Family Relationships Quarterly No. 12

Family Relationships Quarterly No. 12

AFRC Newsletter No. 12 — May 2009

Contents

In this issue

Welcome to Issue 12 of Family Relationships Quarterly, the newsletter of the Australian Family Relationships Quarterly. As always, we are very pleased to publish a number of contributions from family relationships researchers, service providers and workers in this bumper edition.

Jenny Anderson, Manager of Research and Evaluation for Crisis Support Services, summarises some important learnings from the Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project. Barriers and enablers that influenced the ability of Community Liaison Workers to engage with men from a variety of cultural backgrounds are discussed, which may provide ideas for other services. Cate Banks provides a summary of her research into the different meanings of the child-focused ideal for family dispute resolution practitioners and lawyers, and discusses how these differences play out in practice. Our other feature article, written by Magdalena Kielpikowski, offers an insight into the effects of "silent conflict", such as nonverbal hostility and avoidance of partner, on children.

Two program spotlights are provided in this edition to focus on practice and initiatives in parenting programs. Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops is a recent adaptation of the original parenting program for dads, written specifically to help Indigenous men engage with and understand their children. Tuning in to Kids focuses on emotional competence in children.

Our trends and statistics article examines young adults' attitudes to marriage, based on data from the Australian Temperament Project, and literature highlights focus on carers and disability.

We hope that you enjoy this edition of Family Relationships Quarterly. As always, we'd love to hear your ideas and feedback, please contact AFRC.

Elly Robinson
Manager, AFRC

Cultural Liaison Workers: Learnings from the Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project

Jenny Anderson

Introduction

Men are less likely than women to seek professional help for health or relationship problems in Australia (Smith, Braunack-Mayer, & Wittert, 2006). Finding ways to encourage men, including those from different cultural backgrounds and across all ages, to obtain help is a constant challenge for services within the family and relationships sector.

The Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project was conducted from April 2007 to March 2008 with the aim of developing innovative models for delivering telephone counselling services to Indigenous men, men from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities (Vietnamese and Arabic), and young men aged 18-25 years. One activity integral to the success of the project was the recruitment and training of Community Liaison Workers. Their role in the project was to increase awareness and use of the Mensline Australia telephone counselling and referral service to a specific target group of men in their local area.

This paper outlines the main learnings from the project, including whether Community Liaison Workers can bridge cultural boundaries to promote telephone counselling services at the local level. Firstly an overview of the project is given, followed by an account of the barriers and enablers found when Community Liaison Workers were engaged with the specific target groups of men. The findings may benefit practitioners and project coordinators who work with men from a variety of cultural backgrounds and age groups in the family relationships sector.

Background

Run by Crisis Support Services, Mensline Australia is a professionally staffed, 24-hour telephone counselling, information and referral service for men, specialising in family and relationship concerns. Funded by the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), Mensline Australia has received more than 500,000 calls from across Australia since its inception in 2001.

In the 2005-06 Budget, Mensline Australia received additional funding to increase call capacity. The majority of service users at this time were Anglo-Celtic men aged 30-50 years. Specific target groups were identified as having significant barriers to service access: men who identified as Indigenous Australians; and men from a CALD background. The need to increase usage of the service by Indigenous, CALD and younger men was met in large part by the Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project.

An initial literature review conducted for the project outlined some key issues that the project might face (Equity Research Centre [ERC], 2008a). In particular, the differences between individualist and collectivist cultural groups were highlighted. Western cultures tend to focus on the importance of the individual. When men do seek help in these cultures, approaching a professional organisation for help rather than their immediate family is considered acceptable. However, in comparison, collectivist cultures revolve around the community, including extended family and kinship groups. Men from those cultures are most likely to seek help from their family, or perhaps a trusted religious or community leader. The Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project involved men from Indigenous, Vietnamese and Arabic cultures, all of which may be classed as collectivist cultures. Thus, the key challenge in working with these groups was to find a way to connect into their communities to provide information about professional services that might be of benefit to them. It was hoped that the Cultural Liaison Workers would provide this link.

Key stakeholders

The project was overseen by a Steering Committee that represented the main stakeholders of the project: Mensline Australia, Family Relationship Services Providers, Institute of Counselling and Community Studies (ICCS), FaHCSIA and representatives from each of the target communities. Equity Research Centre provided the main evaluation report for the project (ERC, 2008b).

Six communities were identified using pre-determined selection criteria, taking into account factors such as community size, graphical location (urban/rural), and the need for services. These communities were: Indigenous men - Darwin (NT); Indigenous men - Brisbane (Qld); Vietnamese men - Western Sydney (NSW); Arabic men - Melbourne (Vic.); young men - Melbourne (Vic.); and young men - Burnie (Tas.).

As the project was implemented nationally, the establishment of partnerships with local Family Relationship Service Providers was essential. Mensline Australia partnered with four provider organisations: Anglicare (Darwin, NT); Centacare (Brisbane, Qld); Burnside Uniting Care (Cabramatta, NSW); and Centacare (Burnie, Tas.). These organisations provided a base and operational support for the Community Liaison Workers.

Project aims

The aims of the project were to:

  • increase Indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse and young men's knowledge of, and access to, Mensline Australia and Family Relationship Service Providers;
  • build the capacity of Mensline Australia and the broader sector to engage and work with specific cultural groups in the community;
  • build the skills base in the family relationships sector and in the selected participants' communities; and
  • evaluate specific service strategies undertaken during the project and disseminate learnings across the family relationships sector.

Project activities

In order to achieve the project aims, five activities were conducted:

  • Partnerships between Mensline Australia and the four Family Relationship Service Providers were formed.
  • Seven Community Liaison Workers were recruited from different communities and trained to help build the relationship between Mensline Australia, the local Family Relationship Service Provider, and men from the respective target community.
  • Innovative models to deliver telephone counselling services to Indigenous, CALD and young men were developed and made available free of charge to the wider community.
  • An accredited Internship Program in Men's Counselling was developed and made available to the wider community.
  • The Mensline Australia website <www.menslineaus.org.au> was expanded to include sections devoted to the three target groups.

Community Liaison Workers

To train for their role, Community Liaison Workers participated in an internship program tailored specifically for the project and accredited by the ICCS. This 12-month program consisted of approximately 250 hours of course work, presentations, and supervised counselling practice. Interns graduated with at least one of the following: Certificate IV in Telephone Counselling; Certificate IV in Relationship Education; or a Diploma in Family Intake and Support Work. By the end of 6 months of training, the Community Liaison Workers were equipped to provide counselling under supervision. Mentors from the respective Family Relationship Service Providers were also assigned to each worker to provide additional support.

To begin relationship building, Community Liaison Workers conducted a needs analysis of the men in their communities, and then implemented strategies in response to those needs. Example strategies included: (a) conducting listening circles; (b) providing one-on-one support for community members (mobile phone counselling, internet-based chatrooms); (c) assisting in the development of the Mensline Australia website to provide culturally appropriate features and information; and (d) developing and producing culturally appropriate resources around men and family relationship topics of interest (e.g., digital storytelling,1 tip sheets).

Learnings

The Community Liaison Workers did encounter challenges (ERC, 2008b). The workload of the Community Liaison Workers was quite demanding, juggling many responsibilities and "wearing many hats". Two Workers did not complete their training requirements due to an overload of personal and professional commitments. One Indigenous Community Liaison Worker was labelled a "'coconut' (black on the outside, white on the inside) because he worked for a non-Indigenous government-funded organisation" (ERC, 2008b).

