Shared custody is the best way to decrease a child’s stress after a divorce, according to a new study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. Researchers found that, no matter the level of conflict between parents, children benefit from co-parenting arrangements. This contrasts sharply with earlier work, which suggested that children need stable living conditions and that constant flitting between parents can make it more difficult for them to adjust.
“There has previously been a concern that shared physical custody could be an unstable living situation, that can lead to children becoming more stressed,” acknowledged coauthor on the study Jani Turunen of Stockholm University, in a statement. “But those who pointed to it earlier have built their concerns on theoretical assumptions, rather than empirical research.”
Minimizing a child’s stress after an ugly divorce is not just a mental health issue—it’s a physical health priority, as well. Studies have shown that ugly divorces can cause long-term health problems—kids from broken homes tend to catch colds more often and have shorter lifespans. Researchers largely agree that these adverse effects are due to stress and that kids who live full-time with one parent tend to suffer psychologically. But until now, scientists had not managed to link shared physical custody with a measurable decrease in stress.
Turunen and colleagues surveyed 807 children, asking about their living arrangements, how often they experience stress, and how well they get along with their parents. Their parents also weighed in, describing their relationships with their exes. Turunen found that, regardless of how ugly the divorce may have been and how poorly children got along with their parents, kids living with only one parent had a higher likelihood of experiencing stress several times per week.
That may be because children in shared custody situations benefit from active, meaningful relationships with both parents. Or because children who spend time with only one parent also lose the emotional support of relatives and friends from the spurned side of the family. Regardless, Turunen says, children clearly benefit from regular contact with both parents.
“Living with both parents does not mean instability for the children,” Turunen says. “It’s just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and a good contact with both parents equals to stability.”