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It’s the rare divorcee who shares child custody with an ex without worrying about said kids’ emotional fallout. But a new study, published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, may help put some of those fears to rest. The findings suggest that children are mentally healthiest when they are able split their time between both divorced parents.
“It was surprising that children who have two homes and move frequently report less stress symptoms than those who live in one stable home after their parent’s separation,” study author Malin Bergström, a researcher at the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm, Sweden, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Developmental psychology has taught us that stability and predictability is necessary for children’s healthy development.” But the findings here are enough to give one pause.
For the study — “Fifty Moves a Year: Is There an Association Between Joint Physical Custody and Psychosomatic Problems in Children?” — Bergstrom and her colleagues looked at national data on nearly 150,000 12- and 15-year-old students in 6th grade or 9th grades; 69 percent of them lived in nuclear families, while 19 percent spent time living with both parents and about 13 percent lived with only one parent. Researchers analyzed psychosomatic issues including sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, headaches, stomachaches, and feeling tense, sad or dizzy, and found that kids in nuclear families reported the fewest such problems. But surprisingly, those who lived with both of their divorced parents reported significantly fewer problems than kids who lived with only one mom or dad.
“This study,” Bergstrom says, “indicates that stability in the child’s parents’ relations is more important than stability in housing.”
It’s a notion that’s been examined in past research, including a 2014 study out of the U.K. that found kids become most stressed by the level of angry fighting between parents rather than the divorce itself. “It’s not so much the fact of parental separation, it’s the conflict,” researcher Jo Edwards said at the time. “A lot of it is the way that parents manage their conflict.” And when managed well, the results can be hugely gratifying for everyone — as a recent example of successful celebrity co-parenting, between Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, showed the many fans who found it inspiring.
So what about when kids live with both parents but the relationship between the adults is still rocky? “We can only assume that some families in this study have troublesome parental relationships, since this is a total population survey,” Bergstrom says. “But plausibly, the risk for losing contact with one parent is higher under those circumstances.” So those who get time with both are most likely lucky that way.