Overall though, the Community Liaison Workers reported significant personal and professional growth from their participation in the project. Through training and socialising together, the individual Community Liaison Workers experienced unexpected benefits from the cross-cultural exchanges of information. One commented that:

Through interactions with other community liaison workers came the realisation that pain is universal, that different cultural backgrounds can relate to each other, and share the values of respect, honour and family. One community's experiences are relevant to another community's. (ERC, 2008b, pp. 25)

The project provided the opportunity to review cultural beliefs about men who seek help and to assess the effectiveness of the Community Liaison Workers' role in promoting the Mensline Australia counselling service (ERC, 2008a, 2008b). A summary of the factors found to be barriers and enablers to general communication with - and providing telephone counselling support to - the target communities are listed below.

Barriers

Indigenous:

  • Seeking help outside of the family/kinship group is viewed as "shame" or embarrassing.
  • There is a historical and well-founded lack of trust of non-Indigenous based organisations. Many Indigenous people are wary of health organisations that do not employ Indigenous health workers.
  • Kinship is central to Indigenous culture and men who seek help turn to Elders rather than professional organisations.
  • English as a second language, and the multiple dialects inherent in the Indigenous culture, makes producing generic communication materials (e.g., websites or tip sheets) designed to reach all Indigenous men a difficult task.

Vietnamese:

  • Professional counselling is a Western concept. There is no Vietnamese word equivalent to "counselling".
  • To admit to needing assistance with personal problems is viewed as shameful or "to lose face".
  • Men who seek help turn to their family in the first instance, or to a trusted religious figure or other member of their community.

Arabic:

  • As with the Vietnamese community, the concept of counselling is foreign.
  • Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. Fear surrounds losing respect in the community.
  • Men who seek help turn to family first or a trusted religious figure in their community.

Young men:

  • Asking for help is seen as "unmanly".
  • Young men will usually only seek help if the problem is acute.
  • Young men are concerned that in approaching a professional organisation like Mensline Australia or a Family Relationships Service provider, they will encounter generational gaps between themselves and the counsellor, and not be understood.

Enablers

Some activities/factors that all of the Community Liaison Workers found were enablers to communicating with and understanding men in their community were:

  • time - building relationships takes time. Community Liaison Workers found that it took up to 6 months to "plant the seeds" of open communication, before any project work could begin;
  • listening circles (or "sitting circles" as the Indigenous community called them) enabled men to talk about issues specific to themselves and their communities and were generally well-received;
  • active involvement in informal community activities, rather than those under the banner of the organisation, increased the likelihood that a Community Liaison Worker would be trusted and respected over time; and
  • local acceptance - Community Liaison Workers were most effective when they came from the community itself and were already trusted and respected leaders.

Learnings from the project reinforced findings from the initial literature review. Differences between individualist and collectivist cultures (in terms of help-seeking behaviour) do have implications for the way health services, including telephone counselling lines, are promoted and received. Being a Community Liaison Worker can be a demanding, but also a very rewarding and satisfying experience and in-roads into communities can be fostered. However, building new relationships within established communities requires time, and the selection of the right person for the Community Liaison Worker role is paramount to its eventual success. Ultimately, Community Liaison Workers are most effective when they are already existing members of the community and when they are given the opportunity to share their experiences with each other.

References

  • Equity Research Centre. (2008a). Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project: literature review to inform client needs analysis. Melbourne, Australia: Equity Research Centre.
  • Equity Research Centre. (2008b). Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project: Evaluation report. Melbourne, Australia: Equity Research Centre.
  • Smith, J. A., Braunack-Mayer, A., & Wittert, G. (2006). What do we know about men's help-seeking and health service use? Medical Journal of Australia, 184(2), 81-83.

Acknowledgements

The Mensline Australia Cultural X Change Project was made possible by funding from the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). Crisis Support Services would also like to thank the many partners and contributors to the project: the Institute of Counselling and Community Studies, the Family Relationships Services Providers, the mentors, the Community Liaison Workers and of course the men from the target communities who were integral to this pioneering project.

Jenny Anderson is the Manager, Research & Evaluation for Crisis Support Services, a not-for-profit organisation that runs several national and Victorian telephone counselling, information, and referral services.

Lawyers and family dispute resolution practitioners: Achieving the child-focused ideal in practice

Dr Cate Banks

Introduction

The family law reforms introduced in the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) were designed "to change the culture of family breakdown from litigation to co-operation" (Ruddock, 2005, p. 110) and to bring a greater child-focus system-wide in the settlement of disputes over children.

Adopting a child-focused approach for Family Dispute Resolution practitioners (FDR practitioners) may not mean a significant difference in the way they interact with clients but it challenges the orthodoxy of legal practice where a lawyer acts for a parent (or other party to the proceedings not including the child) and owes a duty to that client and to the court. Consistent with previous research (Banks & Hook, 2005), most family lawyers interviewed in this study see themselves as child-focused and believe they have a role in improving the quality of post-separation relationships between parents by attenuating conflict, developing workable arrangements and, where necessary, by referring clients to other family law professionals, such as counsellors, psychologists and mediators. However two kinds of problems emerge. First, just as there is a range of different stakeholders in the family law system, there are also different "visions" of what it means to be child-focused. In addition there are clear constraints on achieving a universal ideal of child-focused practice because of the different roles, perspectives and expectations of those stakeholders. This article provides a snapshot of how the different meanings of the child-focused ideal applied by FDR practitioners and lawyers play out in practice and provides a glimpse of what appear to be the most dominant constraints in achieving their visions.

The research

Between November 2006 and March 2007,2 117 family law stakeholders in Queensland were interviewed - including lawyers,3 FDR practitioners (mediators and counsellors),4 judicial officers5 and self-represented litigants.6 The interviews were semi-structured, were conducted face-to-face or via phone and took between 1-2 hours. The interviews were conducted when the reforms were relatively new and investigated a range of experiences of the new child-focused policy changes of these stakeholders. This article reports on the interviews with lawyers and FDR practitioners.

Thematic analyses of the interviews revealed that both lawyers and FDR practitioners shared a commitment to being child-focused. However there was no clear shared understanding of the term between the disciplines (law and social sciences) and within groups there was a nuanced understanding of what it means to be child-focused. In addition, all of the professionals identified factors they believed constrained them from being child-focused. The most dominant constraint for lawyers was their ethical duties to the client and the court. Two dominant constraints were shared by both groups:

  • the legislative presumption of shared parenting and the related legal obligations imposed on particular family law professionals;7 and
  • the capacity or attitude of the parents.

Defining the child-focused ideal

How practitioners go about defining the child-focused ideal will inevitably impact upon how they apply it in practice, and in turn how it is perceived by other stakeholders in the family law system.

Lawyers

Most lawyers for parties8 framed their understanding of being child-focused in terms of the best interest of the child. Consistent with the findings of Rhoades, Sanson, Astor, and Kaspiew (2006) lawyers see being child-focused as a process to achieve the best interests of children as an outcome. For most lawyers a child-focused process and the best interest outcome were synergistic.

Some lawyers simply used the term child-focused as the process of checking off the factors found in s60CC in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). 9 Other lawyers seemed to use their legal understanding of a child's best interest to guide their management of a case more holistically. Those lawyers, who explicitly focused their attention on how the factors in the Act could be applied to their client's case, found defining their child-focused approach relatively simple.

There were a small number of lawyers who were entirely focused on the child, even when they represented a parent. But most lawyers used the framework of the legislation to structure their child-focused approach in the context of workable family arrangements. While their approach was less legalistic and more holistic, ultimately their end goal, the best interest of the child, still had a legal meaning. This is a different understanding of the best interest of the child than was used by FDR practitioners.

FDR practitioners

Just as most lawyers saw being child-focused as a process of achieving the best interest principle, so did many of the FDR practitioners. But just as the term best interests has a very different meaning from that used by lawyers, so too does the process of being child-focused.

Most FDR practitioners said that being child-focused meant directing parental attention to the child as part of a family system, and as such the process of establishing the best interest of the child is organic. For them, the process is holistic and therapeutic, not legalistic. Some of those practitioners were concerned that the legal meaning of best interest had more weight than the therapeutic definition and may trump the latter when tested in court. Some practitioners expressed resentment that the term had been colonised by the legal framework and that the legal use of the terminology diminished its value.

