Underlying theory, challenges, co-parenting, shared-time parenting, home and co-parenting, health impact, supporting separating and separated parents
This page has three sections:
1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic
2. A suggested Practice Approach
3. A list of Supporting Material / References
Zartler (2020) describes the key theoretical approaches that seek to explain post-separation parent-child relations.
The family instability hypothesis suggests that family transitions are stressful events that lead to adverse developmental outcomes for parents and children. Divorce and separation are stressful transitions for parents and children alike where parents find it hard to provide children with consistent routine and a stable family environment.
The instability hypothesis is often contrasted with the selection hypothesis, which states that the relationship between family transitions and child outcomes is spurious, as both are caused by the parental characteristics that are correlated with divorce and separation, like their educational levels, occupational status, or socio-economic status. Divorce and separation are an active choice of parents.
Evidence has been found for both hypotheses (instability and selection), with the bulk of studies supporting the basic notion that divorce and separation negatively affect both children and adults
The divorce-stress-adjustment perspective explores the effects of stress on families undergoing a break-up. For divorcing parents these include having to take on the sole responsibility for parenting, losing custody of their children, dealing with the loss of emotional support, and managing continuing conflict with the ex-spouse. Potential stressors for children of divorcing parents include having less parental support overall, having less contact with one parent, and dealing with continuing conflict between their parents; as well as having to move to another home or school, and resulting changes in their social networks. Economic strain and decline in living standards causes hardships for both parents and children. On the other hand, protective factors can weaken negative impacts: positive social and legal support when undergoing divorce or separation, and favourable demographic characteristics.
The parental resource theory states that parents provide their children with two major resources: money (to meet economic needs) and time (to build strong parent-child relationships). Parental separation leads to a decline in both, as it reduces the involvement of the non-residential parent.
The diverging destinies perspective suggests that children born to less educated mothers are especially likely to experience changes in family structure associated with loss of resources. The opposite is observed for children of highly educated mothers who tend to benefit from their parents’ later family formation.
Challenges for Children and Parents in Post-Separation Families
Zartler (2020) suggests children and parents face challenges during and after separation.
Non-nuclear families still have to deal with negative stereotypes. The nuclear family ideology still remains strong with attitudes towards parental separation children of divorce and non-nuclear family forms negative.
In the preparation phase of a break-up, the parents are under pressure to find solutions for a broad range of issues, including questions regarding residence, custody, contact, and finances. Among the challenges divorcing parents face is finding the right words to inform their offspring of the break-up; to reassure them that the termination of the partner relationship will not change their love for their children; to explain in a child-friendly manner the reasons for the divorce; and to let the children know that their parents’ decision to get divorced was not their fault.
Another major challenge parents and children are confronted with is the management of post-separation family lives where children often shuttle between two family locations with them having to adapt to each parent’s distinct routines, expectations, demands and parenting styles.
For children, a parental divorce can lead to many life changes, such as experiencing the departure of one parent from the household; having to move from their family home and relocate to a new neighbourhood and a new school; losing contact with their grandparents, friends, and classmates; suffering a decline in their standard of living; having to adapt to their parents’ new partners or new family members, such as step or half-siblings; and having to cope with a series of subsequent parental break-ups. However, qualitative studies have shown that children and parents employ diverse strategies in an attempt to reduce the negative impact of transitions.
Gaining a stepparent after a parental separation is a common experience for many children. This can make family relationships more complex as relationships have to be re-negotiated.
Supporting Children’s Resilience
(Emerging Minds. (n.d.). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and resilience – parent fact sheet. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces-and-resilience-parent-fact-sheet/)
If parental separation is overwhelming for children, they can lead to a traumatic response. In many cases children will receive support and care from their family and community, and will be able to work through these experiences. However, these experiences often impact the whole family, and caring relationships within the family can also be affected.
Parents can support their child’s resilience by being:
Someone they can lean on
o Be there for them, support them through difficulties and be a safe place for them to express their feelings
o Share more frequent meals together as a family to build strong healthy relationships
o Support them to practise healthy habits and routines. Predictable patterns help children feel safe and secure.
Someone who is interested in them
o Make time for play every day. Even five minutes can make a huge difference for a child
o Ask about their favourite school subjects or activities. Take the time to listen to their answers or get them to teach you something they’ve learned.
o Learn positive coping strategies like naming feelings or slow breathing and practise them together.
