FI research summary: Separated Families

16 July 2008

1. Parental conflict

The substantial negative effects on children of parental conflict and hostility are well documented in both intact and non-intact families (Cummings et al, 2004; Reynolds, 2001). ‘Troubles’ between the parents can also influence each parent’s relationship with their child: for example couple conflict is negatively related to both child-mother and child-father attachment (Frosch et al, 2000).

The pathways by which parental conflict and hostility affect children are various. For example:

• One study found that among pre-schoolers, the quality of the adult couple relationship impacted on their parenting behaviour – and where this was negative their young children often developed ‘internalising’ difficulties (e.g. depression, withdrawal etc.). Here the effect of the couple’s interactions had an indirect effect on their child (Cowan et al, 1994).

• However, in this same study, the parents’ functioning with each other (e.g. their hostility, overt conflict etc.) also had a direct effect on their young children, predicting ‘externalizing’ difficulties (e.g. aggression, ‘bad behaviour’ etc.) (Cowan et al, 1994).

Parents’ conflict styles can differ by gender, as can their effects. For example:

• Katz & Gottman (1994) found that where fathers of five-year-olds used an angry and withdrawn style when fighting with their partners, their children were higher in internalizing behaviour three years later.

• Sturge-Apple et al (2006) found that fathers who were engaged in mutual hostilities with their children’s mothers were less likely to withdraw from their children than fathers who were withdrawing from their partners. Withdrawal by fathers and mothers affected children differently: when it was the father who had withdrawn and was emotionally unavailable, his children were more anxious, depressed and withdrawn, and also tended to exhibit more aggressive and delinquent behavior and to have more trouble adjusting to school. By contrast, mothers’ emotional unavailability only affected children’s adjustment to school.

Do boys or girls suffer more from their parents’ hostile conflict? Overall neither sex seems more, or less, negatively affected (for review, see Cummings et al, 2004). However:

• One study found that as parents fought more, fathers used more authoritarian parenting with daughters, but not with sons (Cowan et al, 1993).

• One particularly good quality study found that adolescent boys (but not girls) whose parents fought a lot tended towards antisocial behaviour and general psychopathology both at the time and in young adulthood. As young adults, the boys also reported problematic relationships with their fathers (Neighbors et al, 1997).
• Research tentatively suggests that boys tend to become more aggressive when they witness an attack by their mother on their father; and girls when they witness an attack by their father on their mother (Davies et al, 1998).

• Although social modeling theory would suggest otherwise, there seems to be no evidence that children are more likely to imitate aggressive behaviour by the same-sex parent: for example, boys model mothers’ aggression just as often as fathers’ aggression (Davies et al, 2002).

• Anger-based family conflict is associated with both boys’ and girls’ angry and aggressive functioning both at home and at school. And the greater children’s exposure to this kind of conflict, the more likely they are to organize their own emotions from an angry base (Jenkins, 2000).

• Mothers’ anger-aggression has just as powerful an influence on children as fathers’ (Jenkins, 2000).

• Children are more distressed by physical violence from father to mother than from mother to father (Goeke-Morey et al, 2003).

• However, other kinds of hostilities (e.g. verbal threats to the intactness of the family, non-verbal hostility or the pursuit of conflict topics) are experienced by the children as more distressing when their mothers engage in them (Goeke-Morey et al, 2003).

Child-focused conflict, conflict involving physical violence and triangulation of the child into the conflict are among the most damaging (Amato & Afifi, 2006).

There is a large literature on the negative effects on children of parental conflict after separation and divorce (Dunn, 2004). Factors that may mediate this are emerging; and levels of conflict can change over time.

• Serious parental conflict immediately after separation seems to have a more negative impact on adolescents than on younger children (Dunn, 2004).

• The impact of parental conflict in the first year after divorce is mediated by maternal rejection or withdrawal (Fauber et al, 1990).

• Mother-child conflict is another mediator of the impact of parental conflict (Forehand et al, 1991).

• Levels of conflict at the time of the separation are not reliable predictors of ongoing conflict (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).

• Post-separation/divorce, parental conflict tends to diminish over time (Pryor & Rodges, 2001).