Constraints

Many of the professionals across both disciplines felt constrained in some way from being child-focused. Lawyers felt most constrained by their ethical duties, their duty to the court and their duty to the client. As I have found in a previous study,10 family lawyers believe they are often conducting a fine balancing act between their ethical duties in order to be child-focused (Banks, 2007). But two other dominant constraints emerged from this data across the two groups of professionals. Those constraints are the shared parenting/protection dichotomy in the legislation, and the attitude of a client or parent.11 These will be discussed in turn.

Ethical duties - lawyers

All of the lawyers said they faced some constraint on being child-focused by their ethical duties. As stated previously, there were a significant number of lawyers who considered they had a triple duty - duty to the court, their client and the child - even when they were not acting as an independent child lawyer (Banks, 2007). Almost all of the lawyers seemed concerned about how to balance their desire to be child-focused with their ethical duties. This difficulty was amplified when there were also allegations of family violence or abuse.

Shared parenting - lawyers

Many of the participants I spoke to feel that their goal for a child-focused approach is seriously compromised by the shared parenting provisions under the new legislation, particularly when violence and abuse may be alleged but not yet substantiated.

According to the lawyers, there is a danger that the legislative imperative for shared parenting has become a competing consideration to the best interest of the child when making decisions about the children. While the theoretical question of dealing with child abuse and family violence may have been addressed in the legislation,12 lawyers said there are practical difficulties to balancing the dichotomy of time and safety. Many lawyers indicated that children are being sent into unsafe environments in order to satisfy the presumption of shared parenting. They also raised the concern that the "friendly parent" provision or "the willingness and ability of each of the children's parents to facilitate, and encourage, a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent" exacerbates this difficulty.13 This is concerning, given that past research raised concerns that facilitating ongoing contact is often prioritised over threat of abuse and danger (Kaspiew, 2005).

Shared parenting - FDR practitioners

Rather than expressing a constraint, the FDR practitioners felt pressured by their new legal obligations to advise parents about the presumption of equal shared parenting.14 They felt they do not have an adequate legal knowledge base to do so and most felt compromised professionally.

FDR practitioners also raised concerns about how family violence was being dealt with since the new reforms, and questioned whether the new reforms may exacerbate the danger to some victims of abuse and violence. Some practitioners also raised concerns about whether safeguards identifying violence were adequate in some of the new Family Relationship Centres.

Client attitudes

The other dominant theme for both professional groups was the parents' attitudes or capacity to be child-focused. Interestingly, the traits of such parents identified by both professional groups were consistent with my discussions with, and observations of, self-represented litigants, particularly those parents who conflate their child's interest with their own.

Lawyers

Many lawyers said that a client's attitudes or capacity to be child-focused was a major obstacle in their own quest for child-focused practice. Many lawyers believe they spend most of their time trying to refocus their clients on the children particularly in oral discussions with the clients and some reinforced this in written correspondence with clients. "Reality testing" is a term used by many lawyers to talk their clients through their demands or requests. A lot of lawyers recognised that clients are often fuelled by emotional responses such as anger and disappointment. As a consequence, many of them utilised counselling and therapeutic measures as an important part of their child-focused legal practice.

Many lawyers also said that being child-focused was as much about changing their own behaviour, such as approaching issues less adversarially or less formally where possible.

FDR practitioners

FDR practitioners also found that clients' attitudes and capacity to be child-focused created difficulties for them at times, and as a result they also adopted strategies to accommodate this. Overall, FDR practitioners felt more at ease at educating and being frank about arrangements based on their professional knowledge of child development and family dynamics. Almost all of the counsellors spoke about building relationships of trust with the parents and children. Mediators, on the other hand, do not build relationships with clients because of their professional neutrality but did express optimism about their ability to maintain a child focus because of their professional knowledge base.

Concluding remarks

This paper briefly discusses how the new child-focused policy and legislative reforms are shaping the practices of lawyers and FDR practitioners. Both groups believe being child-focused is a process to follow in order to achieve the best interest of the child. But that definition of "best interest" also has a different currency in the different disciplines and is also presenting some challenges, as the professions are required to work towards child-focused outcomes. While some of the practitioners have undertaken professional development in order to increase their knowledge base in other disciplines, many have not. Further research into the respective needs of the different professional groups in terms of professional development may assist in identifying strategies needed to navigate their way through these challenges. For instance, lawyers may benefit from having some more information about child development and family dynamics, while FDR practitioners may benefit from a better understanding of the legal proceedings.15 Supported professional development would be of great benefit for the individual professional groups and their clients.

References

  • Banks, C., & Hook, B. (2005). A question of priorities: How family lawyers address the best interest of the child report. Brisbane: Griffith University, Socio-Legal Research Centre.
  • Banks, C. (2007). Being a family lawyer and being child focused - A question of priorities? Australian Journal of Family Law, 21(1), 37.
  • Kaspiew, R. (2005). Violence in contested children's cases: An empirical exploration. Australian Journal of Family Law, 19(2), 112.
  • Ruddock, P. (2005). Family Law Amendment (Shared Parenting Responsibility) Bill 2005, Second Reading Speec,. House of Representatives., Official Hansard, 21, 8 December 2005.
  • Rhoades, H., Sanson, A., Astor, H., & Kaspiew, R. (2006). Working on their relationships: Inter-professional practices in a changing family law system (Research Report 1). Melbourne: University of Melbourne.

Resources

  • Rhodes, H., Astor, H., Sanson, A., & O'Connor, H. (2008). Enhancing inter-professional relationships in a achanging family law system. Final report, May 2008. Melbourne: University of Melbourne. Retrieved 15 April 2008, from <www.law.unimelb.edu.au/files/inter-professionalrelationshipsstudyfinalreport.pdf (PDF 987 KB)>

Dr Cate Banks is a research consultant from Brisbane. She was previously a Post Doctoral Research Fellow from Griffith University. Cate would like to thank Kirstin Winnel who assisted with the original research. 

Testing the metal: Is silence really golden?

Magdalena Kielpikowski

Research on relationship conflict has been driven largely by the aim to assist couples experiencing difficulties and to alert parents to the effects of interparental discord on children. Abundant available findings consistently link parental conflict with detrimental children's outcomes such as anxiety and depression, academic underachievement, aggression, and conduct problems (Cummings & Davies, 1994; Harold, Aitken, & Shelton, 2007; Harold, Fincham, Osborne, & Conger, 1997). The risk for children is particularly high if the parental conflicts they experience are frequent, intense, unresolved and are about the children. In the process of appraising the experience children may attribute the blame for parental discord to themselves, which further compromises their wellbeing (Grych & Fincham, 1990). Moreover, research indicates that, rather than becoming accustomed to parental disagreements, children become sensitised to them (e.g., Davies & Cummings, 1994).

Scholars have focused on verbal and physical expressions of conflict; however, a small number of studies also indicate distressing effects on children of parental withdrawal from each other, nonverbal hostility, and avoidance of partner (e.g., De Arth-Pendley & Cummings, 2002; Tschann, Flores, Pasch, & Marin, 1999; Goeke-Morey, Cummings, Harold, & Shelton, 2003). The apparent research gap is being addressed by my doctoral research with families, which builds on our earlier qualitative studies at Victoria University of Wellington with adults and adolescents (see Kielpikowski & Pryor, 2008; Pryor & Pattison, 2007). We have labelled the non-verbal non-physical conflict as silent conflict, and this short report is an attempt to briefly overview some of our findings while consolidating the available qualitative and quantitative results.

