Taking a longer view of contact

Taking a longer view of contact

7 March 2013

Understanding the factors that lead to good decision-making in post-separation parenting arrangements is critical to ensure that outcomes for children are as positive as possible. But what do we know about children’s own views on the success or otherwise of these decisions?

A recent study from the UK delivers an important contribution to knowledge about the impact of post-separation parenting arrangements on long-term relationships between children and parents, throughout the remainder of childhood and into adulthood.

Researchers conducted a telephone survey with 398 young adults in England who had experienced a parental relationship breakdown prior to 16 years of age. Almost half of respondents (47%) were aged between 5-12 years of age at the time of separation, with 38% less than five years and 15% teenagers. The survey was conducted when respondents were between the ages of 18-35 years. In-depth interviews were also conducted with a sub-sample of 50 young adults.

The study, undertaken by Emeritus Professor Jane Fortin and Dr Lesley Scanlan (Sussex University) and Joan Hunt (Oxford University) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, clearly indicated that there is no blueprint for successful contact arrangements. Instead, arrangements need to be tailored to the needs, circumstances and age of each individual child, and importantly the child’s own views.

The quality of children’s pre-separation relationship with the non-resident parent was highlighted as an important factor in whether contact arrangements were continuous and positive. Poor relationships between a child and their non-resident parent rarely improved.

Other important factors in determining a positive experience of contact arrangements were similar to previous research in this area, such as little or no post-separation conflict and that the non-resident parent had either not repartnered or the child enjoyed a positive relationship with the new partner.

The researchers also found, however, that structural matters such as the frequency and format of contact were not strongly associated with respondents’ positive experiences of contact or the closeness of their relationship with non-resident parent.

While many respondents indicated that they thought their parents had done a very good job in organising contact arrangements after separation, these young adults felt that parents needed to better prepare children for separation, to explain the reasons for it and to support their children through it. Many respondents described parents becoming less emotionally available post-separation, leaving them feeling very alone and unsupported, and sometimes concealing their distress from parents.

The young adults who experienced parental separation during their teenage years often characterised their lives in terms of feelings of loss, change and subsequent readjustment in relationships. They did, however, feel an increasing ability to challenge arrangements with which they were unhappy, especially when spending time with friends became increasingly important.

Implications for separating parents, service providers, courts and policy makers are provided in the report. A clear emphasis within the implications is placed on listening to children and involving them in decision-making, and the importance of taking an individualised approach to arrangements for children.

Fortin, J., Hunt, J. & Scanlan, L. (2012). Taking a longer view of contact: The perspectives of young adults who experienced parental separation in their youth. Brighton, UK: Sussex Law School.


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Elly Robinson

At the time of writing this, Elly was the Executive Manager, Practice Evidence and Engagement at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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