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  • Thea Bourke Martin

Conflict and Shared Custody


It can be difficult to get along with your ex-spouse after a divorce. However, parental conflict has negative outcomes on children. Some children “externalize” in the form of aggression or non-compliant behavior while others “internalize” in the form of depression or anxiety. Children are also at a higher risk of developing poor social skills and problem-solving abilities as well as experiencing health problems, disturbed sleep, and difficulty focusing in school. Some children blame themselves for their parents' divorce, and that stress can lead to physiological reactions that may harm their development.

In 2013, Irwin Sandler studied the relationship between conflict, parenting time and quality, and mental health problems of children in high-conflict divorced families. He found that frequent conflict and feelings of being caught in the middle resulted in a negative report of parenting quality. Conversely, low conflict and higher parenting quality resulted in fewer internalizing and externalizing problems.

The solution is not sole custody. Dr. Laura Nielsen examined 54 studies that compared children’s outcomes in shared and sole physical custody families and found that most kids in shared physical custody families have better outcomes than children in sole physical custody. She then factored in the level of parental conflict and found that children in joint custody still had better outcomes.

Maintaining strong relationships with both parents appears to offset the damage of high parental conflict and poor co-parenting. While parental conflict can lead to poor outcomes for the child, the ability to co-parent and continue to have strong parent-child relationships can improve the child’s well-being.

This research is not suggesting that shared custody in high-conflict families is harmful, rather that learning to get along and providing your child with access to both parents can help them adjust.

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