Our research to date has consisted of two qualitative studies that were followed by two quantitative ones. The qualitative studies were based on 27 semi-structured interviews conducted with young people aged 17-21 by Pryor and Pattison (2007) and on 13 interviews conducted with parents by Kielpikowski and Pryor (2008). Participants in both of these studies lived in 2-parent households. We were interested in how people made sense of silent conflict and the effects it had on them. During interviews lasting approximately one hour both groups of participants were asked to describe a parental conflict that was neither verbal nor physical. Additionally, we asked parents if they thought that children were aware of this type of conflict and to explain their views. Interview data were transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis. The interviews with parents provided a basis for the development of a questionnaire intended for the measurement of this type of relationship conflict in subsequent quantitative research. Two studies followed. For Study I, a community sample of 108 parents was recruited in Wellington, New Zealand. Participants completed questionnaires containing items generated in the qualitative studies, as well as items from the Conflicts and Problem-Solving Scales by Kerig (1996) and from the Ineffective Arguing Inventory by Kurdek (1994). Analyses showed that the composition of the instrument and its internal consistency and validity in relation to other conflict constructs were satisfactory.

The aim of Study II was to test the relationship between silent parental conflict and family processes and wellbeing. It involved 135 families (comprising two parents/caregivers and a teenager aged 12-16 years living in the same household) from various areas in New Zealand. The longitudinal design (data collected twice with an interval of a year) was used to allow greater confidence in the stability of the findings. Families completed comprehensive questionnaires including, among others, measures of silent conflict, wellbeing, partner relations and parent-child relations (warmth and hostility). The results reported here refer to the first wave of Study II.

How is silent conflict recognised?

Parents and adolescents interviewed in our two qualitative studies had no difficulty identifying and describing a conflict between parents that was neither verbal nor physical. Moreover, our independent thematic analyses showed striking parallels in the derived themes. This signals similarities in the experiences of silent conflict between parents and children in the household.

Young people interviewed by Pryor and Pattison (2007) recognised silent parental conflicts by a tense emotional atmosphere in the home and by parental behaviours indicative of covert conflict, such as silence between parents, acting to provoke the partner, decrease in expressions of affection, and avoiding of partner and family.

Adults described personal and relational behavioural changes characterised by a decrease or absence of communication with partner, tension, emotional coldness, and a feeling of separation (Kielpikowski & Pryor, 2008). Another feature of silent conflict identified by adults was the lack of resolution of a disagreement, either temporary or ongoing, and at times the disagreement was deemed unresolvable.

Who engages in silent conflict?

According to a number of the parents who were interviewed, silent conflict resulted from either one or both spouses demonstrating avoidance and withdrawal from the partner during episodes of verbal disagreement. This finding was supported by the results of analyses conducted in Study I, which showed that silent conflict was significantly related to avoidant behaviour and to ineffective arguing. Significant relationships were also found between silent conflict and verbal aggression and between avoidant behaviour and verbal aggression, indicating that as silent conflict increased, people were more likely to use verbal aggression and act in an avoidant manner. Although causality cannot be ascertained from concurrent data and further work following couples over time is needed, these findings imply that conflicted partners may employ a number of destructive tactics and the more they use one, the more they use the others too.

Interestingly, some of the interviewed adults perceived silent conflict as preferable to verbal disagreements. The main reasons articulated by parents were (a) preventing the escalation of arguments and (b) protecting the children from distressing experiences. This view was reflected in the quantitative findings of Study II, which demonstrated that the more the participants supported the advantages of silent conflict the more silent conflict they reported in their relationships.

As part of the analyses of parents' data from the first wave of Study II we tested for predictors of silent conflict for husbands and wives using the Actor Partner Interdependence Model (Kenny, Kashy, & Cook, 2006). Although distinct explanatory patterns of mutual influences became apparent for men and women, partner hostility, avoidant conflict behaviour and concern for children predicted silent conflict for both groups.

Does silent conflict affect the family members?

According to the parents who were interviewed, their experiences of silent conflict were accompanied by feelings of anxiety, irritability and preoccupation. (These relationships were supported by the findings of Study II that showed a strong correlation between silent conflict and emotional consequences.) As a result, adults were less emotionally available to other family members as well as less patient with the children, effectively allowing the interparental conflict to spill over to their interactions with children. This in turn brought on feelings of guilt and remorse.

In their accounts of the experiences of silent parental conflict the young people interviewed by Pryor and Pattison (2007) described feelings of helplessness, insecurity, confusion and lack of control related to the elusive nature of this type of conflict, especially if parents denied it took place, and the absence of an explicit resolution. Some blamed themselves for the situation between their parents or for the inability to remedy it. These reports indicate that silent discord between parents may have serious consequences for children's emotional wellbeing, particularly internalising problems such as depression and anxiety. Findings from the first wave of Study II also indicate a negative relationship between adolescents' perceptions of silent parental conflict and their wellbeing, as measured with the Total Difficulties scale of Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, Meltzer, & Bailey, 1998). This relationship occurred partially through perceptions of maternal (but not paternal) hostility. The finding echoes the qualitative reports of parents regarding the conflict spilling over to children.

Conclusions

The summarised findings based on concurrent quantitative data need to be interpreted somewhat cautiously until longitudinal results are available; however, our analyses have been conducted with four independent datasets obtained from participant samples of appropriate sizes and using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Therefore, the following powerful patterns may be highlighted with some confidence.

Similarities between perceptions of adults and adolescents

Both the parents and the adolescents were aware of parental behaviours related to silent conflict and the palpable lack of resolution. Both groups described emotional effects on them of silent conflict, which for parents included feelings of guilt and remorse for the distress imparted on the children.

Commonalities with verbal conflict

Silent conflict appeared to detrimentally affect the wellbeing of both the involved adults and the children. Similarly to verbal conflict, it appeared to affect the children both directly (through exposure) and indirectly (through the compromised relations with parents in the form of maternal hostility).

Appeal of silent conflict

Despite recognising its negative consequences, parents saw silent conflict as preferable to overt discord in some instances, as it allowed the containment of arguments. Importantly, concern for the children's wellbeing appeared to have an effect on the parents' choice of this conflict tactic.

Obviously, due to the complexity and newness of the concept under investigation, numerous questions remain to be answered before more complete explanations of processes are possible. This is the purpose and the expectation of the longitudinal analyses currently being conducted.

References

  • Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (1994). Children and marital conflict: The impact of family dispute and resolution. New York: Guilford Press.
  • De Arth-Pendley, G., & Cummings E. M. (2002). Children's emotional reactivity to interadult nonverbal conflict expressions. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 163, 97-111.
  • Goeke-Morey, M. C., Cummings, E. M., Harold, G. T., & Shelton, K. (2003). Categories and continua of destructive and constructive marital conflict tactics from the perspective of US and Welsh children. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 327-338.
  • Goodman, R., Meltzer, H., & Bailey, V. (1998). The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: A pilot study on the validity of the self-report version. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 7, 125-130.
  • Grych, J. H., & Fincham F. D. (1990). Children's appraisals of marital conflict: Initial investigations of the cognitive-contextual framework. Child Development, 64, 215-230.
  • Harold, G. T., Fincham, F. D., Osborne, L., & Conger, R. D. (1997). Mom and Dad are at it again: Adolescent perceptions of marital conflict and adolescents psychological distress. Developmental Psychology, 33, 333-350.
  • Harold, G. T., Aitken, J. J., & Shelton, K. H. (2007). Inter-parental conflict and children's academic attainment: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 1223-1232.
  • Kenny, D. A., Kashy, D. A., & Cook, W. L. (2006). Dyadic data analysis. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Kerig, P. K. (1996). Assessing the links between interparental conflict and child adjustment : The Conflicts and Problem-Solving Scales. Journal of Family Psychology, 10, 454-473.
  • Kielpikowski, M. M., & Pryor, J. E. (2008). Silent parental conflict: Parents' perspective. Journal of Family Studies, 14, 217-227.
  • Kurdek, L. A. (1994). Conflict resolution styles in gay, lesbian, heterosexual nonparent, and heterosexual parent couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 705-722.
  • Pryor, J. E. & Pattison, R. (2007). Adolescents' perceptions of parental conflict: The downside of silence. Journal of Family Studies, 13, 72-77.
  • Tschann, J. M., Flores, E., Pasch, L. A., & Marin, B. V. (1999). Assessing interparental conflict: Reports of parents and adolescents in European American and Mexican American families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 499-513.

