Dangers of Sole Custody

Raising a child as a single parent is extraordinarily difficult.   Even the hardest working single parent may not be able to couteract the damage from loss of a strong relationship with both parents.  Children raised by a single parent are at an extremely high risk of serious trouble in school, teen pregnancy, drug use, and countless other problems.  You may know a family like this.   The best way to protect children from the stresses of parental divorce is to ensure a strong relationship with both parents (when both are fit) through a balanced, equal amount of time with both.   This arrangement most closely mirrors an intact family, which both common sense and careful research shows is the best situation for children.  The US Department of Health and Human Services summarizes the risks of single parent families:

"More than a quarter of American children—nearly 17 million—do not live with their father. Girls without a father in their life are two and a half times as likely to get pregnant and 53 percent more likely to commit suicide. Boys without a father in their life are 63 percent more likely to run away and 37 percent more likely to abuse drugs. Both girls and boys are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to end up in jail and nearly four times as likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems."   

Even more frightening statistics can be found in the research below.  Children need both their mothers and their fathers.  Children do best with both parents together.  If your spouse wants a divorce, do everything you can to keep your family together.  But if you cannot stop the divorce, don't let your children grow up in sole custody.

Think Twice
  • If your lawyer suggests that you can win sole custody in court, think twice.  Is it really worth the risk to your child?  Teen pregnancy, problems in school, drug addiction, and delinquency are problems that can affect your child for life. 
  • If your lawyer says that you have little chance of winning shared custody, think twice before settling for less than joint physical custody.  You may save money in legal costs, but the damage to your child from sole custody could be lifelong.

K. Crowder and J. Teachman,(2004)  “Do Residential Conditions Explain the Relationship Between Living Arrangements and Adolescent Behavior?” Journal of Marriage and Family 66 [2004]: 721-738.

Sole custody means trouble for adolescents
  • “the odds of experiencing a premarital pregnancy are two times higher for those from solo single-parent families than for those from other family types.”
  • “a 25-point increase in the percentage of time spent with a solo single parent during childhood increases the odds of dropping out by about 32%.”

 B.J. Ellis et al.(2003), “Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?” Child Development 74[2003]: 801-821

Teen pregnancy is much more common with sole custody
  • there is “a dose-response relationship between timing of onset of father absence and early sexual outcomes”
  • “early father-absent girls had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father-absent girls, followed by father-present girls.”
  • “rates of teenage pregnancy...were 7 to 8 times higher among early father-absent girls, but only 2 to 3 times higher among late father-absent girls, than among father-present girls.”

G. Ringbäck Weitoft,
et al.,2003)  “Mortality, severe morbidity, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: A population-based study,” The Lancet, Vol. 361, No. 9354 [25 January 2020]: 289-295

Kids are at much greater risk of death in sole custody, single parent families
  • “...girls with single parents were more than twice as likely to commit suicide and more than three times as likely to die from an addiction to drugs or alcohol than were girls with two parents. Boys of single parents were more than five times more likely to die from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, more than three times as likely to die from a fall or poisoning, and four times more likely to die from external violence….”
  • “After adjustment for age, the risk of dying was more than 50% greater in boys in single-parent families than in those boys living with both parents.”

S. McCue Horwitz et al., “Language Delay in a Community Cohort of Young Children,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 42 [2003]: 932-940.

Even young children in sole custody families are likely to have problems in school
  • 18-23 month toddlers in single parent homes “have low prosocial peer scores and, in addition, are low in imitation/play, attention skills, and the overall domain of competence.”
  • “even as adolescents, these children [with delayed expressive language development] continue to manifest poor academic skills.”

W.H. Jeynes, "The Effects of Recent Parental Divorce on Their Children’s Consumption of Marijuana and Cocaine," Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol. 35, Nos. 3 and 4 (2001): 43-64.

Drug use is much more common in sole custody, single parent families
  • "children living in a single-parent divorce family were associated with a greater degree of drug consumption for all the categories under investigation [i.e., marijuana and cocaine]."
  • "children from recently divorced single-parent families were also more likely than children in intact families to have been under the influence of cocaine at school."

A.N. McMunn et al., "Children’s emotional and behavioural well-being and the family environment: findings from the Health Survey for England," Social Science & Medicine 53[2001]: 423-440

Sole custody children in stepfamilies also have higher levels of psychological problems. 
  •  stepparents do not replace a relationship with both parents
  • "socioeconomic factors did not...explain the higher proportion of psychological morbidity among children with stepparents."
  • "the increased risk of behavioural and psychological symptoms among children in ‘reconstituted’ families may be the consequence of a number of potential disruptions or combination of disruptions"
  • "the effects of remarriage on children generally fail to show a beneficial effect."

W. Jeynes, "A Longitudinal Analysis on the Effects of Remarriage Following Divorce on the Academic Achievement of Adolescents,"
Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 33[2000]: 131-148

Stepparents do not make up for the lack of both biological parents in sole custody families
  • stepfamilies on average are worse than single parent families
  • "remarriage following divorce has somewhat of a negative impact on the academic achievement of teenage children."
  • children of divorce from reconstituted families generally achieve at lower levels academically on virtually all measures than their counterparts in intact families."

B. J. Ellis and Judy Garber, "Psychosocial Antecedents of Variation in Girls’ Pubertal Timing: Maternal Depression, Stepfather Presence, and Family Stress," Child Development 71[2000]: 485-501
  • "divorce accelerates pubertal maturation in girls because of its association with increased exposure to unrelated father figures."
  • "more problem behaviors such as alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity."

B. J. Ellis et al., (1999)  “Quality of Early Family Relationships and Individual Differences in the Timing of Pubertal Maturation in Girls:  A Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" 77 [1999]: 387-401
  • “girls who were in single-mother homes at age 5 tend[ing] to experience earlier puberty.” 
  • “early onset of puberty in girls is associated with negative health and psychosocial outcomes,” including “more emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety” 

J. M. Hilton and E. L. Devall, (1998) “Comparison of Parenting and Children’s Behavior in Single-Mother, Single-Father, and Intact Families,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol. 29, Nos. 3/4 [1998], pp. 23-50.)

  • 6- to 10-year-old children raised in divorced-mother households showed a significantly increased likelihood “to lie, destroy property, and associate with children who got into trouble.” 
  • findings “particularly disturbing given that the children in the sample were pre-adolescent.”


Child custody arrangements are normally of one of the following types:
  • Joint Physical Custody -the arrangement in which a child spends at least one-third of their time with each parent, often 50/50 time division between parents.
  • Joint Legal Custody -  situations in which both parents have  some legal decision-making role, but the child's living arrangement is the same as sole custody (non-custodial parent is permitted four days a month with the child).
  • Sole Custody - the traditional arrangement in which the child lives with one parent and visits the other parent every other weekend, plus two weeks in summer.
Extensive research has shown that children do best when both parents remain involved, by allowing them to spend a balanced amount of time with both parents (joint physical custody).  More information on joint custody and shared parenting can be found at CRC's research section:  Joint Custody and Shared Parenting Research.

Updated 24 July  05