Parent-child contact and post-separation parenting arrangements

Research Report No. 9 – July 2004

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Despite widespread interest in patterns of parenting after separation in Australia, the gaps in our knowledge remain large and fundamental. Most studies, including those overseas, have taken a quantitative tack, measuring the frequency and overall amount of face-to-face contact. But obviously there is more to parent-child contact than just time. The nature and quality of the interaction are also important - perhaps even more so.

In the United States, Melli (1999) has argued that research into parent-child contact needs to recognise and describe clearly both qualitative and quantitative differences in the many ways that parental sharing of time with children can occur. To date, however, little information has been collected in Australia on some of the most rudimentary components of contact, such as the distinction between daytime-only contact versus sleepovers, and holiday-only contact versus regular contact throughout the year.

This report presents qualitative data from a series of ten focus groups which formed the Parent-Child Contact Study, a component of the larger Australian Institute of Family Studies Caring for Children after Parental Separation Project. Fifty-four separated or divorced parents (27 mothers, 27 fathers) took part in the focus group discussions about different aspects of parent-child contact. Groups were structured around five different patterns of contact: (1) 50/50 shared care (for example, week-about), (2) little or no contact, (3) holiday-only contact, (4) daytime-only contact, and (5) 'standard' contact (for example, every-weekend or every-other-weekend). Participants were recruited through a story in a Melbourne newspaper combined with snowball (referral) sampling.

The qualitative data are also embedded in the wider national picture through an examination of data derived from a large representative sample of separated/divorced parents who participated in the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

Several key insights emerged:

  • Patterns of parenting after separation are very varied, as are the perceptions and motivations of parents with different arrangements. Nonetheless, parents with different parenting arrangements appear to have distinct demographic profiles (see below).
  • Family dynamics in tandem with several demographic factors - most notably material resources, the quality of the co-parental relationship, physical distance between parents' households, and the repartnering status of parents - look to be important correlates of particular patterns of care, with inter-parental conflict being a dominant force. The maturity of children also seems to be important, with daytime-only contact being most common when children are of pre-school age, and 'shared care' applying when children are of primary school age.
  • Not surprisingly, higher levels of contact appear to be associated with lower levels of inter-parental conflict, lower rates of repartnering, less physical distance between parents' households, and higher levels of financial resources. The Parent-Child Contact Study breaks new ground by showing how the interaction of these and other factors appears to be clearly linked to qualitatively different patterns of post-separation parenting.
  • The perceptions of mothers and fathers differed markedly where father-child contact was tenuous: mothers perceived fathers not to be interested in being involved with children; fathers believed that mothers cut them out of their children's lives.
  • Many parents expressed a need for resources that would assist them in making decisions regarding the future care of children, especially in relation to different ways of sharing the care of children.

To sum up, there is much to suggest that family dynamics, in tandem with demographic factors, temper the form that parent-child contact takes.