Magdalena Kielpikowski is a doctoral candidate and a researcher at the Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and the School of Psychology at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Program spotlight

Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops

Robyn Parker

Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops has been written specifically to help Indigenous men to engage with and understand their children. It also provides a conduit to other family services and contributes to the building of community capacity in those regions in which it is adopted. Robyn Parker talked with Lynne Slocombe (Program Manager) and Matt Stubbs (Manager, Waitara Family Centre) about the creation and adaptation of the program.

Brief history of the Hey Dad! program

Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops is the latest adaptation of a program that began in 1995 in NSW. Psychologists at the Mercy Family Centre running a parenting program noticed the uneven contribution to the program by mothers and fathers, with mothers more actively participating than fathers. Thinking that dads might be more likely to engage in a program designed specifically for them, they developed Hey Dad! The program was aimed at helping dads with their parenting and being involved with their kids. Within a few years, funding had been obtained from the Commonwealth Government to expand the original Hey Dad! program to more centres across Sydney.

In the early 2000s, Mercy Family Centre was absorbed by Centacare Broken Bay. Commonwealth Government funding for men and family relationships programs helped support the program. Soon the program was adapted for separated fathers by Centacare Broken Bay in partnership with UnitingCare Burnside. It has since been adapted for dads with children with a disability and the handouts have been translated into several languages.

The program

The aim of the Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops program is to build individual and community skills and provide the men with the confidence to be strong role models for their kids. It covers a range of topics such as being a dad today, understanding grief and loss, talking with and understanding kids, keeping kids safe, and coaching kids. Embedded in these are sessions on child development, communication, discipline, participants' experiences of parenting and being parented, conflict resolution and other parenting skills. It is based around a professional, comprehensive manual/workbook, which is also available on CD. The program can be delivered in various formats, as a 2-day workshop, a series of shorter workshops, or as an extended, weekly program.

The program is designed to be delivered by Indigenous men in their own communities. Focus groups with Indigenous men were conducted to ensure that the content and language of the program were culturally appropriate and that local terms and language were used. The program also functions as a conduit to other family relationship services for Indigenous fathers, such as counselling and other programs and services.

As a program funded through the Family and Relationships Services Program administered by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCHSIA), the standard data are routinely collected from Hey Dad! participants. They are also asked to offer feedback on the program. Depending on literacy levels, facilitators may record participants' responses for them. An evaluation of the development and trial of the program was conducted in late 2006, early 2007. Participants were Indigenous men in two communities in NSW and in three NSW correctional centres. Feedback from participants was very positive, reporting that the sessions had helped them "yarn better with their mob", and better interact with and understand their children. They felt the program helped them to deal with tough times at home and gave them ideas about things to do with their children. The inclusion of uncles and pops was seen as a valuable acknowledgement of their role in Aboriginal families and culture and reflected the strong family connections in Indigenous communities.

Facilitators also provided feedback, commenting on the commitment to the program and degree of participation of the dads involved, and the benefits the men clearly derived from their experience of the program. The evaluation report also includes valuable information about which aspects of the program worked well, as well as the difficulties experienced in setting up and running the program, generating interest and engaging participants.

The initial trials of the Indigenous Hey Dad! program included male Aboriginal facilitators and female Aboriginal facilitators in the correctional centres. Feedback from the evaluation of the trials showed a preference for programs to be run, where possible, by at least two Indigenous male facilitators. A highly skilled non-Indigenous woman facilitator was seen as valuable, but not optimal. Facilitators are encouraged to vary the delivery and content of the program to suit their own strengths and the needs and local culture of the particular community.

Delivery of the Hey Dad! program in correctional settings in particular requires very specific adjustments to recognise: (a) that the men are separated from their families; (b) the impact of security restrictions; (c) the often poor literacy levels; (d) the length of sentences; and (e) other activities within the centre, such as work programs. Hey Dad! For Separated Fathers has been available in these settings for a number of years. The value of the program for Indigenous dads has also been demonstrated in correctional facilities - even Corrections Officers have commented on the positive changes observed in inmates who have participated in the program. For these reasons, significant additional time was added to the program in one of the prisons at the request of the prison manager, in part to allow for the inmates to move through all the sessions in the program and optional activities, and to allow extra attention to be paid to issues of loss and grief. This freed the men up to work positively on their relationship skills with their children and families during phone calls and visits.

Challenges

Centacare Broken Bay conduct training for facilitators across the country, making enormous efforts to introduce the program gradually through Indigenous elders, Indigenous workers from organisations and other members of a community. Experience has taught Centacare Broken Bay that extensive consultation must take place prior to the trainers even arriving in the community. An Indigenous worker often makes the initial approach to elders and other workers in the community, seeking support and identifying men who may be interested in being trained to facilitate the program. Only when such support is received do the trainers enter the community.

Centacare Broken Bay's relationship with the community and the facilitators does not end with the completion of training. A significant amount of ongoing support is provided for those who train to conduct the program, to help them in building and maintaining their confidence and skills. At times this may involve an experienced worker travelling to the community to co-facilitate a session or program, or to just observe and provide supervision and support. Given that Hey Dad! is often run in rural or remote communities, extensive post-training support takes place by telephone.

All of these efforts are made to further contribute to a sense of community, to community development, and to the capacity-building that is at the heart of the program. The time taken to achieve this also has implications for the agency, with regard to decisions about allocation of resources. While support for the program within the government is strong, having the program accepted into a community, training facilitators to conduct it, and providing ongoing support requires a commitment on the part of Centacare staff and the Indigenous facilitators and community members themselves that is difficult to quantify or measure in financial terms. Some of the most powerful ways of assessing the impact or outcomes of the program, such as through songs, poetry or artwork created by incarcerated men, do not fit a strict model of research and evaluation.

Summary

As well as being a culturally-appropriate, evidence-based parenting program, the development and implementation of Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops has provided invaluable lessons for successful implementation of programs in Indigenous communities. These include recognising that the difficulties faced by Indigenous men and communities require the application of extra time, effort and resources; acknowledging that their past educational experiences are likely to have been negative and the need to celebrate their participation in this program; allowing time for participants and facilitators to get to know one another; and recruiting Aboriginal agencies to help with promotion of the program, securing of venues, and referral of participants. Further strategies are noted in the evaluation report.

The Hey Dad! suite of programs are highly regarded as effective, evidence-based parenting programs. Hey Dad! For Indigenous Dads, Uncles and Pops fills a significant gap in the provision of services to Indigenous men. Although more rigorous evaluation is needed, the feedback from participants and facilitators, especially those in correctional centres, is suggestive of the potential significant health and well being benefits not only to Indigenous men but also to their children, families and communities.

Contact

Lynne Slocombe
Centacare Broken Bay

Robyn Parker is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.

Program spotlight

Tuning in to Kids: Emotionally intelligent parenting

Robyn Parker

Tuning in to Kids is an evidence-based, emotion-focused program that helps parents support the development of emotional competence in their children. The program brings together parent education techniques and child clinical psychology. Robyn Parker talked with one of the authors of the program, Dr Sophie Havighurst, and project manager Dr Katherine Wilson, about the development of the program and the ongoing evaluation and research that underpins it.

How children handle their emotions plays a central role in how well they are able to navigate their world. The importance of emotional competence in children is widely recognised within the education sector, but few programs exist to equip and support parents in fostering their child's emotional functioning. Tuning in to Kids provides information, strategies and resources for parents of 4-5-year-old children to help them promote emotional intelligence in their children and improve their child's capacity to understand their own and other's emotions. Research evidence on which the program is based (and which is outlined in the Tuning in to Kids program manual) demonstrates that emotionally competent children are better able to concentrate in school, manage conflict and deal with upsetting events or situations, and they have better health and higher quality relationships throughout their lives.

