“Try to take into account the kids’ views because the kids know what they want more
than the parents do because they’re them.”
On average children who experience divorce are between one and a half to two times
as likely to experience adversity as those whose parents do not separate [Amato, 1991
#129; Amato, 1993 #6; Amato, 2000 #829; Pryor, in press #985; Simons, 1996 #710].
However, the majority of children whose parents separate do not suffer negative
outcomes in the medium to long-term.
Separation is a process that starts sometimes years before one parent leaves the home,
and continues on afterward.
Separation in itself explains little of the variance in outcomes for children. Evidence
for this includes:
Adverse outcomes are higher in children before separation, whose parents
subsequently divorce [Cherlin, 1991 #74; Elliott, 1991 #67]
Those whose parents ‘stay together for the sake of the children’ are also at risk for
adverse outcomes when their parents later separate [Furstenberg, in press #949;
Kiernan, 1992 #51; Pryor, 1999 #616]
If loss of a parent from the home was a major explanatory factor, then children who
lose a parent by death should be equally at risk. They are not [Rodgers, 1998 #362].
Factors that explain variation in outcomes for children include:
Conflict before, during, and after separation
The psychological well-being of the custodial parent
Household income
Quality of relationship with non-resident parent
Child-based factors such as appraisals, understandings, temperament, locus of control
Community and extended family support and stability
AND, most important, the quality of parenting and the parent-child relationship.
Children are usually distressed and sad when their parents separate. HOWEVER, it is
not always a negative experience. In Ann Smith’s study 44% reported neutral or
positive reactions [Pritchard, 1998 #622; Walczak, 1984 #19].
Young children may blame themselves, and long for reconciliation sometime after the
separation [Kurdek, 1980 #571].
Children are not often told about what is happening, either before or after the event.
(5% in UK study felt they had a full explanation; a half of Anne Smiths’ group still
did not know why their parents had separated two years later). If they do receive
good information and explanation, then they cope better later in life [Gollop, 2000
#1046; Gollop, 2000 #939; Smith, 1997 #698].
Children most often cite the loss of day-to-day contact with their non-resident parent
as the worst aspect of the separation.
Children are rarely consulted about living arrangements made for them by adults. In
one UK study, about 30% wanted adults to decide, another 30% wanted to decide
themselves, and the rest wanted to participate in decision-making without being
totally self-determining [Brannen, 1999 #826; Smart, 1999 #558].
When asked about living arrangements in principle, children are most likely to say
that equal time with both parents is optimal. These opinions vary little according to
the family structure young people themselves live in, the gender and age of children,
and the presence or absence of conflict. Almost no children or young people endorse
not seeing both parents at least some of the time [Derevensky, 1997 #418; Kurdek,
1986 #653; Pryor, 2001 #654].
The people to whom children most often turn for support and advice at the time of
separation are extended family members, especially grandparents, and to friends.
They rarely use counsellors, and find parents too absorbed in their own problems to
be approachable.
Are children’s views associated with outcomes?
We do not know whether levels of distress at the time of separation is linked with
long-term outcomes
Good communication between parents and children at the time of separation has been
found to be linked to better adaptation in later life [Mitchell, 1985 #44]
Knowing why a separation is happening and receiving adequate explanations allows
children to attribute its happening to known causes. Attribution to unknown causes
has been found to be linked with anxiety, depression and conduct disorder [Kim, 1997
Even when there is no contact with fathers, it has been found that knowledge about
absent parents is linked with well-being [Owusu-Bempah, 1995 #38]
Frequency and regularity of contact with fathers do not by itself predict outcomes;
closeness and quality of parenting do [Amato, 1999 #455]
We have little evidence about the benefits of having a say in living arrangements. One
study has found that input into decision-making was associated with positive feelings
about the arrangement [Dunn, in press #971].
Evidence for the benefits of one living arrangement is mixed; it is probable that in
itself it is not as important as other factors.
We have little evidence on the importance of support from extended family members.
One study has found that closeness to maternal grandmothers was linked to children’s
adjustment [Lussier, submitted #988]
Children’s perspectives on families
Children view families in diverse and idiosyncratic ways that may bear little
resemblance to the standard notion of a family
The most common criterion used at all ages for defining a family is the presence of
Young children tend to use notions of co-residence, the presence of two parents, the
presence of children, and blood relations as definitional of families [Fu, 1986 #1062;
Funder, 1996 #445; Gilby, 1982 #649; O'Brien, 1996 #892]
In a New Zealand study, over 80% of adolescents endorsed the following as ‘family’:
married parents and children; cohabiting parents and children; lone mothers and
fathers with children; grandparents, aunts and uncles [Anyan, 1998 #784]
 Although children tend to hold ‘conservative’ views of families, they are adaptive and
resilient in the face of family change so long as they are supported in appropriate
Fathers in intact families
On average, fathers spend 44% of the time mothers do engaged with children
They spend 66% of the time mothers do being available to children
Fathers are still less likely to be responsible for children in areas such as organizing
childcare, being available for sick children, etc.
