Families, life events and family service delivery

A literature review
Research Report No. 20 – August 2012

4. Life events experienced by families

4.1 The use of event scales

From a research and service delivery point of view, the life events concept may be particularly useful if the events themselves can be reduced to a finite number that can be recognised as being stressful for most individuals. It would also helpful if these life events could be rated in some rational way with respect to their likely impact, although given the importance of personal attributes and the context in which life events occur in shaping the personal meanings attached to such events, the usefulness of any pre-determined scoring system remains controversial (see Chapter 2).

In Chapter 2, we provided a brief description of the development of scales that have attempted to measure the impact of life events, as well as a critique of the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), the most common of them. Despite the limitations outlined above, this scale continues to speak to the broad range of life events experienced by a majority of individuals during their lives. It attempts to score events on a scale (from 1 to 100) of Life Change Units (LCUs). The original SRRS, with its LCU scores, is reproduced in Table 5.

Table 5: The Social Readjustment Rating Scale
Life event Value
1 Death of spouse 100
2 Divorce 73
3 Marital separation 65
4 Jail term 63
5 Death of close family member 63
6 Personal injury or illness 53
7 Marriage 50
8 Fired at work 47
9 Marital reconciliation 45
10 Retirement 45
11 Change in health of family member 44
12 Pregnancy 40
13 Sex difficulties 39
14 Gain of new family member 39
15 Business readjustment 39
16 Change in financial state 38
17 Death of close friend 37
18 Change to a different line of work 36
19 Change in number of arguments with spouse 35
20 Mortgage over $10,000 31
21 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
22 Change in responsibilities at work 29
23 Son or daughter leaving home 29
24 Trouble with in-laws 29
25 Outstanding personal achievement 28
26 Wife begins or stops work 26
27 Begin or end school 26
28 Change in living conditions 25
29 Revision of personal habits 24
30 Trouble with boss 23
31 Change in work hours or conditions 20
32 Change in residence 20
33 Change in schools 20
34 Change in recreation 19
35 Change in church activities 19
36 Change in social activities 18
37 Mortgage or loan of less than $10,000 17
38 Change in sleeping habits 16
39 Change in number of family get-togethers 15
40 Change in eating habits 15
41 Vacation 13
42 Christmas 12
43 Minor violations in the law 11

Source: Holmes & Rahe (1967)

There are a large range of scales available on the Internet to which individuals may respond for the purpose of assessing his or her "stress level" or total number of LCUs. While some are very minor modifications of the SRRS,27 that which was developed by Hobson et al. (1998) - the Revised Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS-R) - represents a substantial revision, entailing 51 items (Table 6). Unlike the original scale, which was based on a convenience sample of 394 adults who estimated of the amount of social readjustment that would be required by each event listed,28 the SRRS-R was administered to a nationally representative sample of 5,000 respondents in the US, who rated the amount of adjustment they thought that they would require in order to deal with each event. Hobson et al. concluded: "With only isolated exceptions, Americans tended to share similar views about major life events, regardless of gender, age, or income level" (p. 22).

