The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Still Suffering in Sweden: Family Breakdown in the Welfare State

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When confronted by the human costs of family disintegration, American progressives reflexively turn toward Sweden. That is, these progressives argue that family breakup hurts people in the United States only because we lack the political wisdom of the Swedes, who have given single mothers and their children access to an exceptionally large and generous welfare state. This touchingly naïve faith in Sweden, however, just received a rude shock in the form of a new study revealing that even in the paradisiacal land of the Myrdals, the children of divorced and single parents are decidedly worse off than peers in intact families.

Conducted by researchers at Stockholm and Uppsala Universities and the Karolinska Institutet, this new study examines the psychological well-being of Swedish children in three different circumstances: those in the care of single parents, those in the joint physical custody of divorced parents, and those living in intact nuclear families.   

Data on the psychological symptoms evident in these three groups of children come from a random sample of 3,200 Swedish families with children ages two to seventeen. These data clearly reveal that an intact family fosters good mental health and a broken family incubates psychological illness—even in Sweden.  

The Swedish scholars focus on the results of a survey that yields an overall score reflecting the total number and severity of “emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention and peer relationship problems.” In the results of this survey, the researchers see a “higher symptom load in children in joint physical custody ([Relative Risk] = 1.6, p < 0.001) and single care ([Relative Risk] = 2.2, p < 0.001) than in nuclear families.” In other words, “children in joint physical custody have better mental health than children in single care, but not as good as children in nuclear families.”

As they try to explain the pattern they have uncovered, the researchers note that, even in a singularly generous welfare state like Sweden, children living outside of nuclear homes are economically disadvantaged: the authors of the new study calculate that “belonging to the lowest income category was more than twice as common among the two post-separation family types (41.9% and 42.6%) than [it was among] the nuclear families (20.2%).” In any case, after careful statistical analysis, the researchers conclude that “family household income only made a marginal contribution to explaining the differences in the children’s mental health.”

Regardless of just what is causing it, the distinct psychological vulnerability of children living outside the nuclear family is a hard fact—even in Sweden. Nor is this a new finding. The authors of this study acknowledge that their results “confirm previous research” showing that in Sweden (as in other affluent Western countries), “overall, children with divorced parents face an increased risk of emotional problems, social maladjustment and low wellbeing compared to those in intact families.”

Why do children suffer from psychological distress when they live in broken homes? The Swedish scholars suggest the psychological suffering of such children may reflect the suffering of their parents. “Being a mother with sole custody, or a father with no custody, is . . . associated with a greater risk of negative mental and physical health,” the researchers remark, adding that “parental ill-health, in turn, could impact negatively on child development and well-being.”

Intensified over the decades, the attraction Sweden holds for progressives will not soon disappear. But this new study exposes the sobering truth: no welfare state will ever protect children’s mental health as well as does the intact natural family. In Stockholm as in Seattle, family breakdown pushes children toward dark mental landscapes. 

(Malin Bergström et al., “Mental Health in Swedish Children Living in Joint Physical Custody and Their Parents’ Life Satisfaction: A Cross-Sectional Study,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 55.5 [2014]: 433-9.)