Children seem to ‘excuse’ their mothers’ negative behaviour in arguments with their fathers more readily than they do fathers’, more commonly attributing it to ‘state’ (“the mum had a bad day”) than to trait (“it’s because of the kind of person the dad is”) (Weston et al, 1998).

2. Parental separation: outcomes for children

In England and Wales between 150,000 and 200,000 parental couples separate each year; and of the 12 million children in the country, more than one in four have separated parents (Her Majesty’s Government, 2004). This is ‘”snapshot” data: at least one child in three will experience their parents’ separation before the age of 16 (Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, 2004).

Research has identified five important factors that predict children’s positive or negative life chances after their parents’ separation (Lamb, 2002a).

• The quality of their relationship with their mother
• The quality (not necessarily the quantity) of their relationship with their father
• How much and how viciously the adults continue to fight
• The financial support available to them
• The child’s individual temperament

Separation affects children in a range of ways:

  • Seventy per cent do not show any worse long-term outcomes than children whose parents have not separated (Lamb, 2007). However, 30% exhibit long term psychological mal-adjustment, which is double the incidence in the general population (Lamb, 2007). Some of this may be related to the separation, but the characteristics and circumstances of parents who separate, and the characteristics of their children, will also play a part. Poorer outcomes are found where children experience multiple family disruption.

• For the best outcomes, children need to be informed of and involved in decisions about what happens in the family (Dunn & Deater-Deckard, 2001).

The father-child relationship is commonly perceived as the only casualty of separation and divorce. In fact, individual studies have found that the quality of the mother-child relationship may also be compromised.

• Children (particularly boys) in lone mother households tend to have more conflictual relationships with their mothers and to receive less emotional support, cognitive stimulation, supervision and involvement from them (for review, see Jaffee et al, 2003).

• Simons et al (1999) found that externalising behaviour in boys whose parents had divorced could be explained by two factors: a mix of reduced involvement by fathers in parenting; and compromised quality of mothers’ parenting.

• Laumann-Billings & Emery (1998) found the quality of mother-child relationships after separation/divorce dropping substantially – to the same level as father-child relationships had been before separation.

The finding that parental separation (and also being born to parents who have never lived together) poses a risk to the quality of both parents’ relationships with their children should increase the urgency of developing policies to support these families.

3.  Separated fathers’ involvement: does it matter?

Although it is generally agreed (Dunn, 2004) that children in separated families do best when they retain a strong, positive relationship with both parents, many studies have found no significant association between the frequency of non-resident father-child contact and more positive child outcomes (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).

Stated baldly like this – as it often is – the implication seems to be that non-resident ‘father time’ is immaterial. In fact there are often methodological problems with such findings, which may reflect data-sets that include very few children with highly involved fathers, significant variation within the samples of children’s exposure to other pathogenic circumstances; and the confounding of many types of ‘involved’ father, from the abusive to the devoted (Lamb, 2002b).

More recently, positive links between contact, child adjustment and academic success have grown stronger (Dunn, 2005); and studies are defining with greater precision the value of children’s continuing relationships with non-resident fathers, and the circumstances in which these relationships can flourish.

• The key positive elements in the non-resident father-child relationship are warmth, support, authoritative parenting and level of involvement (Dunn, 2005).

• Both father-child contact-time and quality of relationship are related to young children’s adjustment, with stronger associations for children of lone mothers than for children with stepfathers (Dunn et al, 2004).

• Closeness to the non-resident father is associated with academic and behavioural outcomes in adolescents – positively with grade point average and college expectations; negatively with suspension/expulsion, delinquency and school problems (Manning & Lamb, 2003).

• For older children in stepfather families a good relationship between non-resident father and child is associated with good adjustment outcome independently of the mother-child relationship (Dunn, 2004).

• In stepfather families, conflicted non-resident father-child relationships are associated with conflicted mother-child and stepfather-child relationships (Dunn, 2004). This suggests either child-effects or family system difficulties. Both are likely. Positive non-resident father-child relationships are not associated with positive mother-child or step-father child relationships (Dunn, 2004).

• In separated families, high levels of non-resident father involvement protect against later mental health problems in children (Flouri, 2005a).