Table 6: The Revised Social Readjustment Rating Scale
Life event LCU value
1 Death of spouse/mate 87
2 Death of close family member 79
3 Major injury/illness to self 78
4 Detention in jail or other institution 76
5 Major injury/illness to close family member 72
6 Foreclosure on loan/mortgage 71
7 Divorce 71
8 Being a victim of crime 70
9 Being a victim of police brutality 69
10 Infidelity 69
11 Experiencing domestic violence/sexual abuse 69
12 Separation from or reconciliation with spouse/mate 66
13 Being fired/laid-off/unemployed 64
14 Experiencing financial problems/difficulties 62
15 Death of a close friend 61
16 Surviving a disaster 59
17 Becoming a single parent 59
18 Assuming responsibility for sick or elderly loved one 56
19 Loss of or major reduction in health insurance/benefits 56
20 Self/close family member being arrested for violating the law 56
21 Major disagreement over child support/custody/visitation 53
22 Experiencing/involved in auto accident 53
23 Being disciplined at work/demoted 53
24 Dealing with unwanted pregnancy 51
25 Adult child moving in with parent/parent moving in with adult child 50
26 Child develops behaviour or learning problem 49
27 Experiencing employment discrimination/sexual harassment 48
28 Attempting to modify addictive behaviour of self 47
29 Discovering/attempting to modify addictive behaviour of close family member 46
30 Employer reorganization/downsizing 45
31 Dealing with infertility/miscarriage 44
32 Getting married/remarried 43
33 Changing employers/careers 43
34 Failure to obtain/qualify for a mortgage 42
35 Pregnancy of self/spouse/mate 41
36 Experiencing discrimination/harassment outside the workplace 39
37 Release from jail 39
38 Spouse/mate begins/ceases work outside the home 38
39 Major disagreement with boss/co-worker 37
40 Change in residence 35
41 Finding appropriate child care/day care 34
42 Experiencing a large unexpected monetary gain 33
43 Changing positions (transfer, promotion) 33
44 Gaining a new family member 33
45 Changing work responsibilities 32
46 Child leaving home 30
47 Obtaining a home mortgage 30
48 Obtaining a major home loan other than home mortgage 30
49 Retirement 28
50 Beginning/ceasing formal education 26
51 Receiving a ticket for violating the law 22

Source: Hobson et al. (1998)

4.2 Successful and unsuccessful navigation of life events

Two things immediately stand out from a list such as provided in Table 6. The first is that, consistent with what was noted in Chapter 3, the majority of events, but especially those that attract high LCU scores, involve the experience of loss. For some of the categories, such as death of a spouse or loved one, or divorce, or foreclosure on a mortgage, the nature of the loss is instantly recognisable. Other categories involve experiences that, while significant, may not be constructed in the first instance as a loss. Jail would be widely recognised, for example, as loss of liberty. But the consequences of a major illness or injury to a close family member might not be automatically seen in these terms.

The other thing that is clear from this list is that although most event categories have a largely negative aspect to them, some (such as reconciliation or changing residency) are far less likely to be in this category. Events in both these categories, however, represent significant changes in the life of an individual and the life of a family. They are therefore likely to be associated with varying periods of vulnerability. In terms of a "crisis matrix" therefore (Jacobson, 1983), they can be seen in varying degrees as moments of "dangerous opportunity". What then, are the factors that distinguish between successful and unsuccessful navigation of these events?

In broad terms, the factors can be divided into the availability or non-availability of both external resources (such as income and adequate services) and internal resources (such as robust and committed family relationships and a realistically optimistic outlook). Of course, these factors interact. For example, those with a realistically optimistic outlook are likely to seek appropriate support and services in anticipation of an event (such as the birth of a baby) or in response to an unanticipated event (such as being involved in a car accident). In contrast, those stressed by financial issues or by interpersonal conflict may be less likely to plan adequately for the arrival of a baby and more likely to be disorganised in response to a major unexpected event such as a car accident.

The factors that maximise the chances that a family will successfully navigate adverse events are essentially those that return us to the notion of family resilience. The following discussion focuses first on research by Karney, Bradbury and colleagues concerning factors that help shape the capacity of couples to handle difficult circumstances, and then on literature concerning key processes in resilient families in general.

