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Who Should the Children Live With?

When working with distressed individuals and couples the possibility of separation is often raised and with it the implications for children. The idea that staying together ‘for the sake of the children’ is no longer universally accepted but alternatives are less clear. While empathy and understanding are important this is a time when our clients want to know facts and we are responsible to deliver.

How Do We Find Out?

Much has been written about outcomes for children across different living arrangements including nuclear families, shared physical custody and lone physical custody. Fortunately, authors Vowells et al (2023) have synthesized this literature drawing on 39 studies, conducted between January 2010 to December 2022 by ‘extracting and structuring relevant theoretical hypotheses (selection, instability, fewer resources, and stressful mobility) and comparing the empirical findings against these hypotheses’. Five children’s outcome domains were identified: emotional, behavioral, relational, physical, and educational.

What Do We Know?

Children in nuclear families showed equal or better outcomes to any post-separation arrangement. However, 75% of children in shared care did equally well as those in intact families, suggesting that instability is not the key variable contributing to poor outcomes but rather parents’ capacity to agree and parent co-operatively. Those in lone parent care consistently had the worst results. These outcomes are congruent with the fewer resources hypothesis with children in lone physical care having fewer economic and relationship resources compared to those in shared care and nuclear families.

Parents sometimes cite stress of moving between households as a reason not to share care. The results suggest otherwise, suggesting that the value of maintaining a relationship with both parents outweighs any detrimental effect of moving between households. Studies with children 0-7 years indicated that outcomes from shared parent care and a nuclear family were comparable which contradicts the view that younger children benefit from single parent care, usually by a mother. The review did not support the idea that the introduction of a stepparent was necessarily detrimental with these arrangements no worse than other post-separation and comparable to lone parent care.

What Does this Mean?

As practitioners we are not dealing with large cohorts of people, many of whom are not seeking help, but rather those who sit before us. Each matter is different and requires a nuanced understanding that takes the whole system into account. In exploring the best arrangement for a child post separation, issues like violence, abuse, substance misuse and the social and emotional  world of each parent must be considered. Understanding the child as a person and their experiences is also crucial. However, when these matters are accounted for and we are faced with the question about how to serve the child’s best interests, this paper allows us to confidently say  “As long as your parents can cooperate and agree, outcomes are usually similar to a child in an intact family”.


Vowels LM, Comolli CL, Bernardi L, Chaco´n-Mendoza D, Darwiche J (2023) Systematic review and theoretical comparison of children’s outcomes in post-separation living arrangements. PLoS ONE 18(6): e0288112. 10.1371/journal.pone.0288112

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