Someone who believes in them
o Praise your child for things uou notice about them. This helps build their self-esteem.
o Nurture their independence. Encourage them to explore, have adventures and try new things.
o Share your own childhood dreams and ask your child about theirs. Let them know you think they can achieve their ambitions.
Shared or Co-Parenting
Braver and Lamb (2018) present the views of 12 experts on parenting and conclude that co-parenting has many benefits for children, including (a) lower levels of depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction; (b) lower aggression, and reduced alcohol and substance abuse; (c) better school performance and cognitive development; (d) better physical health; (e) lower smoking rates; and (f) better relationships with fathers, mothers, stepparents, and grandparents. The point out that shared parenting has great support among the public at large. Experts suggest it should actually be a presumption; however reasons not to consider co-parenting would be a credible risk to the child of abuse or neglect, too great a distance between the parents’ homes, threat of abduction by a parent, unreasonable or excessive gate-keeping and, in some circumstances, a child with special needs. The 12 experts did not think high parental conflict or one parent’s opposition should disallow co-parenting, pointing out exposure to disagreement can actually promote children’s adjustment, and conflict can change with the passage of time. Rather than promote alienation, co-parenting has been found to unify parents more.
Key Characteristics of Co-parenting families
Keogh, Smyth and Masardo (2018) suggest shared-time families are more likely than other separated families to have higher levels of education, high (typically dual) incomes and to have primary school-aged children. Compared to parents with less equal divisions of parenting time, they tend to live closer together and have more flexibility in their work hours. Fathers in shared-time families have frequently been actively involved in the care of their children before separation. Most separated parents who establish shared-time arrangements respect each other, co-operate, are able to communicate in ways which avoid or contain conflict, are able to compromise, and have arrangements that are flexible and child-focused. Shared-time arrangements are often agreed to privately, without the use of lawyers or the courts. The characteristics of shared-time families (both before and after separation) make positive outcomes more likely than in other separated families. The tendency of parents with shared-time arrangements to report that their children are doing well and that the arrangements are liked by them and their children are to some extent, therefore, unsurprising. The selection (class) effect is sometimes overlooked when advocates for shared-time claim that positive outcomes for children are caused by shared-time arrangements.
Keogh, Smyth and Masardo (2018) consider whether shared-time arrangements are suitable in the presence of high levels of interpersonal conflict. They do not find conclusive evidence either way. Rather they suggest five key domains that should be considered when weighing up the risks and benefits of shared-time parenting:
a) safety and emotional security with each parent
b) parenting quality and the parent–child relationship
c) factors relating to the individual child (or siblings)
d) the nature and exercise of the parenting arrangements and
e) practical issues such as financial resources and job flexibility.
The Raising Children Network has information to assist with co-parenting at https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce/helping-children-adjust-two-homes
The Meaning of Home
Campo et al. (2020) examined the meaning of home for children after separation. They concluded that home for children and young people was connected to a parental residence. Furthermore, spending most time with one parent did not determine the capacity for the child or young person to experience their other parent’s residence as home. Similarly, shared time did not necessarily equate to two homes. It was parents’ openness to opportunities for ‘being-in-the-moment’ time and willingness and capacity to focus on their children – to create space to be with them – that children and young people noticed and valued. Relationships in either place of residence help children experience a sense of ease and comfort; physical safety and emotional safety; and enjoy time with those around them.
Impact of separation on parent health
Ding et al. (2021) analysed the data from 30,000 people involved in the Australian 45 and Up Study and tracked the physical and mental health of those who became divorced or widowed. The findings revealed strong short-term effects of divorce – and, to a lesser degree, of widowhood – particularly on mental health (stress, anxiety and depression), but also on smoking rates and quality of life. However, five years on from the event, these effects seem to attenuate and, in some cases, disappear. This is consistent with the “divorce-stress-adjustment perspective” – where the marital disruption leads to multiple stressors (loss of custody of children or financial problems, for example), which, in turn, lead to negative emotional, behavioural and health outcomes. Then follows a process of adjustment, the length of which depends on the person and the severity of the issues. An interesting finding was that those who got divorced during the study period were already more likely to have poor health and quality of life, higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression and higher smoking rates. Divorce and widowhood didn’t seem to affect physical activity or increase alcohol consumption, but there was an association with insufficient fruit and vegetable consumption. The authors conclude “Given the ubiquitous and inevitable nature of marital disruption, it is important to raise public awareness of its potential health effects and develop strategies to help individuals navigate such difficult life transitions.”
