Shared custody results in less stress for kids, new study

Shared physical custody results in less stress for kids.
Shared physical custody results in less stress for kids. Photo: Shutterstock

Children who live full-time with one parent are more likely to feel stressed than those in shared custody arrangements following their parents' separation, finds a new study.

"The explanation may be that children, who spend most of the time away from one parent, lose resources like relatives, friends and money," said co-author Jani Turunen in a statement.

"Previous research has also shown that children may worry about the parent they rarely meet, which can make them more stressed."

As part of the research, published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, a team from Stockholm University surveyed 807 children in various living arrangements. Participants were asked how often they experience stress and about the quality of their relationship with their parents. Parents were also asked how well they get along with their ex-partner.

The authors distinguish between shared physical custody - living in two homes - and shared legal custody, where both parents make decisions around a child's health, education and general upbringing.

When they analysed the results, the researchers found that kids living with only one parent, were more likely to experience stress, several times a week, than those who divided their time between two households.

And interestingly, it didn't matter if the parents' relationship was poor post-breakup, or the child reported not getting along with either parent - the effect remained regardless.

"Living with both parents does not mean instability for the children," Turunen said. "It's just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and a good contact with both parents equals stability."

So why are children in shared custody arrangements less stressed? The authors believe that by living in two locations, children can have an "active relationship" with both parents, something previous research has linked to children's well-being.

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 "The results can be interpreted as evidence for a positive effect of continuing everyday-like parental relationships after a family dissolution," the authors note.

It's a view shared by the Australian Psychological Society who, in their position statement on parenting after divorce, note that, "Studies focusing on residential arrangements following divorce tend to show that children can fare well under joint (not necessarily 50/50) arrangements rather than sole mother or father residency, provided certain conditions within the family dynamic exist to support that arrangement."

More specifically, there are a number of protective factors, identified by previous research, which help children adjust to divorce. These include: low inter-parental conflict, effective and constructive resolution of conflict between the parents, the quality of the parent-child relationship, nurturing, authoritative parenting from at least one parent, and cooperative co-parenting with good communication. 

The APS provides the following specific advice to separating parents:

  • Parents should focus on building a secure emotional base for their children after separation, wherever possible through cooperative co-parenting 
  • Do not expose children to high levels of unresolved conflict
  • Carefully consider children's developmental and emotional needs when constructing visiting schedules or parenting plans.