Is joint custody the best option for my son?

I may be imagining it, but it seems my six-year-old son takes a day to adjust when he returns from the week with his father. He's crabby and sullen and doesn't like to do anything but watch TV the first day back. By the next day he's back to himself, but I worry if joint physical custody is really the right choice for him.


Jann Blackstone-Ford

Author of Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and Director of Bonus Families, a non-profit organization... Read more

What you describe has been the observation of many parents who attempt joint physical custody -- 50 percent of the time with Mom and 50 percent of the time with Dad -- and this is why the jury is still out on joint physical custody. Some family therapists believe this approach is the most positive solution to dividing the children's time between parents, but other therapists suggest that such an agreement lengthens the child's period of adjustment after a divorce.

I believe it is our responsibility as parents to do everything we can to make our children as comfortable as possible after divorce. As a mediator, I deal mostly with custody disagreements, but few parents are concerned as to whether their custody agreement is the right one for the kids; they want to make sure they get all their time in, and they do not want the ex to get one extra minute.

My husband and his ex also have joint physical custody of their two children, and joint physical custody was the right choice for them. In the beginning, both children missed the other parent so much that there had to be a compromise -- the 50/50 split. Were the kids affected by their parents' divorce? You bet they were, but the week at Mom's and then the week at Dad's have enabled them to stay close to both parents. As time moved on, the separation between both houses became less until now, 12 years later, there is an open-door policy.

What are some of the positive things children can learn from living half the time with Mom and half the time with Dad? Grown children of divorce tell me that living in two houses allowed them to be active members of both families and taught them to adjust quickly to new environments; it also instilled in them the importance of organization and staying on schedule. A 19-year-old college student brought up an interesting point: She felt she was closer to her dad because her parents divorced and they had joint physical custody. She said the fact that she was alone with her dad on his week gave them the opportunity to build a closer relationship than if her parents lived together.

So what do you do to help your child adjust to living in two homes?

Work with his other parent to help him prepare for the transition

• "Tomorrow you're going to Daddy's!"
• "Tomorrow you're going to Mommy's!"

Try to stay as consistent as possible between homes

• Same bedtime.
• Learn to make his favorite meals.
• Keep discipline and rules the same at both houses.

Teach him quick ways to stay organized

• Calendars are great. Point out when it's time to make the transition and make sure he has the same calendar at both houses.
• Make sure clothes and other articles are ready to go to the other house on time.

Reinforce communication with the other parent

• If he wants to call the other parent, let him.
• Make up little ways to stay close such as writing letters and mailing them, even if the other parent just lives down the street.
• Email is great.
• Do not, under any circumstances, bad-mouth the other parent in front of your child.
• Learn to bite your tongue and cooperate.

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