The program aims to build on parents' existing capacity to engage in Emotion Coaching - the empathy, support and listening often used in their adult relationships - by guiding them in how to respond to and engage with their child's emotional life so that the child can learn to understand and regulate their emotions.

Background to the program

The Tuning in to Kids program came into being when its two primary authors, Ann Harley and Dr Sophie Havighurst, joined forces to develop an effective way of addressing the emotional aspects of parent-child relationships, which are generally not attended to in behavioural parenting programs. Drawing on their complementary professional backgrounds in parent education and clinical psychology and research, they have integrated knowledge and concepts from the fields of parenting and psychology, and techniques from the work of prominent parenting and relationship researcher John Gottman into an emotion-focused parenting program. Knowledge about child development is woven through the program to help parents understand their child, and to ensure that their expectations of their child and the language and resources they use with their child are age-appropriate.

Professional networks and collaborations have facilitated the development and evaluation of the Tuning in to Kids program. Support from the Victorian Parenting Centre facilitated the early writing and piloting of the program. As the program was being developed in parallel with Dr Havighurst's PhD research, interviews with research participants supplemented feedback from early program participants to inform the evolution of the program. The program has also benefited from the contributions and support of two prominent Australian child researchers, Professor Margot Prior AO and Professor Ann Sanson.

A later catalyst to the development of the program was the formation of a partnership with ParentsLink at MacKillop Family Services in Melbourne. This has facilitated ongoing research and evaluation of the program and in particular, the strengthening of the research design through the use of control groups. Conducting this type of research and evaluation in an agency setting presented a number of challenges for the program managers, facilitators and the agency. These included the need to maintain strict boundaries between participants in the control and intervention groups, and adhering to research protocols within an agency setting while not negatively impacting on agency practices or increasing workloads. Comprehensive discussions took place with facilitators and the agency personnel involved in the administrative aspects of running the program, and close monitoring of procedures by a member of the evaluation team preserved the integrity of the data collection to the extent possible.

The program

The aim of Tuning in to Kids is not to just teach the "ABCs" of emotional competence. Among its goals are to help parents be supportive of their child's emotional world and to value the emotional connection and intimacy available to them through the appropriate application of this approach. A key aspect of this process is for participants to understand the contribution of their own emotional world to their parenting. One of the greatest challenges to the program's development was integrating material related to parents' own family-of-origin - how they were parented, how emotions were expressed, received and responded to in their family, and how this is reflected in their own parenting. This issue is not often included in parenting programs and many parents in Tuning in to Kids programs have found it to be particularly confronting. The development team spent a great deal of time identifying and implementing ways to gently and safely lead parents through this section of the program.

Within the program, attention is also paid to what parents can expect of children at different developmental stages, for example in terms of the way they view the world, their fears or the language they are able to use or understand. Time is allocated to reviewing concepts and skills from the previous week and discussion of parents' experiences with emotion coaching or other skills in the intervening period. Elements of a session may be rearranged, shortened or lengthened in response to the group's needs and dynamic.

See Box 1 for brief information about each program session.

The facilitators

Helping parents learn about emotion coaching is not easy, and requires a great deal of the facilitator in terms of their own capacity to tune in to emotions as well as their knowledge and use of emotion coaching, understanding of parenting and child development issues, and skills in group process and management. Facilitators must be able to judge whether, and how far, to press participants, particularly as some parents will be resistant to or unprepared for the content of the program or the ways in which they may be asked to participate. For more information about training as a Tuning in to Kids facilitator and the program manual, visit the Tuning in to Kids website.16

Expansion and evaluation

The program's origins in clinical psychology and research mean that evaluation and research are embedded in the provision of the program, and the ongoing emphasis on research and evaluation in turn ensures that the program maintains its strong theoretical and practice base. The evaluation of the pilot (reported in Havighurst, Harley, & Prior, 2004) identified positive outcomes for parents and their children in terms of improved interactions between the parents and children and enhanced behavioural and social functioning of their child. Parents reported being more encouraging and less dismissive and critical of how their child expressed emotions, and often applied emotion coaching in their interactions with their children. Children's behaviour improved - especially in those children with higher levels of problematic behaviour. Although this was a pilot study and no control group was employed, the findings at this early stage in the development of Tuning in to Kids demonstrated its promise.

The program has been evaluated in a number of community settings with specific groups. The research team at Mindful17 have now completed an efficacy trial of the program with 218 parents of preschoolers from a community sample. This trial has shown that the program is effective in improving parenting around children's emotions and this is associated with improvements in children's use of emotion talk, and reductions in anxiety and behaviour problems. The program has also been evaluated with preschoolers with behaviour problems, and a new trial of the program is being undertaken with primary school aged children with behaviour problems as part of the Austin and Bendigo Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services' Schools Early Action (CASEA) Project - a Victorian Government project for preventing antisocial behaviour problems. A new effectiveness trial of the program is also being undertaken in the Knox Council Region - where practitioners from different agencies deliver the program to parents of preschoolers in the Eastern region of Melbourne. This is the first "real world" trial of the program. Other developments in Tuning in to Kids are using the program with parents of anxious preschoolers and the development of a father version of the program - led by Dr Katherine Wilson, Project Manager of the Tuning in to Kids research.

The preschool and early primary school age-years are an ideal time to begin helping parents support their child's developing emotional competence, particularly as many mothers have yet to commence or return to work and are able to become engaged in the program. Since programs are usually run during normal working hours, few fathers are able to attend even though they may be keen to participate. There are plans to run more programs in the evenings and to adapt the program specifically for fathers of preschool children. The authors are also planning programs for parents of young children with disabilities, for Indigenous parents, and for parents of children in the early years of primary school. A multi-modal intervention is planned in which parents receive the emotion-focused program and their children participate in a social/emotional program. However, parents are not the only possible targets of developing an emotion coaching approach to interacting with children and young people. The program is also likely to be offered to child and adolescent mental health workers and other mental health workers.

Whenever the Tuning in to Kids program expands to a different target group, structures and processes are put in place to enable data collection. The Tuning in to Kids program is trademarked.18 As such there is some level of confidence that the program is being delivered as intended, however it is accepted that individual facilitators will want and sometimes need to "tweak" the program for their client group. Data regarding the fidelity of the program delivery are currently being gathered. Facilitators taking part in this study complete a checklist at the end of each session to indicate which of the activities were covered. They then participate in a weekly consultation/supervision session to review what was and was not covered, how the activities went, issues that were raised, how group dynamics unfolded and were handled, and so on. As well as providing one-on-one supervision with one of the program authors, these sessions enable the program authors to identify any patterns in the changes and their effects in order to make improvements to the program itself or to the training.

Summary

Tuning in to Kids is a prime example of practice and research combining to create an evidence-based program that produces positive results for both parents and children. The establishment of the partnership with MacKillop Family Services (and now Knox Council) has been critical to the development and evaluation of the program. The value of fostering such relationships is demonstrated in the growing evidence and practice base of the program, and the provision of training and supervision to agency staff. The strong evidence base, professional and comprehensive manual, and emotional/relationship focus of the program are selling points that appeal to practitioners and their managers. The evidence thus far points to the program being a valuable source of support, skills and knowledge to help parents become more confident in their parenting and more effective in their communication with their children.

