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Once dismissed as a disruptive oddity, shared physical custody is increasingly common in divorce courts across the nation. A growing body of research indicates that children in joint custody arrangements have fewer behavioral and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, and better family relations and school performance than children in sole custody arrangements. "Children need both parents -- one is not more primary or important than the other," says Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., a child psychologist specializing in custody issues. Here, some basic guidelines to make shared custody run smoothly:
1. Set up an arrangement that has a predictable and reasonable routine. "The best system is one that accommodates both parents' schedules and serves the best interests of the child," says Dr. Brodlie. Under any plan, holidays should be divvied up between the parents, alternating year to year. Common arrangements include:
- The children stay with one parent Monday through Thursday and the other for the rest of the week, reversing every six months.
- The children switch homes every week or two weeks. Some divorced parents arrange for the kids to remain in the same home and do the alternating themselves, which can create a sense of stability.
2. Leave young children out of negotiations, and present your decision matter-of-factly. "If you give your child the power to decide where he'll stay, you're going to burden him with the guilt associated with making that choice," says Dr. Brodlie. As kids hit their early teens, they'll want -- and should have -- more of a say about where they stay.
3. Balance work and play to avoid the Sunday Dad syndrome where one person is the "play" parent and the other is "bossy." Says Dr. Brodlie: "It's important that both parents have time to get involved in all aspects of their children's lives, like getting them to bed on time and making sure homework is done, as well as having fun."
4. Don't hold yourself to impossibly high standards. Amicable divorces with smooth shared-custody arrangements are "rarely the case in real-life divorce," says Dr. Brodlie. "The more that parents can agree on and the less that's left up to the courts, the easier the process." Dr. Brodlie recommends that couples use mediation rather than litigation to save time, money, and stress. "The important thing to remember is that divorce is not a sprint, it's a marathon," he says.
5. Don't bad-mouth new spouses. If you start a new relationship, your old partner may talk poorly about your new partner to your child. "If your children are very young, they may cater to a parent's comments," says Dr. Brodlie. Instead of firing back with equally divisive ideas about your ex's new partner, encourage your children to be their own judge of character.
6. Be flexible. No matter how tight or detailed your agreement, flexibility is key when it comes to your children's well-being. As irritating or inconvenient as it may be to agree to trips that may infringe on your time, you're only punishing your children if you drag your heels to spite your ex.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2004 issue of Child magazine.