An increasing number of children live under a joint custody arrangement — they spend an equal amount of time living with each of their divorced parents. A new study comparing one factor of psychological well-being among teens suggests this living arrangment may be healthiest under the circumstances. Though generally kids whose parents remain together experienced the least number of psychosomatic symptoms, teens living in joint custody arrangements reported better psychosomatic health than teens living with one parent, say the researchers.

In Sweden, between 30 and 40 percent of all children with separated parents spend equal amounts of time with both parents. Some critics of this arrangement suggest the frequent moves and general lack of parental stability may be stressful for children. But what’s the truth?

The researchers, associated with both the Center for Health Equity Studies and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, examined data from a national classroom survey of all sixth and ninth grade students in Sweden. While 83 percent of all Swedish pupils participated in the National Institute of Public Health survey, the researchers included only the 147,839 children who completed all of the questions pertaining to their living arrangements, their relationship with their parents, and their psychosomatic assessment.

Specifically, the kids answered whether during the past six months they had difficulties concentrating or sleeping; whether they suffered from headaches or stomach aches; whether they felt tense, sad, or dizzy; and finally whether they had little appetite. The tweens and teens also reported if they could talk easily to their parents when they needed to, and if they had enough money to do the same things as their friends.

After collecting the survey data, the researchers found the numbers worked out as follows: Of the total 147,839 children, 69 percent lived in nuclear families and 11 percent in joint custody, while 21 percent lived either exclusively (13 percent) or mostly (8 percent) with one parent. Of the 21 percent living with one parent, five out of six lived with their mother. Finally, a larger proportion of 15-year-olds lived with only one parent, compared with the 12-year-olds. Being a girl or a boy did not seem to impact living arrangements much.

After categorizing each teen's living arrangement, the researchers directly compared all their answers to judge the impact.

The Healthiest Solution?

Overall, girls, no matter their circumstance, reported more psychosomatic problems than boys at both ages. Kids living mostly with one parent reported the most psychosomatic problems, while those living with both parents reported the fewest. The proportion of teens reporting they "often" or "always" experienced one or other of the psychosomatic symptoms was highest among those living with a single parent.

Girls, no matter their living arrangements, most frequently reported sadness followed by sleeping problems and headaches. Boys most commonly reported sleeping and concentration problems. For both sexes taken together, sleeping problems were most frequent and reported by 22 percent of those living only with one parent, 19 percent living mostly with one parent, 14 percent in joint custody arrangements, and 13 percent in nuclear families. Suffering often or always from headaches was also common among the tweens and teens, reported by 19 percent, 17 percent, 14 percent, and 12 percent (in the same groupings and for both sexes).

Importantly, relationship quality (with the parents) and material well-being did not explain the differences found among children in different domestic set-ups. In the end, simple "quantity time" with both parents appears to be best for teens.

Source: Bergstrom M, Fransson E, Modin B, et al. Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children? BMJ. 2015.