• For white adolescent males in America, non-resident father involvement was found to buffer the negative effects of living in a lone-mother family on delinquency, heavy drinking and illicit drug use (Thomas et al, 1996). However, in this same study, black adolescents’ problem behaviours were greater when their non-resident fathers stayed involved with them. This finding has not been replicated nor explained.

• Williams & Kelly (2005) found a unique proportion of variation in teacher-reported externalizing and total behaviour problems in teenagers associated with security of paternal attachment and with levels of father involvement. This was the case in both intact and non-intact families. Children in non-intact families appeared to suffer because living without their fathers meant that two important ‘buffering’ factors – paternal involvement and security of paternal attachment – were compromised.

• A recent involvement measure (Carlson, 2006) which reflects fathers’ investments of quantity of time (i.e. how often he listens, talks) as well as the affective quality of that time (i.e. how close the adolescent feels to the father) identified a strong bivariate association between lower levels of non-resident biological father involvement and adolescents’ externalizing and internalizing behaviors (specifically aggression; antisocial behaviour; emotional over control; and depression, anxiety and low self-esteem).

• In this high quality study, the 9% of adolescents who reported ‘no father’ had the highest behavioural problem scores, although they were no more likely to report ‘negative feelings’ towards their fathers than those whose fathers presented with low levels of involvement (Carlson, 2006).

• The non-resident fathers’ involvement (or lack of it) did not affect boys and girls differently (Carlson, 2006).

• Where father involvement is positive, it is more beneficial when father and child live together (Carlson, 2006). Thus it seems that where father and child do not live together, positive interaction between them needs to be particularly substantial to have a positive effect. (This may, in part, explain the “nil” or little effect of non-resident father-involvement in some studies).

• Similarly, when the father’s behaviour/personality characteristics are very negative, children are less badly affected when they do not live with their fathers / spend very little time with them (Jaffee et al, 2003).

• The vast majority of non-resident fathers seem to have the individual capacities and commitment to establish and maintain supportive and enriching relationships with their children. Even in datasets made up of particularly difficult, low contact fathers, only 10-25% of their children are found likely not to benefit (or perhaps to be harmed by) regular and extended contact with their non-resident parent (Grief, 1997; Johnston, 1994).

• It seems likely that, to deliver the greatest benefits to children and their non-resident fathers, the time they spend together needs to mimic as nearly as possible the diverse family experiences of resident fathers and their children: sharing bedtimes, mealtimes, watching TV, doing homework, trips out, ‘hanging’ in, visiting friends and family (for discussion, see Lamb 2002).

4.  How much time do separated fathers spend with their children?

• In the UK, 91% of resident parents are female (Office for National Statistics, 2005).

In England, it is estimated that 11% of children in separated families share their time equally between both parents (Peacey & Hunt, 2008 ).

• Among children who do not live with both parents, resident parents report that between one quarter and one third rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent (Peacey & Hunt, 2008; Blackwell & Dawe, 2003), although one study found that 20% of these have other forms of contact (“indirect contact”) with that parent – such as telephone, email or letters (Blackwell & Dawe, 2003). The other study did not measure this.

• Resident parents also report that 34-43% of their children see their non-resident parent at least weekly (Peacey & Hunt, 2008; Blackwell & Dawe, 2003); and that just over half see him at least monthly (Peacey & Hunt, 2008). One study found at least half of all children , on mothers’ reports, having some form of contact – direct or indirect – with their non-resident parent at least once a week (Blackwell & Dawe, 2003). Another found that, even 5-10 years after the breakup, one third of the children were seeing their non-resident parent at least fortnightly (Maclean & Eekelaar, 1997).

• Non-resident fathers consistently report higher rates of contact than do resident mothers (Peacey & Hunt, 2008; Blackwell & Dawe, 2003). It is thought this may be because surveys are not good at reaching very detached non-resident fathers.

