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Wellbeing in Children in Separated Families: Past and Present Research

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1 Wellbeing in Children in Separated Families: Past and Present Research
Jan Pryor Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand Presentation for the series “Promoting the Wellbeing of Children: Bringing all the Evidence Together” Oxford Centre for Research into Parenting and Children October 2007

2 History of the debate about children and divorce
Early research comparing children from ‘intact’ families with children from ‘broken’ families found differences in a range of outcomes. Pryor & Rodgers concluded in 1998 that on average children of divorce were at twice the risk of poor outcomes when compared with those in intact families. HOWEVER The majority of children experiencing their parents’ divorce were functioning well.

3 Media response in 1998: “Divorce, the great liberator” (Polly Toynbee)
“(This report is) a bizarre retreat from reality.” Daily Mail Several longitudinal studies around this time suggested that children’s problems were apparent before the separation of their parents.

4 What are the major contributors to poor outcomes for children of separation?
Inter-parental conflict Poverty Parents’ psychological wellbeing Relationship with nonresident parent Parenting style MOST OF THESE FACTORS ARE MEDIATED BY THE ABILITY OF ADULTS TO PARENT THEIR CHILDREN SATISFACTORILY

5 Longterm outcomes 1 Laumann-Billings and Emery (2000) pointed out that although children of divorce generally function well on measures of disorder, they may suffer ongoing distress as adults - subjective ill-being. They developed the Painful Feelings About Divorce (PAFD) scale and compared young adults from intact and divorced families. Found no difference in depression and anxiety, but differences in distress - feelings of loss, wondering if their fathers loved them. They conclude that father contact after divorce is especially important for ongoing feelings of distress in otherwise resilient young people. Reference: Laumann-Billings, L. & Emery, R. (2000)Distress among young adults from divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology 14 (4)

6 Longterm outcomes 2 Paul Amato assessed outcomes for young adults who had experienced parental divorce or highly conflicted parents in childhood. Reference: Amato, P. (2006): Marital discord, divorce, and children’s wellbeing: results from a 20-year longitudinal study of two generations. In: Clarke-Steward & Dunn (eds). Families Count. Effects on Child and Adolescent Development. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

7 Comparative predictiveness of conflict and divorce (Amato)
Models Yrs ed Psych well being Social support Close Mother Close to father Marital discord Disrupted relation ships Parental divorce -.28** -.18 -.22* -.93*** .29* .33* High discord marriage .06 -.31** -.19* -.14 -.27** .24* .07

8 Children’s voices and change over time: Young people’s experiences of family structure change
Ph.D thesis by Andrea Rigg, Victoria University, New Zealand 52 children and adolescents interviewed after parental separation and 18 months later years old Early stage separation (ESG; 1-10 months) and later stage separation (LSG months) Interviewed and assessed in domains of individual wellbeing and family dynamics

9 Individual wellbeing measures:
Self concept (strengths) Strengths and difficulties Questionnaire Depression Locus of control Reports of feelings (scale developed for the thesis)

10 Family measures Family environment scale (cohesion, communication)
Perceptions of parents (positivity and negativity) Parental conflict

11 Points of interest from interviews (1):
All young people would have preferred to have been told about the separation face to face by both parents at the same time Almost all of them were aware the separation was coming - had seen problems between their parents 49 of the 52 did not know why separation had happened; all wanted to know

12 Points of interest from the interviews (2)
The most negative aspect of the separation was not seeing enough of their nonresident parent: “I miss Dad, like, I miss that he isn’t there for all the little things - tucking me in, reading to me, tickling me.” (9 year old girl) “I guess I’d prefer it if Dad wasn’t just a Dad at Christmas.” (12 year old girl)

13 Impact of conflict: “Mum and Dad don’t fight any more. I hated the fighting; it scared the shit out of me.” (16 year old boy) “Like, if Mum and Dad stopped putting each other down in front of us and didn’t put us in the middle then I think I could deal with things so much better.” (16 year old girl)

14 What did children say they needed?
Support from both parents Time to adjust Information on the present and the future “My mind’s working over time. I wish Mum would open up and tell me what went on. Then I’d know what I was trying to cope with.” 18 year old.

