A Swedish study of 807 10- to 18-year-old children of separated parents found that when parents shared physical custody, children were 8.5% less likely to report high levels of stress. The finding held even when controlling for the quality of cooperation between the parents, the quality of the child-parent relationships and the parents’ income. It also held true irrespective of the child’s age and gender, immigrant status, number of other children in the household, location of residency and the presence of step-parents.

Older children were more likely to report stress, and girls were more likely to do so than boys. Stress was also more common when parents disagreed a lot, and when the child didn’t get on well with one of the parents. A surprising finding, according to the researcher, was that children in higher-income families are more likely to be stressed than children in lower-income families. The researcher offers a possible explanation: perhaps higher-income children face more demands regarding school results and extra-curricular activities.

Sweden has both the highest proportion of separated parents and the highest levels of shared physical custody in the world. Since 1992, shared residence has been a legal presumption, provided there are no specific factors rendering it against the child’s interest. Only 2% of custody arrangements in Sweden are imposed by a judge.

Dr Jani Turunen at Stockholm and Karlstadt universities drew the data from wider Surveys of Living Conditions in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The surveys involved interviews with both parents and children/young people. Children were asked about stress and their relationship with their parents. Parents were asked about the relationship between the child’s biological parents and the child’s living arrangements. Children were regarded as experiencing high stress if they reported feeling stressed more than once a week.

With some variation depending on the sample, other studies from around the world have generally shown improved outcomes for children living with shared custody arrangements.

Dr Turunen suggests that shared custody arrangements might reduce stress for children for a number of reasons:

  • Children have more access to parental resources, both financial and social.
  • Parents who see their children regularly are more likely to invest in them.
  • Child-parent relationships are sustained better.
  • Parents who share may be less busy and more experienced/competent in caring.

Header photo: Sodanie Chea. Creative Commons.

References

Turunen J (2017), Shared Physical Custody and Children’s Experience of Stress, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 58