• No contact at one stage does not necessarily predict no-contact at a later stage: Maclean & Eekelaar (1997) found non-resident fathers changing the nature and extent of their contact with their children over time, with many drifting back into contact after initial separation. The Milennium Cohort Study found that while just under one third of non-resident fathers who had been involved with their babies at age 9-10 months had drifted away by age 3, just over one third of the less involved at 9-10 months had greater involvement at age 3 (Dex & Ward, 2007)

• 1 in 4 non-resident parents said their time with their child had been affected because the other parent had been reluctant to allow it (Peacey & Hunt, 2008)

• 1 in 4 resident parents whose child does have contact say it has been affected because the ‘contact parent’ is not committed, or is unreliable, or inflexible (Peacey & Hunt, 2008)

• Factors connected with less contact include low socio-economic status, low education, geographical distance, father having lived only briefly (or never) with the child, either mother or father re-partnering, high conflict between parents (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004; Maclean & Eekelaar, 1997).

Factors associated with more contact include early establishment of a reliable visitation schedule, specific details of the visitation schedule written down and agreed, and fathers’ feeling competent as parents, satisfied with parenting and feeling they have influence over their children (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004)

• High father-involvement before separation is rarely reflected in post-separation private agreements or awards by the courts: in one study, 47% of the fathers in families that later separated had been either their child’s primary carer OR had taken substantial responsibility for their care. Yet, after separation, none was their child’s main carer. Few had had contact with lawyers or the family court (Lewis et al, 2002).

• Some children in shared care arrangements experience strain in moving between two households while nevertheless valuing the opportunity to stay close to both parents (Smart et al, 2000), However, most do not report this to be problematic (Dunn, 2008).

• Some studies have found “shared care” children exhibiting particularly positive outcomes (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992), although this may be related to the quality of the parents’ relationship and other factors. “Shared care” parents tend to have better education (and therefore better jobs – and more money), to live near each other; and to have access to flexible or reduced hours working (Smyth et al, 2004).

• Children’s satisfaction with shared care is greatest when they feel they have some control over arrangements and are able to talk about them to their parents (Smart et al, 2000).

5.   Does contact with fathers matter to children?

• In a US study, losing regular contact with their fathers was seen by children as the worst aspect of their parents’ separation (Kurdek & Siesky, 1980).

• Dunn (2008) reports a strong correlation between children in separated families perceiving themselves as distant from their biological fathers, and childhood depression. This remained stable over 5 years. The amount of time father and child spent together was also linked to this.

•  Separated fathers’ unreliability is a key negative indicator for children (Dunn, 2008)

• In Australia, Funder (1996) found 96% of children including their non-resident fathers as part of their families.

• A recent UK study found only 4% of children in stepfamilies who did not live with their fathers having negative feelings about contact with them (Smith et al, 2001).

• Young adults’ continuing grief and anger at the loss or attenuation of their relationship with their father are graphically depicted by, among others, Laumann-Billings & Emery (1998) and Fortin et al (2005).

6.  Child support

What impact does the payment of child support have on children?

• Child Support policy can deliver child poverty reduction – 25% in Austria; 24% in Switzerland; 18% in Sweden (Bradshaw, 2006).

• The amount of child support fathers pay, and whether they pay, are both ‘unequivocally’ (Graham & Beller, 2002) associated with children’s achievements, health and wellbeing (Aizer & McLanahan, 2006; Marsiglio et al, 2000).

• Recent research shows a marked positive relationship between payment of child support and increased visitation. The estimated impact of receiving child support on contact is more than 27 days per year (Peters et al, 2004).

• Income from child support, particularly where it is willingly paid, has a more beneficial impact on children than equivalent income from other sources (Aizer & McLanahan, 2006).

Another way in which vigorous child support enforcement may benefit children may be by lowering their likelihood of needing such support in the first place.

• Stronger child support enforcement is marginally associated with men’s decreased likelihood of being involved in an unwanted pregnancy (Huang, 2005).

• There is also tentative evidence from the US of a link between strong child support enforcement and reduced pregnancy and pregnancy resolution in teenage girls, with the strongest effect for non-Hispanic whites (Plotnick et al, 2004).

• Strong enforcement is not only correlated with lower rates of separation and divorce, but also appears to lead to men having fewer out of wedlock births; and to partnering with better-educated women who have a higher underlying propensity to invest in their children. These more advantaged couples are then likely to have a lower propensity towards separation and divorce. (Aizer & McLanahan, 2006).

