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January 28, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Swedish researcher Malin Bergstrom is back with another study on joint physical custody and child well-being and it, like her previous one is strongly on the side of joint custody. Her recent work appeared in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health and is entitled “Psychological Complaints Among Children in Joint Physical Custody and Other Family Types: Considering Parental Factors.”

Bergstrom’s previous piece studied over 150,000 children in various family arrangements to address a common criticism of joint residence for children of divorce – that shuttling between two households would increase the children’s stress and lead to a variety of poorer educational, health, mental health, etc. outcomes. Bergstrom’s findings were unequivocal: children moving back and forth between parents had no discernible effect on children’s well-being and was far outweighed by the salutary effects of continued relationships with both parents.

Her most recent study, conducted along with four other Swedish researchers, took on the question of whether the benefits of shared parenting could be explained by factors other than post-separation family arrangements.

Previous Swedish studies that have investigated the health and well-being of school children and adolescents in joint physical custody have shown conflicting results regarding the difference in health outcomes between adolescents in joint physical custody and in nuclear families, most have reported the best health outcomes being in the nuclear group [10–14]. More interesting, a few studies found differences in wellbeing and psychosomatic health complaints between joint physical custody and adolescents living with only one parent, with better outcomes for those in joint physical custody [10,11,14]. The differences in health between adolescents in joint physical custody and in sole parental care might be partly explained by structural socioeconomic differences as parents practicing joint physical custody have been described to have a more favourable socioeconomic situation than parents with sole parental care [15]. Joint physical custody has been suggested as more common among relatively well-educated parents [15], and parental couples with good communication and few conflicts are suggested to more often end up with joint physical custody than sole custody [16]. However, many previous studies on child outcomes in different living arrangements have failed to adjust for socioeconomic factors.

That is, we know that children with joint residency following their parents’ divorce do better overall than do children living with a single parent. But could that be explained by other factors? For example, perhaps parenting arrangements tended to come about due to socioeconomic factors. Is it possible that income levels or race had something to do with what parenting arrangement children ended up with following divorce or separation?

Or could it be that parents with mental/emotional problems tended toward one particular type of parenting arrangement and it was those very problems that were being passed on to their children and then recorded by researchers as the results of the parenting arrangements studied?

Bergstrom, et al, studied over 5,000 kids, the vast majority of whom lived in nuclear families, over 600 lived with a sole parent and about 400 in the joint physical custody of both divorced parents. They measured the psychological complaints of the children, all of whom were between the ages of 10 and 18. Again, the results are clear: children in nuclear families and joint custody have about the same levels of psychological complaints, while those in sole custody have far more. Also, girls tend to complain more than boys and older kids complain more than younger ones.

(My guess is that those latter two findings can be explained primarily by the facts that (a) boys learn to refrain from complaining at a fairly early age and (b) older children are learning to assert themselves.)

Finally, those findings are maintained irrespective of socioeconomic status and parental ill-health.

More children in non-intact families have parents who suffer from worry/anxiety. Multiple regressions of psychological complaints in children, however, did not show higher levels of complaints in children in joint physical custody compared with those in nuclear families while children in sole parental care showed higher levels of psychological complaints. The differences between joint physical custody and sole parental care was not explained by socioeconomic factors or by parental ill-health. Thus, the results suggest that joint physical custody might counteract the potential negative effects of parental separation.

In short, when it comes to children’s psychological welfare, shared parenting time is unquestionably the best arrangement post-divorce or separation. This of course is not new, but Bergstrom’s latest work is valuable because it accounts for the other variables that could be contributing to the results in previous studies. Now we know that it is joint physical custody that promotes children’s well-being and not some artifact of parents’ income, educational level, emotional state, etc.

Will state legislators take note? Will they pass laws requiring shared parenting when both parents are fit? Will judges ruling in child custody cases be trained in the social science that so urgently demands joint custody?

Those are good questions. The social science on shared parenting has been around for a long time with little apparent change in the decisions made by judges or the laws of the various states. By now, all serious doubts about shared parenting have been laid to rest. This latest study is simply one of many, albeit a very valuable one. What matters now isn’t more research, but action by lawmakers to put into effect what we already know.

There is no excuse for not doing so. Only special interest pleading against shared parenting and, by extension, against children’s welfare, can maintain the status quo.

Those interest groups opposed to shared parenting have a reliable mouthpiece in The Guardian newspaper. Tomorrow I’ll show what a hash The Guardian made of the Swedish study.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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