When parents divorce often the most important issue, and perhaps the most difficult negotiation, involves the children. Parents typically have strong views on legal and physical custody of the children and how the arrangements should be structured.
New research finds that children who live full time with one parent are more likely to feel stressed than children in shared custody situations. Perhaps surprisingly, this finding persists regardless of the level of conflict between the parents or between parent and child.
Investigators from Stockholm University’s Demography Unit believe habitation with each parent is important because children who spend most of the time away from one parent may lose contact with friends, relatives and even struggle with resources like money.
Previous research has also shown that children may worry about the parent they rarely meet, which can make them more stressed, said Dr. Jani Turunen, a child and adolescent mental health researcher at Stockholm and Karlstad Universities.
Investigators explain that the understanding that children who live full time with one parent are worse psychologically than children in shared physical custody has been previously shown, However, the new study is the first to look specifically at stress.
Shared physical custody is not to be confused with shared legal custody. Shared legal custody only gives both parents the legal right to decisions about the child’s upbringing, school choices, religion, and so on. Shared physical custody means the child actually lives for equal, or near equal, time with both parents, alternating between separate households.
Researchers analyzed data from the Surveys of Living Conditions in Sweden, ULF, from 2001-2003, combined with registry data. Sweden is a country that is often considered a pioneer in emerging family forms and behaviors like divorce, childbearing and family reconstitution.
Turunen believe the progressive Swedish environment may help other countries deal with comparable issues. Her paper appears in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage.
In the survey, a total of 807 children with different types of living arrangements answered questions about how often they experience stress and how well, or badly, they get along with their parents. The parents were also queried on how well they get along with their former partner.
Researchers discovered children living with only one of the parents have a higher likelihood of experiencing stress several times a week, than children in shared physical custody. This generally applied even if the parents have a poor relationship, or if the children don’t get along with either of them.
Study results conflict with a previous concern that shared physical custody could be an unstable living situation, which can lead to children becoming more stressed. However, many of the earlier concerns were built on theoretical assumptions, rather than empirical research, says Turunen.
What probably makes children in shared physical custody less stressed is that they can have an active relationship with both their parents, which previous research has shown to be important for children’s well-being.
As the relationship between the child and both of its parents becomes stronger, the child finds the relationship to be better and the parents can both exercise more active parenting.
In other words, living with both parents does not mean instability for the children. It’s just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and a good contact with both parents equals stability, Turunen said.
Source: Stockholm University