• Haveman & Wolfe (1995) found an intergenerational effect: since mothers in receipt of child support were less likely to be ‘on welfare’ their daughters were less likely to become pregnant young/out of wedlock (the daughters of ‘welfare mothers’ have a greater propensity to early/out of wedlock childbearing).

It was once thought that vigorous child support enforcement would result in non resident fathers deliberately avoiding employment. This is not so. Indeed, among low income fathers, vigorous child support enforcement may even increase workforce participation (Freeman & Waldfogel, 1998).

Creative interventions set up to improve compliance have supported fathers in other ways.

• In the US, Parents Fair Share which worked with only the most disadvantaged non-resident fathers, managed to effect slight increases in the amount of child support paid; and also brought about positive effects on father-child contact where levels had been particularly low (Mincy & Pouncy, 2002)..

• Recognising the importance of fathers’ workforce participation to child support compliance, the Australian Child Support Agency is piloting programmes that address fatherhood issues both in workplace settings and in government programmes for the unemployed. The aim of the former is to inhibit the slide into unemployment commonly found among non-resident fathers; and of the latter, to encourage unemployed males to rejoin or to participate for the first time in the paid workforce in a stable manner (O’Hanlon, 2005).

• Programmes designed to reduce unwanted pregnancies and non-marital births are more likely to succeed when they include information on child support enforcement targeted at young males (Huang, 2005).

• An understanding of how payment of child support can benefit children may motivate some parents to reach agreement or maintain payment, and may motivate the enforcement service to use its powers.

7.  Father figures

Nearly one half of all children who spend part of their childhood with a single mother will spend some of that time with a stepfather – i.e a man, not their father, that she has married (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). Many more will live with men to whom their mothers are not married. Single-mother households are often assumed to be male-deficient. In fact there is some evidence that children in these households are exposed to more adult males than are children whose biological parents both still live together (for review see Radhakrishna et al, 2001). This is especially true of children born to teenage mothers (Crockett et al, 1993).

Like biological fathers, social fathers can function as risks and resources in children’s lives. For example:

• Stepfathers’ impact on children’s self-esteem has been found to be more powerful than that of either biological fathers or mothers (Dunn et al, 2004).

• Early stepfather involvement has more impact than early birth-father involvement on decreasing emotional behaviour problems among adolescent girls (Flouri, 2005).

• Stepfather-child relationships are more influential than nonresident father-child relationships in predicting children’s adjustment, with the effects increasing by duration of the re-marriage (Hetherington, 1993).

• The stepfather-child relationship is substantially more challenging than the biological-father-child relationship: the relationship is not as close; stepfathers are less affectionate and more coercive with stepchildren; and stepchildren tend to be less warm and affectionate with stepfathers – even in long-term fairly successful stepfamilies (for review see Radhakrishna et al, 2001).

• Younger children adjust better to their mother’s re-partnering. Among older children, daughters may be particularly resistant, particularly where their relationship with their mother was previously close: in such cases, greater harmony in the new marriage is associated with the daughters’ poorer adjustment (for discussion, see Hetherington & Henderson, 1997).

• Stepfathers and other father-figures are substantially more likely to abuse the children in their care than are biological fathers with comparative rates of child sexual abuse particularly high (for review see Radhakrishna et al, 2001). However, one reason for father-figures’ heavy representation in child abuse statistics may be willingness of family members to report them: the closer the relationship between an abused child and a perpetrator, the less likely family members are formally to report the offender (Wallis, 1992).

• Stepchildren tend to leave home earlier (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994), which can put them at risk.

• For these and other reasons, although children in mother-stepfather families tend to experience better financial support than children in lone mother households, and their stepfathers tend to be of higher ‘quality’ than their biological fathers in terms of education, employment, psychopathology etc. (McLanahan et al, 2006) their outcomes and adjustment are not superior to children in lone mother households, although there may be cultural variations.

Maintaining positive spousal and parenting relationships in stepfather and stepmother families can require skills and awareness. For example:

• Fathers’ new partners (more than mothers’ new partners) tend to be less supportive of their mate’s relationship with his biological children, being more often ambivalent or hostile (for review, see Hetherington & Henderson, 1997).