Parent wellbeing after separation
Koppen, Keryuenfeld and Trappe (2020) examined parental wellbeing after separation. They found a decline in both men’s and women’s satisfaction through, in general, loss of contact with offspring and the financial impact respectively. They examined the impact of shared parenting and concluded practising shared parenting only weakly correlated with parental wellbeing. Cohabiting with or having married a new partner was the decisive determinant of the well-being of separated parents. They also found that the level of conflict between ex-partners, influencing their ability to engage with each other, reduced overall wellbeing.
In Australia, many separating families (e.g. 70% in one 2015 study) do not seek the support of specialist family dispute resolution or counselling services, and instead navigate separation on their own. Therefore, it is important that a range of practitioners who meet families during separation, including those who are not specialists in the subject matter, support parents and bring the needs of children into focus (Balvin & Patterson, 2021). Supporting parents is one of the most effective ways to safeguard children’s well-being post-separation. It is also important that children have a voice in the separation process (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
Some important themes to keep in mind when working with parents both while and after separating (Balvin & Paterson, 2021; Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021):
Unless a practitioner is trained in teaching parenting techniques, it is best to be cautious about giving advice and problem solving for parents. It is important that practitioners remain within the remit of their professional role and expertise and are honest with parents about what they can and cannot do for them.
Have appropriate resources you can give parents or refer parents to. Remember to check the preferred way parents like to receive resources / education (topics and delivery medium). Two websites are listed in the Supporting Material section below: Family Relationships Online and Raising Children Network. Each has numerous topics that may provide information and ideas to parents.
Address personal concerns of parents before discussing the impact of separation on children. But, it is essential to raise the impact of separation on children, even if the parent is not necessarily seeking advice in this area. Parents sometime fail to perceive how separation may be impacting on children.
Acknowledge the parent may well be the ‘expert’ in the situation and listen carefully to their experiences.
Develop shared goals—what do the parents want?
Use a strengths-based approach whenever possible.
Normalise parents’ experiences when appropriate.
Celebrate successes, even if they seem small.
Explore the support structures around parents and suggest broadening these in an appropriate way if necessary.
Providing Support While Separating
In the preparation phase of a break-up, the parents are under pressure to find solutions for a broad range of issues, including questions regarding residence, custody, contact, and finances. Among the challenges divorcing parents face is finding the right words to inform their offspring of the break-up; to reassure them that the termination of the partner relationship will not change their love for their children; to explain in a child-friendly manner the reasons for the divorce; and to let the children know that their parents’ decision to get divorced was not their fault (Zartler, 2020).
Focus on discussing the parents’ wellbeing and providing them with support, and only after dealing with parent’s issues, move onto questions about the child–parent relationship (if appropriate): ‘How are you going with everything?’ “What are you noticing about yourself since you made the decision to separate?’ (Balvin & Patterson, 2021)
Normalise difficulties. It can help parents recognise and build on strengths.
Acknowledge and validate the feelings that parents are experiencing when going through a separation. This includes emotions such as sadness and grief, which are common.
Support parents to have positive conversations about what separation might allow them to do differently, both personally and with their children. What are the new opportunities that arise? What parenting practices would they like to adopt in their new living situation? What would they most like their children to describe about their time with them?
Encourage parents to share their experiences openly and honestly with other parents. This can help identify shared experiences and difficulties and can build empathy and networks of support (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
Clearly communicate to parents the need to look after their own health and engage in self-care to have the emotional capacity to engage in positive parenting practices. Therefore acknowledge and validate the strong emotions that can be associated with separation. Encourage parents to:
get enough sleep
eat well and exercise
make friends and connect with others
be kind to themselves
take some time out—attend to their own needs; and
seek support for their mental health when necessary (Balvin & Patterson, 2021).
Use a strengths-based approach and acknowledge what the parent is doing well. For example, ‘You are doing a great job looking after the children on your own.’ (Balvin & Patterson, 2021)
Ask about the support available to the parent and focus on solutions (Balvin & Patterson, 2021).
Once you have asked parents about how they are and given them a chance to talk about themselves, they will be more able to focus on the needs of their children (Balvin & Patterson, 2021).
