Can Living Arrangements Influence Child Mental Health?
Divorce rates in Western countries have been increasing in recent decades and more children are also born to parents who never cohabitate. As a result, more and more children are living in joint or sole physical custody.
Existing research has suggested some of the negative effects of parental separation on child-wellbeing, such as an increased risk of social maladjustment and poor health. However, very little research has explored the influence of parental ill health and well-being on children’s mental health as a result of differing family structures.
In a recent study, Emma Fransson, Jani Turunen, Anders Hjern, Viveca Östberg, and Malin Bergström explore children’s psychological complaints while experiencing joint physical custody, in comparison to children in sole parental care and nuclear families. The authors use data from the 2007-2011 Statistics Sweden’s yearly Survey of Living Conditions, which sampled 5280 children aged 10-18 living at least half of the time in the households of adult participants.
The analysis focused on the association between living arrangements and children’s mental health while controlling for socioeconomic factors and parental ill-health. Parental ill-health is measured by levels of worry and anxiety, as well as by a self-rated health question. The measurement of children’s mental health is based on their answers to the following statements regarding psychological symptoms: ‘I am often tense and nervous’, ‘I have a hard time being still and concentrating’, ‘I often feel sad or down’, ‘I get angry very easily’, ‘I am often grouchy or irritated’. The response alternatives (1–4) were matches exactly/roughly/poorly/not at all.
Results show no significant differences in the likelihood of reporting more psychological complaints between children in joint physical custody and in nuclear families. In turn, children in sole parental care are more likely to report higher levels of psychological complaints, compared with children in joint physical custody. These results hold even when controlling for socioeconomic characteristics like parent’s education and household income, and parental ill-health. Parents suffering from anxiety do not influence children’s psychological complaints among those with divorced co-parents. Likewise, the authors found no differences between children with stepparents or without. Children living with one parent are more likely to present higher levels of complaints, as are children whose parents have low levels of education or suffer from anxiety.
Finally, children in joint physical custody are more likely to present fewer psychological complaints than children in sole parental care. The analysis shows that this difference cannot be explained by socioeconomic factors or parental ill health. This suggests that joint physical custody could be a viable solution to help counteract the potentially negative effects of parental separation on children.
*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties. FamiliesAndSocieties (www.familiesandsocieties.eu) has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.