How Joint Physical Custody Arrangements Effect Children

Is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children?

In many Western countries, an increasing number of children with separated parents live in a joint physical custody arrangement, that is, live equally (or close there to) as much in their parent’s respective homes. In Sweden, joint physical custody is particularly common; between 30 percent and 40 percent of the children with separated parents live in joint physical custody regimes. Some believe that the frequent moves and lack of stability in parenting may be stressful for these children, but a new study, published in April 2015 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, suggests that children fare better when they spend time living with both of their parents.

Children in a joint physical custody arrangement suffered from fewer psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent but reported more symptoms than those in non-broken families. Satisfaction with their material resources and parent-child relationships was associated with the children’s psychosomatic health but could not explain the differences between the children in the different living arrangements.

Regarding the well being of kids with divorced parents, the debate over what kind of custody arrangement is best rages on, but the Swedish study goes against some current thinking that kids in shared-custody routines are exposed to more stress due to constantly moving back and forth and the social disruption that can come along with it. Children are best in an environment with consistent routines. The lack of routine can cause instability, which is result from moving from one house to the other.

“Child experts and people in general assumed that these children should be more stressed,” says study author Dr. Malin Bergström, a researcher at the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm, Sweden. “But this study opposes a major concern that this should not be good for children.”

Joint-custody parenting has risen dramatically in Sweden in the past few decades; 25 years ago, only 1 percent of children of divorced parents lived in joint-custody arrangements, but that number increased to 40 percent in 2010. These types of child custody arrangements are less common within the United States, says Dr. Ned Holstein, founder and acting executive director of the National Parents Organization.

Dr. Holstein estimates that shared/joint physical custody arrangements make up less than 20% of all custody orders. Still, he says that the research in favor of shared parenting for kids is overwhelming positive. “You’ll hear opponents say, ‘You’ll turn them into suitcase kids; they don’t want to be dragged back and forth,’” Dr. Holstein says. “Clearly, taking the suitcase back and forth once or twice a week so that you spend a lot of time with both parents is way better for the kids than the alternative of basically losing an intimate and closely loving relationship with one parent.”


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