Distressed Minds, Diseased Bodies – Divorced Parents

As though they did not face a daunting challenge dealing with sicknesses with identifiable physical causes, physicians working with adolescents must also treat an alarming number of psychosomatic illnesses—that is, illnesses triggered by mental or emotional stress. And a new study out of Sweden suggests that reducing that number may be difficult so long as a large percentage of children live with the consequences of parental divorce.

Gauging the impact on psychosomatic illness of parental divorce and then of different kinds of custody arrangements after parental divorce was the primary intent of the authors of the new study—scholars affiliated with Linköping University and Stockholm University. Of particular interest to the researchers was Joint Physical Custody (JPC), a custody arrangement in which the children of divorce “live equally much in their parent’s respective homes.” Involving just 1-2% of Swedish children with divorced parents in the mid-1980s, JPC now involves 30-40% of such children. The researchers identify “Sweden’s active policy for parental equality” as a likely reason for this rise.  

Because American progressives generally regard Sweden as a bellwether on gender issues, the Swedish turn on custody naturally attracts attention. Of course, the larger—but rarely acknowledged—issue is the effect on children of the permissive divorce laws that progressives have enacted in recent decades in both Western Europe and the United States, laws that helped drive up divorce rates in country after country. Though they ignore these children as much as possible, progressives feel enough twinges of discomfort over their plight that they desperately hope for a tidy resolution to the problem. And if that resolution can come out of Sweden—the land of heart’s desire for so many progressives—so much the better!

Alas, the new study out of Sweden indicates that while Joint Physical Custody does seem to reduce the distress incident to parental divorce, it hardly eliminates it.

The researchers pore over a large national data set to assess the incidence of psychosomatic illness among Swedish adolescents in intact families and among peers whose parents’ divorce has put them either in Joint Physical Custody or in the more traditional single-parent custody. More specifically, the researchers parse data collected in 2009 from 147,839 Swedish children between the ages of 12 and 15.

A clear pattern emerges in these data: “Children in joint physical custody suffered from less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent but reported more symptoms than those in nuclear families.” The particular psychosomatic problems in view include headaches, stomachaches, sleeping problems, dizziness, and sadness.

The researchers stress that Swedish adolescents living in Joint Physical Custody report “better psychosomatic health than children living mostly or only with one parent.” Indeed, they interpret this finding as evidence that “the potential stress from living in two homes could be outweighed by the positive effects of close contact with both parents.”  

But Joint Physical Custody only mitigates the harmful effects of parental divorce. It does not make them disappear. Regardless of custody arrangement, Swedish children with divorced parents “experience more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families.” The researchers add that “these patterns were similar for girls and boys.” 

Understandably, the researchers interpret the gender-neutral connection between parental divorce and psychosomatic problems among Swedish adolescents in the context of “several studies over a long period of time [that] have established that children with separated parents show higher risks for emotional problems and social maladjustment” than do peers in intact nuclear families. 

By examining such studies, in fact, the researchers conclude that the pattern they have limned in their study of adolescents’ psychosomatic illnesses resembles the one that has repeatedly been uncovered when examining adolescents’ “satisfaction with life, risk behaviour, parent–child relationships, school achievement, well-being, and mental health.” When gauging adolescents’ situation with regard to all of these matters, researchers have consistently found the same pattern, with “children in nuclear families, having the least [problems], and those in single[-parent] care, having the most problems,” and children of divorced parents in Joint Physical Custody in “an intermediate position.”

When Swedish researchers conclude that adolescents are decidedly disadvantaged when parental divorce leaves them in the custody of a single parent, observers may question the hopes that progressives have invested in Sweden’s singularly generous welfare system. When these same researchers also report that even the egalitarian experiment of Joint Physical Custody is only partly removing the malign effects of such parental divorce, then Sweden provides strong evidence that egalitarian policy experiments are a poor substitute for intact parental marriages. 

(Malin Bergström et al., “Fifty Moves a Year: Is There an Association between Joint Physical Custody and Psychosomatic Problems in Children?” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69.8 [2015]: 769-74.)