Children who are experiencing family separation may struggle with emotional, behavioural and academic problems as well as problems with peers. Therefore it is important to:
Gently ask questions such as, ‘How are your children doing in all of this?’, ‘What is it that’s most important to you in relation to how your children experience the separation?’ and, ‘What do you not want them to see and feel?’
Encourage parents to check in with their children about how they are feeling. Tell parents, if appropriate, that it is not separation itself that negatively impacts on children, but other factors such as parental conflict.
If parents need support about talking with children, direct them to an evidence-informed resource, e.g. Family Relationships Online at https://www.familyrelationships.gov.au/parenting and/or Raising Children Network at https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
The provision of information on children’s development and how to support them during separation can be an important protective factor for children’s social and emotional wellbeing. The type of information practitioners might provide to parents in such circumstances include leaflets, brochures, booklets and links to websites and apps that provide information about topics related to child mental health, such as:
general information about the impact of separation on children’s social and emotional wellbeing
tips on how to support and enhance children’s social and emotional wellbeing through separation; and
tips for how to manage conflict in the inter- parental relationship and what not to do (Balvin & Patterson, 2021).
These resources include:
“Because it’s for the kids: Building a secure parenting base after separation” – an e-book on the effects of parental conflict on child development available at https://childrenbeyonddispute.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Because-its-for-the-kids-for-CBD.pdf
An information sheet on “helping children cope with separation and divorce” available at https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/mentalhealth/separation_and_divorce
“raisingchildren.net.au” information on relationships and development available at https://raisingchildren.net.au/newborns/development/understanding-development/relationships-development (Balvin & Patterson, 2021).
Providing information on child wellbeing goes hand-in-hand with referrals to specialist services, activities and programs that may be helpful to families during separation. Each state and territory in Australia have services where children and parents can receive assistance during separation (Balvin & Patterson, 2021). For a list of local Australian services see: https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/services-support and https://www.familyrelationships.gov.au/find-local-help (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
Providing Support After Separating
It is possible that people who have separated will seek support for a variety of issues that arise in their lives. Depending on the issue, a variety of practice models could be used by social workers, e.g. problem solving, solution-focused, task centred models. These approaches, along with other issues that can impact on people, both in and out of a relationship, are dealt with elsewhere on this website. Check out the Contents tab for a list. The remainder of this section deals with approaches to take when parents are seeking advice about their children.
A major challenge parents and children face after separation is the management of post-separation family lives where children often shuttle between two family locations with them having to adapt to each parent’s distinct routines, expectations, demands and parenting styles. Other life changes faced by children include experiencing the departure of one parent from the household; having to move from their family home and relocate to a new neighbourhood and a new school; losing contact with their grandparents, friends, and classmates; suffering a decline in their standard of living; having to adapt to their parents’ new partners or new family members, such as step or half-siblings; and having to cope with a series of subsequent parental break-ups (Zartler, 2020).
Consistent and responsive parenting after separation can have a direct influence on children’s wellbeing and development.
Ask how children’s relationships, routines, support networks emotions and behaviours have been affected by separation.
Acknowledge and validate that parenting can be challenging, e.g. ‘Parenting can be like sailing through rough waters, particularly when the family is going through the upheaval of separation.’
Tap into strengths: ‘What are some of the things you’re already doing to support your children’s wellbeing?’
Explore the parent’s support network; encourage and assist them to develop a parenting support network if necessary (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
The following strategies will support co-parenting. If the other parent is difficult in some way, encourage the parent to focus on what is in their control, such as their own behaviours and responses.
Encourage parents to speak to their children in ways that are respectful of the other parent. Remind them it may impact on their child’s wellbeing. “How do you think your children might be feeling when you speak about their other parent in that way?’
If episodes of conflict are happening with the ex-partner, ask where the children are. What are they seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling? This may help future planning to avoid children witnessing future conflict.
For families experiencing a high level of parent conflict, referral to a family relationships service such as Family Relationships Online may help (https://www.familyrelationships.gov.au/). Otherwise, ask, ‘What are some of the things you are currently doing to try to reduce the amount of conflict that your children are exposed to?’ (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021)
Parenting programs for separated parents have high dropout rates. Therefore, it is important to encourage parents’ attendance and efforts.
Celebrate successes that parents identify, even if they seem small (e.g. a minor change in the child’s behaviour as a result of a new parenting skill).
