting. This means that each parent makes decisions about the children with little discussion with the other parent. If this continues for more than a year, the children often get put in the middle. They will be asked to carry messages and are quizzed about the other parent. It may be better for one parent to be the primary residential parent to avoid this stress on the children.
  • Sometimes a parent will think that having more time with their children guarantees a good relationship. Quantity is not a substitute for quality. A high-quality parent-child relationship does not happen by itself or with more time. The good news is that parents can really improve their relationship with their children with parent education. Such classes are available in most communities, and some are also available online. The payoff for both parent and child is a closer, more respectful and more fun relationship that lasts a lifetime.

    This article was adapted with permission from What About the Children? A Simple Guide For Divorced/Separated And Divorcing Parents (CDE, eighth edition, 2011) by Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.) and Jack Arbuthnot (Ph.D.). Based in Athens, OH, the Center for Divorce Education (CDE) is a non-profit corporation founded in 1987 by a consortium of attorneys and psychologists. The CDE is dedicated to advocating for children and helping parents to minimize the harmful effects that divorce and separation has on children.

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