The nature of the father-child relationship is more important for children’s well-being
than the amount of contact. Nurturing, monitoring and support are vital components
of fathering (and parenting in general) [Amato, 1998 #345; Amato, 1999 #599]
Fathers after separation
Involvement before separation is not necessarily a good predictor of involvement after
separation. Predivorce division of responsibilities between parents represented
different types rather than different degrees of commitment to children’s welfare
Father-child contact after separation typically falls off over time.
Fathers are more likely to stay in contact with boys than with girls
A curvilinear relationship between frequency of contact and distress in young
adulthood [Laumann-Billings, 2000 #825]
What predicts father-child contact?
Relationship between parents
Child support
Child’s age
Judicial system
Does father-child contact matter for children?
Contact, from a child’s perspective, is usually a good outcome in its own right
Frequency and regularity by themselves do not link with positive outcomes
Feelings of closeness are positively linked with psychological well-being and
academic success, and negatively with anxiety
Authoritative parenting (warmth, monitoring, support) is positively and strongly
associated with child and adolescent well-being after divorce
Parental conflict in intact and divorced families has well-documented effects on
children [Cummings, 1994 #401; Davies, 1998 #500; Grych, 1990 #160; Grych, 1998
#499; Harold, 1997 #265; Harold, 1997 #347]
The evidence is clear that children whose parents maintain high levels of conflict are
better off in measurable ways if their parents separate [Amato, 1997 #389; Jekielek,
1998 #346; Morrison, 1999 #712]
There is some evidence that children whose parents who exhibit low levels of conflict
before they separate are worse off after separation. This may reflect the fact that
children fail to see the separation coming, or that ‘emotional divorce’ (withdrawal,
contempt) may be at least as damaging [Booth, 2001 #830; Booth, 1999 #893;
Hetherington, 1999 #853]
An important factor in considering the impact of conflict is the way in which it is
appraised by children and adolescents
Domestic Violence
There is a major dilemma between the right of children to be protected from the risk
of psychological harm, and their right to have their relationships with both parents
fostered [Smith, 1999 #936].
Children vary in their own views. Some want no contact with parents who have been
violent to the other; others want to see their parent [Chetwin, 1998 #937]
It might be useful to distinguish between control-initiated and conflict-initiated
violence [Ellis, 1996 #984; Johnston, 1999 #934; Johnston, 1993 #104]
Psychological assessments of parents are important
Children who have no contact with an abusive parent tend either to idealise or to
demonise that parent [Gorrell Barnes, 1998 #628]
Children’s own feelings need to be taken into consideration
Considerations from attachment
By the age of 18 months children have normally formed multiple attachments
Two kinds of behaviour that are almost universal are stranger anxiety and
separation anxiety. These are manifested by distress.
When children lose an attachment figure they demonstrate a cycle of protest,
anger, and despair. This may be repeatedly initiated if contact is infrequent
As children get older they can maintain relationships by other forms of contact
such as phone, e-mail, letters, etc.
Some major points to consider when making decisions about living
Parent-child relationships, both past, present, and future
Children’s views, feelings, and wishes
Parenting skills of parents, both actual and potential
Ages of children
Psychological well-being of parents
Parents’ individual abilities to put needs of children first and to recognise and
respect the children’s needs for good relationships with both parents
Parents’ abilities to contain and reduce conflict
Michael Lamb’s five implications:
Determine whether relations between noncustodial parents are worthy of support
and protection
Determine whether conflict is sufficiently intense and likely to continue
Ensure that contact with the non-residential parent includes a broad range of
everyday activities including chores and monitoring
Ensure that plans include details of transitions and detailed blocks of time, and
that they allow for changes as children’s developmental needs change
Do not misinterpret failures to compromise as symptoms of underlying conflict
too intense to permit co-parenting. Custody awards should promote children’s
best interests, not reward or punish parents for real or alleged histories of
 Children need clear, age-appropriate explanations about what is
happening and why
 Children need support, from extended family and parents where
 Quality relationships with both parents should be fostered, unless
there are compelling reasons why not
 Parents need support for authoritative parenting, through
information and education
 Include children in the decision-making process as appropriate to
their age and willingness to be involved. As a minimum, hear
their views