Help parents to remain positive and motivated when faced with perceived setbacks. For example, you could reassure parents that change rarely happens overnight. Provide encouragement by emphasising that small, persistent steps are often needed.
Provide encouragement that progress is happening by helping parents identify their role in making positive change happen. Use a strengths-based approach (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021)
Where appropriate, rehearse skills parents intend using.
Ask parents what is working well at home with their children. What are the skills they most value as a parent? Acknowledge their strengths and then share ideas to work on.
Ask what has worked or not worked in the past.
Practise the scenarios that are raised, e.g. a difficult conversation with the ex-partner (Paterson, Price-Robertson & Hervatin, 2021).
Supporting Material / References
(available on request)
Balvin, N., & Paterson, N. (2021). How to speak with separating parents about their children’s wellbeing. Australia: Emerging Minds: National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/how-to-speak-with-separating-parents-about-their-childrens-wellbeing/
Braver, S. L., & Lamb, M. E. (2018). Shared parenting after parental separation: The views of 12 experts. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage. https://doi.org/10.1080/10502556.2018.1454195
Campo, M., Fehlberg, B., Natalier, K., & Smyth, B. (2020). The meaning of home for children and young people after separation. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 42(3), 299-318. https://doi.org/10.1080/09649069.2020.1796218
Ding, D., Gale, J., Bauman, A., Phongsavan, P., & Binh, N. (2021). Effects of divorce and widowhood on subsequent health behaviours and outcomes in a sample of middle-aged and older Australian adults. Nature portfolio: Scientific Reports, 11, 15237. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93210-y. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-93210-y.pdf
Emerging Minds. (n.d.). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and resilience – parent fact sheet. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces-and-resilience-parent-fact-sheet/
Family Relationships Online. (2021). https://www.familyrelationships.gov.au/ This Australian Government website has information for all families – whether together or separated - about a range of services to assist families manage relationship issues, including helping families agree on arrangements for children after parents separate. Topics include:
Having relationship difficulties
Going through separation
Children and parenting after separation
Dealing with family and domestic violence
Talk to someone
Keogh, E., Smyth, B., & Masardo, A. (2018). Law reform for shared-time parenting after separation. Singapore Academy of Law Journal, 30, pp. 518-544. http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/id/eprint/5372.
Koppen, K., Kreyuenfeld, M., & Trappe, H. (2020). Gender differences in parental well-being after separation: Does shared parenting matter? In M. Kreyenfeld and H. Trappe (eds.), (2020). Parental life courses after separation and divorce in Europe, pp. 235-266. Springer Open eBook. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44575-1
Paterson, N., Price-Robertson, R., & Hervatin, M. (2021). Working with separating parents to support children’s wellbeing: What can we learn from evidence-based programs. Australia: Emerging Minds. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/working-with-separating-parents-to-support-childrens-wellbeing-what-can-we-learn-from-evidence-based-programs/
Raising Children Network. (2021). The Australian parenting website. https://raisingchildren.net.au/ This site has several articles around parenting when separated. Use the search function to narrow down the topics. Some examples include:
Grown-ups: parenting after separation or divorce. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce
Single parents and positive single parenting. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce/single-parenting
Helping teenagers adjust after separation. https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/family-relationships/helping-teens-adjust-separation
Helping children adjust to two homes after separation or divorce. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce/helping-children-adjust-two-homes
Helping children adjust after separation or divorce. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/parenting-after-separation-divorce/helping-children-adjust-separation
Grown-ups: co-parenting. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/co-parenting
Co-parenting: getting the balance right. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/co-parenting/co-parenting
Conflict management: you and your former partner. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/co-parenting/conflict-former-partner
Part-time parenting and distance parenting. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/co-parenting/part-time-parenting
Grown-ups: single parents. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/single-parents
Single parents: the early days after separation. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/single-parents/single-parents-early-days
Help and support for single parents. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/single-parents/support-for-single-parents
Handling people’s attitudes to single parents. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/single-parents/handling-attitudes-to-single-parents
Healthy lifestyle for single parents. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/single-parents/healthy-lifestyle-for-single-parents
Divorce and separation: dividing property and finances. https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/family-diversity/divorce-the-law/divorce-property-finances
Zartler, U. (2020). Children and parents after separation. In N. F. Schneider & M. Kreyenfeld. (2021). Research handbook on the sociology of the family, pp.300-313. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781788975544. Retrieved from https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781788975537/9781788975537.00029.xml