How are children influenced by their parents’ separation?

What are the circumstances that make some children more resilient to a parental separation than others? A new dissertation in sociology from Stockholm University investigates the heterogeneity in children’s outcomes after a parental separation. Among other things, the studies show that children with separated parents, living in shared parental residence, are doing nearly as well as children whose parents stay together.

Child with parents, holding hands
Photo: Pixabay

In Sweden, nearly one out of four children grow up with separated or divorced parents, according to statistics from Statistics Sweden. Previous studies have widely confirmed a negative association between parental separation and children’s well-being during childhood as well as adulthood. However, there are also studies that indicate that some children have better outcomes when their parents part.

Eva-Lisa Palmtag, newly appointed PhD in sociology, studied this heterogeneity in her dissertation “Breaking down break-ups. Studies on the heterogeneity in (adult) children’s outcomes following a parental separation”. She underlines that it is important to treat children with separated parents as a heterogenic group – as there are a variety of circumstances that influences how children fare after a parental separation in childhood.

– Considering children’s health as adults, and their relationship to their parents, my study results show that these children do almost as well as the children whose parents did not separate. Children with shared residence also tend to do better than children who lived mostly or exclusively with one of the parents, said Eva-Lisa Palmtag.

The dissertation is based on the Swedish Level of Living Survey, which is a national representative survey. Eva-Lisa Palmtag studied how children and adults, who experienced a parental separation in childhood, describe their health and their relationship to and contact with both parents.

Eva-Lisa Palmtag
Photo: Elin Sahlin/Stockholm University

Historically, the majority of children with separated parents stayed with their mother after the separation, while the father became the non-resident parent. Today, around one out of three children with separated parents lives about the same amount of the time with both parents in a so-called shared parental residence. Yet, parallel to the changing norms in society concerning children’s living arrangements some critics still oppose the two-home model.

– There are people who claim that living with shared residence is very difficult for the child – but on the average, this does not seem to be the case, according to my research as well as previous research results, said Eva-Lisa Palmtag. She points out that her research is a contributing puzzle piece to the research field, where several studies point in the same direction.

According to her research, children that in childhood had a frequent contact with both parents after the separation, were more likely to have a frequent contact also in adulthood.

– Generally, this seems to be beneficial to their health, and to the relationship to their parents. The results also indicates that fathers gain from having a frequent contact in childhood as it increases their contact, in general, with the child over the life course. However, extended contact with both parents could be disadvantageous for children in families where domestic violence take place. This was however not investigated in my study, said Eva-Lisa Palmtag.


Conflict between parent and child is of the utmost importance

The dissertation shows that severe conflicts between the parents appear to have a stronger influence on children whose parents stay together, compared to those whose parents separate. There is thus a correlation between parental conflicts in families where parents continue to live together and children’s lower well-being in adulthood. However, this correlation does not show in the group whose parents separated.

– It brings to mind this saying that “we should stick together for the sake of the children" – this might not always be a good idea. Within separated families, it is more significant for the child’s health if one or both parents had a conflict with the child, than the parents' conflicts between themselves. Conflict between the child and the parent(s) can in turn be a so-called "spillover effect" from the parents' conflicts, said Eva-Lisa Palmtag.

She highlights the importance of the new law change that parents who disagree on custody matters, residence or visitation schemes are offered mandatory information sessions at the local municipality. Eva-Lisa Palmtag thinks that the children should be included more in these conversations.

– It is important not to forget children's experience of this situation, to support them in how to handle and resolve family conflicts – and not just the parental couple, said Eva-Lisa Palmtag.


How the study was done

The thesis’ three studies are based on the Level of Living Survey (LNU), which is conducted on a nationally representative sample, from the years 2000 and 2010 and consists of questionnaires and interviews. Two of the studies are based on how children who experienced a divorce or separation in childhood responded as adults, while the third sub-study examines how children experience their situation “here and now” in childhood, regarding their relationship with their parents. The sample for the third study is based on responses from children living in the main respondent's household aged 10–18



Read more about the research

"Breaking down break-ups: Studies on the heterogeneity in (adult) children’s outcomes following a parental separation"




Eva-Lisa Palmtag, PhD in sociology
Phone: +46 8-16 25 73