Background: The practice of joint physical custody, where children spend equal time in each parent's home after they separate, is increasing in many countries. It is particularly common in Sweden, where this custody arrangement applies to 30 per cent of children with separated parents. The aim of this study was to examine children's health-related quality of life after parental separation, by comparing children living with both parents in nuclear families to those living in joint physical custody and other forms of domestic arrangements.
Methods: Data from a national Swedish classroom study of 164,580 children aged 12 and 15-years-old were analysed by two-level linear regression modelling. Z-scores were used to equalise scales for ten dimensions of wellbeing from the KIDSCREEN-52 and the KIDSCREEN-10 Index and analysed for children in joint physical custody in comparison with children living in nuclear families and mostly or only with one parent.
Results: Living in a nuclear family was positively associated with almost all aspects of wellbeing in comparison to children with separated parents. Children in joint physical custody experienced more positive outcomes, in terms of subjective wellbeing, family life and peer relations, than children living mostly or only with one parent. For the 12-year-olds, beta coefficients for moods and emotions ranged from -0.20 to -0.33 and peer relations from -0.11 to -0.20 for children in joint physical custody and living mostly or only with one parent. The corresponding estimates for the 15-year-olds varied from -0.08 to -0.28 and from -0.03 to -0.13 on these subscales. The 15-year-olds in joint physical custody were more likely than the 12-year-olds to report similar wellbeing levels on most outcomes to the children in nuclear families.
Conclusions: Children who spent equal time living with both parents after a separation reported better wellbeing than children in predominantly single parent care. This was particularly true for the 15-year-olds, while the reported wellbeing of 12-years-olds was less satisfactory. There is a need for further studies that can account for the pre and post separation context of individual families and the wellbeing of younger age groups in joint physical custody.