Box 1: Tuning in to Kids - Program sessions

Each session uses a range of activities, including role-plays, reflection, small group activities, discussions, examples viewed on DVD, and worksheets. Home activities are also provided as further tools for practice. Some items or activities may be held over for later sessions, depending on the facilitator's reading of the group's needs and progress.
Session 1: Setting out - How to raise emotionally intelligent children What is emotional intelligence?
Why is it important?
What is emotion coaching and why does it improve children's behaviour?
Connecting with children around emotion
Session 2: Naming the emotion Awareness of emotions
Tuning in to the child's emotions
Meta-emotion and its impact on parenting

Session 3: Understanding the child's emotional experience
Developing empathy
Reflecting feelings
Building emotion coaching skills

Session 4: Problem solving and self-care when emotion coaching
Consolidating emotion coaching skills
Parenting styles
Problem solving

Session 5: Emotion coaching your child's anger
When emotion coaching is/is not appropriate
Understanding and responding to anger and angry behaviour

Session 6: Emotionally intelligent parenting - now and in the future
Review and reinforcement of the principles and skills of emotion coaching
Review of the program

Contact

Dr Sophie Havighurst
Chief Investigator and Program Author
Mindful - Centre for Training and Research in Developmental Health
University of Melbourne
Ph: 03 9371 0202
< www.mindful.org.au>
<www.tuningintokids.org.au>

References

  • Havighurst, S. S., Harley, A., & Prior, M. (2004). Building preschool children's emotional competence: A parenting program. Early Education & Development, 15(4), 423-447.

Robyn Parker is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.

Family statistics and trends

Robyn Parker and Suzanne Vassallo

Couple relationship formation has changed dramatically in Australia in recent decades. Marriage rates have declined from a crude marriage rate of 7.1 (marriages per 1,000 in the population) in 1988 to a rate of 5.5 in 2007. In contrast, the age at which people marry for the first time has increased, from 27.8 years for men and 25.4 years for women in 1988 to 29.6 and 27.6 years respectively in 2007. A high proportion (77% in 2007) of those who do marry have cohabited with their spouse prior to the marriage (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2008).

Of interest is whether the changing patterns of couple formation reflect changes in attitudes towards marriage. This issue was briefly addressed in a recent Family Relationships Quarterly article (Qu & Weston, 2007). Their analyses of data from the Housing, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA)19 survey in 2005 showed that Australian men's and women's attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation were generally positive.20 The notion of marriage as an outdated institution was largely rejected even by younger respondents (aged 15-29 years), with more than two-thirds disagreeing (73%) or strongly disagreeing (65%) with the statement. Cohabitation by those who do not intend to marry was also perceived as acceptable by the majority of respondents, although those in older age groups were more likely than the younger groups to disapprove of this arrangement. Men's and women's responses to both items were similar.

While the HILDA survey provided some interesting insights into the attitudes of Australians to marriage and cohabitation, only two items relating to these issues were included in this survey. A more in-depth examination of young adults' attitudes towards marriage (and cohabitation) can be obtained by looking at responses to the 2006 Australian Temperament Project (ATP) survey.

In this article, we report the responses to these questions of the young men and women who participated in this survey.

The Australian Temperament Project

The Australian Temperament Project is a longitudinal study that has followed the psychosocial development of a representative sample of 2,443 Australian children born in Victoria between September 1982 and January 1983, from infancy onwards. Approximately two-thirds of children are still participating, and are now 26 years old. The project examines the contribution of a range of personal, family and environmental factors to development and wellbeing. Data have been collected from the child's parents, Maternal and Child Health nurses, primary school teachers and, since the age of 11 years, the children themselves, via mail surveys. The information gathered covers the child's temperament, behavioural and school adjustment, substance use, antisocial behaviour, depression, health, social competence, civic-mindedness and engagement, peer relationships, family functioning, parenting style and family environment.21 During the 2006 survey (when participants were aged 23-24 years), a number of aspects of the participants' relationships were explored, including whether they intended to marry and their attitudes towards marriage (see Box 1 for the list of items relating to attitudes towards marriage). This article reports on responses to those questions from 1,001 young adults (61% female) who participated in the most recent survey in 2006.

Box 1: Attitude towards marriage items (ATP survey, 2006)

  • A major advantage of marriage is that it gives financial security. 
  • There are more advantages to being single than being married. 
  • It is better for a couple to get married than to just live together. 
  • It is better for children if their parents are married. 
  • Living together is just the same as being married. 
  • It is better to have a bad marriage than no marriage at all. 
  • The main purpose of marriage is to have children. 
  • People my age don't take marriage seriously enough. 
  • Homosexual couples should have the right to marry. 
  • Married people are generally happier than people in other types of relationships.

Relationship status of ATP participants

Table 1 shows the relationship status of the ATP respondents. Just over half of the male participants indicated they were in a committed relationship, with 25% stating that they were in a cohabiting relationship, and 30% indicating that they did not live with their partner.

The largest group of males was those not in a relationship of any kind (38%). Only 6% were seeing someone casually. Two-thirds of the female participants were in some form of committed relationship, although compared to the males they were more likely to be living with their partner (39%) than not (27%). Fewer females than males reported not being in a relationship (26%), but a similar proportion were in a casual relationship (7%).

Table 1. Proportion of ATP respondents in relationship types, by gender

Relationship type
Males (%)
n = 385
Females (%)
n = 606
Not seeing/dating anyone
38
26
Dating casually
6
7
Committed, not living together
30
27
Living with a partner**
25
39
Other
1
2

** 74 participants were married at time of data collection (7.5%)

Source: ATP, 2008

Marriage plans

Unmarried participants were asked how likely it was that they would eventually marry, and if so, how far in the future they thought it would happen. Table 2 below shows that more than 80% of both male and female respondents expect to marry some day. In Table 3, it can be seen that the majority of responses for young men are clustered around the 3-4 and 5-6 years categories, whereas young women's responses are spread across the 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 years. The overall pattern shows that about half (51%) of the male and two-thirds (68%) of the female participants thought it likely that they would marry in the short-to-medium (up to 4 years) term. Although the percentages are not high, compared to females, male respondents were more likely than females to view marriage as something that would occur in five to nine years. In contrast, females were more likely than males to see marriage in their more immediate future, within the next year or two.

Table 2. Likelihood of marrying, by gender
How likely is it that you will marry someday? Males (%) Females (%)
Definitely will
37
41
Probably will
44
41
50-50 chance
13
14
Probably won't
6
4
Definitely won't
1
1

Source: ATP, 2008

Table 3. How far into the future marriage likely to occur, by gender
When would you like to marry? Males (%) Females (%)
Within next year
6
8
1-2 years time
13
24
3-4 years time
32
36
5-6 years time
30
21
In 7-9 years time
14
6
In 10+ years time
6
4

Source: ATP, 2008

ATP participants also responded to a series of statements regarding marriage. Table 4 below shows the patterns of their responses. We look first at the pattern of responses of the sample overall, then examine the similarities and differences in the attitudes of the male and female participants.

Table 4. Attitudes towards marriage responses, by gender
   
Male (%)
Female (%)
Item
Strongly agree
Agree
Don't know
Disagree
Strongly disagree
Strongly agree
Agree
Don't know
Disagree
Strongly disagree
A major advantage of marriage is that it gives financial security
5
26
25
35
10
5
25
20
40
10
There are more advantages to being single than to being married
1
10
41
39
8
1
8
33
49
9
It is better for a couple to get married than to just live together
9
21
34
29
6
8
19
21
42
11
It is better for children if their parents are married
30
37
17
13
3
22
33
16
23
6
Living together is just the same as being married
5
20
19
45
11
4
23
19
47
7
It is better to have a bad marriage than no marriage at all
1
1
6
31
61
1
0
2
22
76
The main purpose of marriage is to have children
1
6
9
53
31
0
5
5
50
41
People my age don't take marriage seriously enough
7
30
37
23
3
7
29
30
29
6
Homosexual couples should have the right to marry
18
28
26
10
17
34
39
15
5
7
Married people are generally happier than people in other types of relationships
2
11
48
31
9
2
7
32
42
18

Source: ATP, 2008

Overall findings

Overall, participants tended to endorse the view that it is better for children if their parents are married, and that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. There was clear disagreement that:

  • financial security is an advantage of being married;
  • there are more advantages to being single than being married;
  • a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all;
  • married people are generally happier;
  • that it is better for a couple to marry rather than just live together (only females clearly disagreed with this);
  • that living together is just the same as being married; and
  • the main purpose of marriage is to have children.

