Split custody, or shared custody, refers to an arrangement between divorced parents in which the children spend just about equal time in both homes. Sometimes this takes the form of living one week with one parent, and the next with the other parent, while other arrangements break the time periods into longer blocks. While split custody may give both parents equal time, it often has harmful effects on the children involved, if parents can't work together.
Child in the Middle
While split custody can work when both parents are committed to healthy co-parenting, studies have shown that split arrangements can leave the child as the primary communicator between the parents, with the parents sending messages back and forth through the child instead of talking to each other. While this might work for birthday party invitations, when it comes to major decisions about getting braces or requesting the return of clothing or other effects, that only adds stress to the child.
Sensitivity to Change
If the divorce happens in later childhood, it may take months, or even longer, for children to get used to the idea that their parents are apart and will not reconcile. This means that living a week with Mom and then a week with Dad can cause long-term stress, particularly if Mom and Dad have markedly different rules, schedules or living conditions.
Vulnerability to Bad Habits
Older children who go back and forth between parents on a roughly equal schedule can be tempted to play one parent against the other when it comes to setting rules. If Dad, for example, is more strict about clothing choices and curfews than Mom is, then an older child might use that to make Dad feel guilty or plan inappropriate activities for time with Mom. Either way, the child is placed in a position with inappropriate levels of power, which leads to emotional damage.
Increased Parental Cooperation
This last effect only occurs in situations where both parents can work together for the child's best interests. Even if a couple finds that they can't stay married, they can continue to work for the child's good. This doesn't mean that Mom, Dad and the kids will all vacation together, but it does mean that they can take the kids' needs and schedules into account when arranging visitation, and they can communicate without adding to the normal stress levels of growing up.
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