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Feature Article


Divorce and Living Arrangements for Children

Reviewed and adapted by Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, Cooper County, University of Missouri Extension

Custody arrangements for children can be a conflictive issue when parents divorce. Since the late 20th century, joint legal custody has been the preferred divorce arrangement. In joint legal custody, physical custody is shared but one parent has primary physical custody, meaning that parent has custody more than 50 percent of the time. In Missouri, joint legal custody is the preferred statutory arrangement. But even with joint legal custody, there are an abundance of possibilities for physical custody.

Constance Ahrons, a researcher who followed 173 children of divorced parents for two decades, reports her findings in a new book, We’re Still Family. She writes that half the children she studied saw their fathers once or twice a week and one or two weekends a month. The other half saw their fathers once or twice a month or less.

Power struggles
Ahrons considers living arrangements to be mainly power struggles between the parents. Married spouses may punish each other by withholding affection, spending money or denying money. For divorced couples, the avenues of power are money and children. Living arrangements can become more about winning the argument than the children’s best interest.

In more than half the joint custody cases Ahrons studied, parents who were in conflict at the time of the divorce remained in conflict for years. Most parents were so angry that they didn’t consider the possibility that living arrangements might change as the parents’ and children’s needs changed.

Children were most stressed by lingering conflicts between the parents. They reported they sensed hostility, even if words were not used. Children tended to distance themselves from both parents when there were high levels of conflict, noting it was a relief to “get away” from one or the other of the parents. Questioned about the other parent, they resented being forced to take sides. One child said he felt like a ping-pong ball.

Ahrons asked the children in her study what living arrangement advice would help parents entering into a parenting plan. Children said that positive experiences at transition times helped. An example of this is when one parent prepared a dessert that all — including the non-custodial parent — shared at the pickup time. Children also mentioned instances of parents being cooperative at transition times. For example, one child described the parents talking together about what items the child needed to take to the other parent's house. Another child recalled the custodial parent encouraging him to take the non-custodial parent to his room to see the schoolwork that he completed that week.

Time to acclimate to shifting from one household to the other was very important, especially for younger children. They also said transitions were especially difficult when both parents avoided contact during the changeover. It helps to remind children this is a special day.

Among cooperative parents who considered equal parenting best for their children, most fathers were involved and mothers welcomed the shared parenting. Children experienced less distress between homes. Though they reported the transition between homes was not easy, it was made easier because the parents cooperated.

Children said they wanted flexibility in living arrangements. They want to be able to transition between households on their schedules, not their parents. To the children, the issue was not the amount of time, but the parental climate during transitions and the tug of war over which parent “wins” the argument.

Experts disagree on what parenting arrangements are best for children. Some believe a stable home is preferable, while others favor arrangements in which children spend time with each parent. Children need to know their parents care about them and will be a part of their daily lives with few interruptions and stresses. In Ahrons’ study, the children were not aware of the parents’ legal custody arrangements unless the parents battled over the children’s custody.

Children preferred that parents live close to each other. Living farther apart may meet parental needs, but it doesn’t meet children’s needs. Children in the study said they wanted to maintain regular schedules and not have to travel. One child, age 9, was afraid his mother would die while he visited his father. The child remembered that when he was going to his dad’s house, his mother said she didn’t know how she could live without him.

The distance between parents’ residences has a significant impact on the ability of a parent and child to physically spend time together. Fathers who have been involved in child care are less willing to have to assume a visiting role in divorce.

Traveling alone can be scary for young children. However, some children feel more grown up when they are able to travel alone. Traveling is especially disruptive for teens that want to be with their friends. They often experience ambivalence, wanting to see a parent but not wanting to disrupt their own social lives. Some children in Ahrons’ study said they feel disloyal traveling to another parent’s home. Some reported feeling guilty after having a good time with their non-custodial parents.

Ahrons was surprised to find that more than half the children she studied changed living arrangements at least once during the years after the divorce, most in adolescence. The most common reason the children gave for this was a parent’s remarriage. Many parenting plans provide for planned negotiations as a child’s developmental needs change.

Rules and routines
Juggling child care and school schedules with work schedules is challenging for intact families, but working around custody schedules, work schedules and children’s schedules can be especially stressful and challenging for divorced parents.

Additional dislikes among children of divorced parents were changes in rules and routines and the hassles of transferring clothing from house to house. It also is best if parents agree about rules for watching television and curfews.

After divorce, children have more power in their parents’ relationship. Some use that power to manipulate their parents. Parents who interact and can agree on rules reduce the ability of the children to manipulate and pit one parent against the other. Different rules can intensify a child’s feelings of conflict between parents.

Whatever the parenting plan, flexibility by parents is very important. Cooperative parents are more effective in making parenting plans work.


Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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