Their views about the desirability of a bad marriage over none at all were especially strong, with 92% of males and 98% of females disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement. Disagreement was almost as common with respect to the role of children in marriage - 86% of males and 91% of females disagreed or strongly disagreed with this view.

For two items, views were evenly split.22 Thirty-six percent of female respondents agreed or strongly agreed that young people "don't take marriage seriously enough" but an almost identical proportion (35%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. Similarly, 30% of males agreed or strongly agreed that it is better for couples to marry than just live together and 35% had a negative view.

Strength of response

Only four items elicited "strongly agree" or "strongly disagree" responses by 30% or more participants. Just over one-third (34%) of female respondents strongly agreed with same-sex couples' right to marry, and 30% of male participants agreed strongly that it is better for children if their parents are married. Both males (61%) and females (76%) strongly disagreed that a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all, and that the main purpose of marriage is to have children (31% and 41% respectively).

It is interesting to note the proportions of "don't know" responses. Thirty per cent or more of the responses to items pertaining to "marriage having advantages over being single", "married people being happier", "it is better to marry than just live together" (males only), and "young people don't take marriage seriously enough" fell into this category. In each case more males than females chose this response. In some cases as many, and sometimes more, respondents chose the "don't know" category as the "agree" or "disagree" categories.

Sex differences in attitudes

Similar proportions of males and females tended to either agree (26% and 25% respectively) or disagree (35% and 40% respectively) with the statement "a major advantage of marriage is that it gives financial security". Their patterns of responses were also similar for the item "living together is just the same as being married". For some items, however, male and female responses differed significantly. To some extent these differences were driven by the "don't know" responses. As noted above, males were more likely to choose this option than females.

Females were more likely than males to disagree or strongly disagree that:

  • there are more advantages to being single than married;
  • it is better for a couple to marry than just live together;
  • married people are happier;
  • it is better for children if their parents are married;
  • the main purpose of marriage is to have children; and
  • young people don't take marriage seriously enough.

In addition, females were also more likely than males to indicate agreement with the right of same-sex couples to marry, but males were more likely than females to strongly agree that it is better for children if their parents are married.

Summary

This article examined attitudes to marriage among a large sample of young Australians participating in an ongoing longitudinal study. The findings from this research appear to suggest that young Australians see marriage as a part of their future. The majority of them expect to marry, however it seems to be a short to medium term goal for many young women and a longer term goal for many young men. At the time of this survey ATP participants were 24 years old, thus females reported being likely to marry by the time they reached 27-28 years old and males around by the age of 29 to 34 years. This timing is in line with the average age at first marriage in Australia in 2007, which was 27.6 years for females and 29.6 years for males (ABS, 2008).

Overall, these young people did not associate happiness and financial security with marriage, nor did they think that it is better for a couple to marry than to just live together or that there are more advantages to being single than to being married. Marriage was not seen as the being the same as cohabitation, and there was little support for the view that its main purpose is having children.

Young women appear to have somewhat stronger views of marriage, although these views were generally less positive. Where there was a significant difference in responses between male and female participants, females tended to be more likely to have disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Their views were also somewhat better formed (or less equivocal), in the sense that they were less likely than the males to choose the "don't know" category.

As Qu and Weston (2007) noted, support for marriage - at least in theory - among young people bodes well for marriage as an institution. However the findings reported here indicate that young people, in particular young women, may be wary or unsure of what marriage can offer them. Cohabitation was not given equal status to marriage, but it was not necessarily seen as a lesser option. These views, coupled with the almost-normative pattern of cohabitation before marriage in Australia (Qu & Weston, 2008), probably reflect the belief that cohabitation is seen as a pathway to marriage rather than an alternative. Notwithstanding these results, the tendency, especially for male participants, to select the "don't know" category might suggest that many young people have not given the issue a great deal of thought or that they are still weighing the pros and cons of taking the step into marriage - perhaps understandable given that, for young men in particular, marriage is not part of their aspirations for the immediate future.

References

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). Marriages, Australia, 2007 (Cat. No. 3306.0.55.001). Canberra: ABS
  • Qu, L., & Weston, R. (2007). Family statistics and trends: Attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation. Family Relationships Quarterly, 8, 5-10. Retrieved 8 April 2009, from <www.aifs.gov.au/afrc/pubs/newsletter/newsletter8.html>
  • Qu, L & Weston, R. (2008). Snapshots of family relationships. Melbourne, Victoria. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Suzanne Vassallo is a Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Manager of the Australian Temperament Study. Robyn Parker is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse. 

Literature highlights

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There are an increasing number of adults with an intellectual disability living into middle and old age, and often these adults are cared for by their parents in the family home. Individuals who live in other accommodation generally still receive both practical and emotional support from their parents. This article reviews the literature, details some of the demands and strains experienced by parents of adults with an intellectual disability, and examines factors that research suggests may affect parents' capacities to cope with these. 

Endnotes

1. Digital storytelling consisted of individual, 3-minute long, personalised accounts from men about a relationship issue they had faced and dealt with.  Men told their stories in their own language.  The stories were uploaded to the Mensline Australia website to make them accessible to the wider community.

2. Editor’s Note: Readers should note that since the research was completed in March 2007, changing views as a result of further reforms in the family law system since this time are not represented in this article.

3. n = 71, of those 14 were also accredited mediators. Lawyers were recruited by mass mailout to all recognised family lawyers in Queensland

4. n = 24, of those 14 were mediators. Organisations providing family support and all listed family counsellors and mediators were recruited by mass mailout.

5. n = 2, judicial officers were recruited through Judge Administrator.

6. n = 10. Self-represented litigants were recruited in person, as researcher observed interim and final trials. A couple also approached the author after hearing about the research from other professionals.

7. Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), s63DA(2)

8. Also known as "general party representatives". These are lawyers who act for the parties to the dispute, as distinct from the Independent Children’s Lawyer (previously known as the separate representative) appointed by the court to represent the interests of the child specifically.

9. <http://austlii.law.uts.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/fla1975114/s60cc.html>

10. The findings can be accessed at <www.griffith.edu.au/centre/slrc/>

11. There were other constraints identified but these three dominated.

12. s60K

13. s60CC(3)(c)

14. Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), s63DA(2)

15. As part of the nation-wide accreditation standards for FDR practitioners, the module "Operate in a Family Law Environment" is currently offered. Further information is available at <www.fdrtraining.edu.au>

16. <www.tuningintokids.org.au>

17. Mindful is the Centre for Training and Research in Developmental Health, University of Melbourne, and hosts the Tuning in to Kids program. See <www.mindful.org.au>.

18. The use of the Tuning in to Kids name and resources is only available to facilitators who have trained with Mindful staff.

19.. HILDA is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.  It is managed by a consortium that is led by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne. The other members of the consortium are the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Australian Council for Educational Research.  For a description of HILDA, go to <www.melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/>

20. Participants were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the statements "Marriage is an outdated institution" and "It is alright for an unmarried couple to live together even if they have no intention of marrying".

21. The ATP is a partnership between researchers from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Royal Children’s Hospital, the University of Melbourne, and Deakin University. The project is led and managed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies and is also supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council. Further information about the ATP is available at <www.aifs.gov.au/atp>

22. There was a difference of 5% or less between the proportion of respondents who who agreed/strongly agreed and those who disagreed/strongly disagreed.

Publication details

AFRC Newsletter
No. 12
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, May 2009.
24 pp.
ISSN: 
1833-9077

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