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Study shows children of divorce may benefit more from shared custody

When it comes to living arrangements for the children of divorce, the norm here in the U.S. court system has long been that a primary residence for the children will be established with one parent while visitation time will be granted to the other parent, such that they spend alternate weekends and/or certain holidays with them.

The rationale for this type of custody arrangement is that it protects children from experiencing the stress and emotional turmoil of having to divide their time between multiple households. In other words, it prevents them from becoming so-called "suitcase kids."

Interestingly enough, a recently published study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health questions the wisdom of this logic and suggests that children might actually benefit from being suitcase kids or, in legal terms, from shared-custody arrangements.

As part of the study, a team of Swedish researchers examined information on nearly 150,000 15- and 12-year-old students contained in a national database. Specifically, they focused on their history of psychosomatic illnesses, meaning things like headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, concentration problems, depression and anxiety brought on by mental distress.

Of these nearly 150,000 students, 69 percent were in nuclear families, 19 percent were in shared-custody living arrangements and 13 percent were in single-parent living arrangements.

While the students in nuclear families were found to have the lowest rates of psychosomatic illnesses, those children in shared-custody living arrangements actually had lower rates of psychosomatic illnesses than their counterparts in single-parent living arrangements.   

The researchers attributed this somewhat surprising finding to the idea that shared-custody living arrangements enable both parents to stay more actively engaged in the lives of their children and also doubles the foundational resources (family, social circles, financial support, etc.) available to the child.

These are certainly fascinating findings. It remains to be seen, however, whether divorcing parents and the court system here in the U.S. will become more open to the prospect of shared-custody living arrangements. Indeed, one expert indicated that the number of U.S. parents in shared-custody living arrangements is now less than 20 percent, significantly lower than Sweden, where roughly 40 percent of divorced parents have entered into such arrangements.

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