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Children's Experiences of Joint Physical Custody: the Swedish Case

Conference paper
Authors Rakel Berman
Published in CFR seminar 'New Family Forms Following Family Dissolution: Consequences in/on Postmodern Society'. 12-14 september 2012, Leuven, Belgien.
Publication year 2012
Published at Department of Social Work
Language en
Keywords Shared residence, joint physical custody, post-divorce childhood, family relations
Subject categories Family research


Background The last decades have been characterized by societal change and family transition. In Sweden, like in other western countries, family structure is being transformed by, among other things, high rates of divorce. About 40 % of Swedish children experience their parents’ separation before they turn eighteen years. The number has been rather constant for the last ten years; however the proportion of children sharing their time between their two parents on a 50-50 basis after divorce has been growing rapidly. Joint physical custody (or shared residence) has increased from 4% to approximately one third of children with separated parents since the beginning of the nineties. According to recent international research, the increasing number of children sharing their time between two households after their parents’ separation seems to be a trend across the western world (although the Swedish number seems to be extraordinarily high). Despite the large and increasing amount of children growing up in shared care we have very little knowledge about these children’s lives and how they make sense of their belonging to two different households. The actual living arrangements of Swedish children in joint physical custody vary widely. A majority change houses every week, while others change several times a week or on a monthly basis. Some have parents living in the same neighborhood whereas others have to travel quite a distance between their two homes. There are flexible arrangements and there are rigid ones, and there are parents in deep conflict and parents that get along well. We know from previous research that low-conflict and flexible arrangements is more beneficial for children in joint physical custody. Yet we do not know how the children themselves experience shifting between two households and what impact it has on different aspects of their everyday life. Objectives The aim of the present study is to shed light on the features of one among several contemporary family models following family dissolution and to explore children’s own everyday experiences of sharing their time between two households. The study focuses on how the children actively participate in the process of shaping family life and their own childhoods in the context of family change. The study addresses the following questions: • How do children in joint physical custody frame their family life, their leisure and their friendships while belonging to two families and moving between two households? • How do they shape their family life and practices? How are they doing family? • Do children participate in the decisions concerning their living arrangements? To what extent, in what ways and how do they consider their participation? Method The paper is based on an ongoing empirical study with a qualitative approach (part of a larger mixed-methods research project). The data will be collected by semi-structured interviews with about twenty children aged ten to eighteen and focus groups. The participants were mainly recruited via schools. Preliminary results The paper aims at developing some of the major themes and discussing the preliminary results from the above mentioned qualitative study about children’s experiences of joint physical custody. At this point the empirical data is being gathered and consequently the results presented are preliminary. However I plan to announce some of the major findings in the forthcoming paper. In a small study preceding the current project, co-parented children’s conceptualizations of family were explored. It was found that the children conceptualize family in terms of relationships rather than blood ties or legal ties. Furthermore, in their view a family is based on practices and a common home (or in this case, one with each parent). According to these children, what is most important is the quality of the relationships. In line with this argument, what matters to them is being able to keep a close relationship with both their parents, which they stress is only possible as long as they share an everyday life. Despite the fact that they value being able to keep an everyday relationship with both of their parents when sharing their time on a 50/50 basis, they do experience disadvantages and difficulties –practical as well as emotional- caused by their shifting between two homes. The current study aims at further illuminating the practicalities of everyday life for children in shared residence, especially focusing on family practices, leisure and friendships. Relevance There are a great number of children and parents concerned with joint physical custody, in Sweden and elsewhere. Accordingly, there is an obvious demand for knowledge about its implications on children’s lives.

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