• The couple relationship in stepfamilies tends to be more vulnerable to conflict with children than in ‘intact’ families, not least because stepfathers tend to find it difficult to separate conflict with the child from conflict with their partner (Kurdek & Fine, 1995).

• Children’s behaviour is is more likely to influence parents’ behaviour in stepfamilies than in intact families (for discussion, see Hetherington & Henderson, 1997).

• In stepfather families, conflicted non-resident father-child relationships are associated with conflicted mother-child and stepfather-child relationships (Dunn, 2004). This suggests either child-effects or family system difficulties. Both are likely. Positive non-resident father-child relationships are not associated with positive mother-child or step-father child relationships (Dunn, 2004).

It is clear that support needs to be offered to men who undertake a stepfathering role, and that other partners and children concerned should be included in interventions.
Stepfathers are not, of course, the only types of father-figure: grandfathers, other family members and friends and mentors can play important roles. Foster fathers – who have largely been ignored by service providers and researchers – may be of particular importance, given that many of the children in their care will not have enjoyed supportive and loving relationships with adult males, and may have been abused by them (Wilson et al, 2007). There is some evidence that positively engaging with foster fathers and potential foster fathers may increase the number of foster-placements available (Newstone, 2004). Such engagement may also improve child outcomes.

8.   Father involvement and family stability

There is emerging evidence that high paternal involvement may be correlated with greater family stability.

• Low father involvement is associated with women’s anger at their partners (Ross & Van Willigen, 1996).

• High take up of parental leave by Swedish fathers is linked to lower rates of separation /divorce, as is more equitable sharing by a couple of earning and caring roles. In fact, couples are 30% less likely to break up when the father has taken some parental leave – i.e. leave over and above the 10 days’ leave most Swedish fathers take when their babies are born (Olah, 2001).

• An important longitudinal study which controlled for socioeconomic factors found fathers’ involvement in routine every day childcare, plus play/school liaison throughout a child’s life to beyond adolescence, accounting for 21% of the variance in fathers’ marital happiness at midlife (Snarey, 1993).

• In Australia, Lupton & Barclay (1999) found men’s involvement in infant care positively correlated with their satisfaction with family life and adjustment to fatherhood.

• Among cohabiting couples with newborns, both parents’ beliefs that father-involvement is important plus fathers’ actual involvement (measured here by regular nappy-changing) were found to predict relationship stability (Hohmann-Marriott, 2006).

• The importance of working with both partners on their beliefs and aspirations relating to parenting is clear: one study of new parents found that a couple relationship that was happy and appeared stable at the time of the birth, could be seriously and quite quickly eroded when partners held different ideas about parenting (Cowan & Cowan, 2000).

Paying attention to men’s experiences as fathers may be particularly important. There is evidence that men’s, rather than women’s, wishes may be primary ‘drivers’ of relationship dissolution.

This seems at first counter-intuitive, since it is well known that women are more likely to take the first formal steps towards separation/divorce. However, mothers’ greater propensity to move towards ending relationships formally may be more strongly related to their managerial function within families than with their own dis-satisfaction. The reasons why men’s wishes may be more influential in driving relationship dissolution, even often when women take the first step towards it include:

• A man’s dissatisfaction is more predictive than a woman’s of a relationship ending (Gottman, 1998).

• As mentioned above Aizer & McLanahan (2006).report that stronger child support enforcement in the US is associated with lower rates of separation and divorce – i.e. when the costs to men of leaving the relationship are increased, relationships are more likely to endure.

• In Sweden, where fathers can expect to have high levels of involvement with their children after separation (Oberg & Oberg, 2001), this expectation seems to contribute to relationship dissolution (Olah, 2001) – that is, when the costs to men of leaving the relationship are reduced, relationships are more likely to end.

In the US, the pilot phase of an outstanding multi-site intervention which aims to equip low income couples with relationship/communication skills is reporting significant positive results. The project has successfully engaged both men and women (Dion et al, 2006).


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Dunn (2008) reports a strong correlation between children in separated families perceiving themselves as distant from their biological fathers, and childhood depression. This remained stable over 5 years. The amount of time father and child spent together was also linked to this.

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