Why donâ€™t children bounce back from divorce? Theyâ€™re resilient little things, yet the research shows a relentless association between parental break-ups and poor academic achievement, stress, ill health and depression in children. So with warnings last week that couples who stay together for the â€œsake of the childrenâ€ arenâ€™t necessarily doing the best thing, whatâ€™s the least-worst thing parents can do?
The answer to this, as for so many things, may come from Sweden. In the 1980s, 1% of Swedish parents who divorced had shared residency â€“ children stayed with each parent half the time (or at least 35% of the time). Now the number of shared residencies is close to 50%. In the UK, it is between 9% and 12%.
Intuitively, this seems like a terrible idea. How can parents who are splitting up share their childrenâ€™s everyday lives? Isnâ€™t it confusing for children to repeatedly move between houses? Wonâ€™t they be exposed to constant rows? There are, handily, more than 40 studies that compare children in shared residence arrangements with those living primarily with one parent. The latest, from Emma Franssonâ€™s team at the esteemed Stockholm University and Karolinska Institute, looked specifically at the psychological wellbeing of 4,684 children. It asked if they felt sad, angry, had poor concentration or were tense and nervous. Unlike other studies, the researchers found the same level of psychological complaints in children in shared residency as in those in nuclear families. Children living with one parent had higher levels of psychological complaints. The study took into account the financial status of the parents, but this did not significantly affect the results. The weight of evidence from the other studies, according to a summary in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, is that children do better if parenting is shared, even allowing for the fact that couples who share parenting tend to have higher incomes and less conflict.
Shared residency doesnâ€™t work so well if there is conflict (if there is violence, then sharing is not an option), if the children are adolescents (less keen on two homes), or if the children donâ€™t like one parent. It is easy to selectively pick the research to suit your argument â€“ studies are mostly not high quality and mix divorced couples and those who have split up after cohabiting, which may be different. Also, children whose parents have more money, a better education and stay on friendly terms will often do better, whatever the parenting plan. But the research is clear that children benefit from two parents being interested in them, and sharing custody encourages this.