15 Coping and resources A majority either used the internet, or wanted electronic resources Strong aversion to counselling, psychologists, therapists 47 of 52 were not offered resources by anyone

16 Advice to parents: “Look, don’t be horrible, don’t be mean to each other, just do what you have to do in a civil way so that your children don’t get more upset than they already are.” (15 year old girl)

17 Changes in wellbeing across time (18 months)

18 Retrospective feelings about separation at the time

19 Present feelings about separation, time 1 and time 2

20 Living Arrangements after parental separation
“Tender years” doctrine Primary caretaker view Default position (for fathers who do have contact) every other weekend, maybe a day in between But see Laumann Billings findings

21 Feelings of loss and distress according to levels of contact with nonresident parent

22 Why do men lose contact with their children?
Some think it is best for their children For some the infrequent contact is too painful to maintain Some do not care enough to stay in contact Too hard - live too far away, too much conflict with partner, etc Surprisingly, re-partnering does not reduce contact levels

23 Children’s voices “Once we had to do this article on what was the worst thing that ever happened to you…and I just wrote ‘Dad’ because I never seen him.” 8 year old boy “Sometimes I’d go ‘Mam, where’s my Dad?’ and she’d go ‘I don’t know’ cos my Mam doesn’t know either. I wish she did know because then I’d ask here what he did look like and then if she had his number I’d take it off her and I’d say ‘Dad send me a photo’ and hang up.” 8 year old boy.

24 Levels of contact are changing…
Increased understanding of the importance of fathers in children’ lives generally (Developmental Psychology) Realisation that fathers matter to children after divorce (Amato meta-analysis) Fathers themselves are demanding more contact with children Presumption of shared responsibility in some countries

25 What affects levels of contact with nonresident parents?
The quality of the parental relationship Geography Status at birth of the parental relationship Age at separation Repartnering appears not to have a major impact on levels of contact

26 Recent findings on outcomes for living arrangements
Fabricious (2003) surveyed 820 college students about experiences of parental divorce. Found that the more time they spent with their fathers, the closer and less angry they felt toward them. This was not related to how close or angry they felt about their mothers. Those from continuously intact families were significantly closer to mothers than fathers, and significantly angrier with fathers than with mothers. HOWEVER: These differences did not exist for those growing up in separated households who had spent a lot of time with their fathers. Reference: Fabricious, W. (2003). Listening to children of divorce: New findings that diverge from Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee. Family Relations

27 Consequences of undermining behaviour (Fabricious continued)
Undermining behaviours Closeness to Mother Anger with mother Closeness to father Anger with father Wanted other parent involved .27* -.24* .01 -.07 Interfered with seeing other parent -.27* .51* -.03 .28* Criticised other parent -.25* -.14 .42*

28 Is anything worse than divorce?
Walper 2006, in her study of German adolescents, found few differences in wellbeing in children in stable single, step, and intact families. Those who ere not thriving were those who had recently experienced a transition (most often the breakdown of a stepfamily) Similarly, Ahrons (2007) reported that stepfamily loss was recalled as especially traumatic for adult children. Research generally supports the suggestion that multiple transitions are the most damaging for children. For some children, their parents’ separation is not top of the list of their worries - other things like poverty, bullying, etc take precedence.

29 Conclusions: what helps children of divorce
Conclusions: what helps children of divorce? (Checklist compiled from several sources) Being told about divorce, and told early (not left to guess) Being given an explanation appropriate to their age and understanding Having living arrangements discussed with them but not left to make decisions Having good support from family and friends (not professionals) Having ongoing relationships with both parents, with adequate time with nonresident parent

30 Conclusions: what helps children of divorce
Conclusions: what helps children of divorce? (Checklist compiled from several sources) Minimal conflict between parents A degree of civility between parents Time to adjust (‘psychological travelling time’) Availability of resources electronically Information on what is likely to happen in future to the family


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