Skip to main content
Parents   »   Alternate living – what does the research say?

Alternate living – what does the research say?

Deciding on new living arrangements for the children because of the adult separation can be very hard emotionally. Parents often wonder what is the best way to still have close contact with the children? Will their lives become stressful because of them moving back and forth all the time?

Our child psychologist and researcher Malin Bergström provide answers on the latest findings about the pro’s and con’s for children with alternate living arrangements.


Everyday contact is crucial for children growing up

There is no other country where alternate living is as common as in Sweden. In many parts of the world, a divorce often means that children lose touch with their fathers when they live full time with their mothers. This is difficult for children because everyday contact is crucial in parenting. Parents knowing their friends’ names, cheering on matches, comforting and doing homework is valuable for children.

When a child loses everyday contact with a parent the daily commitment and support disappear. They also miss out on other things that parents offer children. Such as as their own interests, friends, relatives and spontaneous conversations. The researchers often talk about what resources children need and risk losing in the event of a divorce. Resources are not only finances but also emotional closeness, commitment, networks and knowledge.

Children’s views on living in two homes

Thus, children generally do not seem to experience that it is so difficult to live in two homes. At least not if the parents communicate and cooperate so that there is a continuity between the homes. Most children seem to get used to it. When researchers interviewed children who live alternately, they have confirmed that it is hard to forget their stuff but that it is worth it because they believe that alternate living is still the best. It may also be that it is so obvious for the children to live that way that they do not think about what their lived otherwise would be like.

Many adults divide their time between a country house and their usual place of residence, perhaps that type of life can be compared to children living in two homes. The fact that the parents help with the exchanges and make sure that the child’s belongings are in the right place is important, of course. Studies have also shown that stability and continuity in the exchange  schedule is important. There has to be a rhythm so that life feels predictable for the child.

Two homes seem to be better than one in general after the separation

The fact that alternate living has become so common in Sweden seems to be a good thing for the children. But we still do not know why children who live in two homes seem more satisfied with life than those who live with only one parent. It may be because the families that choose to have the children live in two homes consist more often of two parents who both have good living conditions themselves and therefore can take better care of their child individually. Perhaps the children in alternate living in the research studies also felt better even before the separation. Perhaps the results are explained by the fact that the parents could cooperate okay before, during and after the separation with less conflict, more equality and fathers who were more involved as parents.

It can also be the case that children live with only one parent because the other parent is sick or unable to take care of their child and that the parents inability affect how the child feels – not living arrangements in itself. Studies also show that parents who have their children alternately generally are happier with their lives than parents in families where the children live with only one parent. And the wellbeing of parents, of course, also affects the child.

A somewhat surprising result in the studies is that children who live alternately did not have problems with their friendships. You can imagine that it can be difficult when you live in two different homes. The fact that the children do not seem to be affected is certainly due to the fact that many parents continue to live reasonably close to each other. They might help the child meet their friends by picking up, driving, and inviting them into their home.

Every child is different and have personal needs

It is important to remember that these studies apply to children at agroup level. The fact that children generally feel good about living alternately does not mean that this form of housing is suitable for your child. Children are individuals just like adults.

For example, a doctoral thesis has recently shown that children in families where the father has been physically violent towards the mother and /or child, often did not enjoy living alternately or even having contact with their father.

Listening to what children themselves want or show is important when deciding how to live. For children with disabilities or special needs, you may also need to be extra careful to design a schedule that works for them.

Summary

  • Everyday contact with the parents is crucial for children growing up. Resources are not only finances but also emotional closeness, commitment, networks and knowledge from a parent.
  • Alternate living for the children is for many children the best way to secure the important everyday contact between child and parent
  • Children need help from their parents to make alternate living work. Parents have to be able to cooperate at an okay level or alternate living may harm the child in the long run.
  • Not all children are comfortable with alternate living. Children who have experienced domestic violence from one or both parents is in general not comfortable with alternate living or even seeing the parent who has been violent. As a parent you have to talk to your child and be mindful that what works for many other children may not be what suits your child the best.

Elisabeth Scholander