Karney and Bradbury (1995) conducted a review of 115 longitudinal studies (representing over 45,000 marriages) that examined how the quality and stability of marriages changed. Their "vulnerability-stress-adaptation" model of marriage model can be summarised as follows:

  • Adaptive processes may contribute to subsequent life events, generating a vicious cycle whereby: "(a) stressful events challenge a couple's capacity to adapt, (b) which contributes to the perpetuation or worsening of those events, (c) which in turn further challenge and perhaps overwhelm their capacity to adapt" (p. 24).
  • Adaptive processes help shape marital quality. For instance, the way in which each partner appraises the interaction can contribute to other ways they behave towards each other and to their satisfaction with the marital relationship. These authors used this notion to help explain reasons for some couples feeling fulfilled by their marriage despite experiencing highly stressful events; for example, they noted that "spouses (may) appraise negative interactions as a way to clear the air, or they make benign attributions for the behaviour" (p. 24).
  • Judgements of marital quality in turn contribute to adaptive processes; that is, such judgements strengthen or diminish the capacity of the couple to: (a) engage in effective ways of handling their marital difficulties; (b) offer each other emotional support; and (c) adapt to stressful events.
  • Marital quality influences marital stability.

Karney and Bradbury's (1995) initial "take home message" was that personal vulnerabilities help shape stressful events:

The model suggests that couples with effective adaptive processes who encounter relatively few stressful events and have few enduring vulnerabilities will experience a satisfying marriage, whereas couples with ineffective adaptive processes who must cope with many stressful events and have many enduring vulnerabilities will experience declining marital quality, separation, or divorce. Couples at other points along these three dimensions are expected to fall between these two extreme outcomes. (p. 25)

In later work, Karney, Bradbury and their colleagues outlined research highlighting the positive influence of personal strengths on marital quality, and explored some of the more intricate factors affecting aspects of relationship quality (e.g., Bodenmann, Ledermann, & Bradbury, 2007; Bradbury & Karney, 2004; Lederman, Bodenmann, Rudaz, & Bradbury, 2010; Neff & Karney, 2007; Trombello, Schoebi, & Bradbury, 2011). Stressful events have been an important feature of some of these small-scale, intensive studies of relationship quality trajectories. This research also paid more attention to the influence of issues such as financial difficulties and other external stressful events on marital quality.

Such research highlights the importance of the interaction between life events and the characteristics of each partner in shaping what we may call "couple relationship resilience". The picture becomes even more complicated if we extend the focus to include the entire family unit, which in many cases would include children. The work of Karney, Bradbury and colleagues reminds us that the pressures that all family members are experiencing from outside the family, and their personal strengths and vulnerabilities in handling family-related and external pressures, would interact to affect family dynamics and, ultimately, family resilience or vulnerability. While much is now known about common characteristics of vulnerable families, (e.g., see section 2.5 and later in this chapter), far less research has been undertaken into the characteristics of "strong families", yet both sets of research represent important resources for the development or adjustment of policy and practice directed towards supporting families.

Walsh (2003c) divided the key processes in family resilience into three basic categories - belief systems shared by family members, organisational patterns, and communication/problem-solving capacities (see Box 2).

Box 2: Key processes in family resilience

Belief systems

1. Make meaning of adversity

  • View resilience as relationally based vs "rugged individual."
  • Normalize, contextualize adversity and distress.
  • Sense of coherence: crisis as meaningful, comprehensible, manageable challenge.
  • Causal/explanatory attributions: How could this happen? What can be done?

2. Positive outlook

  • Hope, optimistic bias; confidence in overcoming odds.
  • Courage and en-courage-ment; affirm strengths and focus on potential.
  • Active initiative and perseverance (can-do spirit).
  • Master the possible; accept what can't be changed.

3. Transcendence and spirituality

  • Larger values, purpose.
  • Spirituality: faith, congregational support, healing rituals.
  • Inspiration: envision new possibilities; creative expression; social action.
  • Transformation: learning, change, and growth from adversity.
Organisational patterns

4. Flexibility

  • Open to change: rebound, reorganize, adapt to fit new challenges.
  • Stability through disruption: continuity, dependability, follow-through.
  • Strong authoritative leadership: nurturance, protection, guidance.
  • Varied family forms: cooperative parents/caregiving teams.
  • Couple/co-parent relationship: equal partners.

5. Connectedness

  • Mutual support, collaboration, and commitment.
  • Respect individual needs, differences, and boundaries.
  • Seek reconnection, reconciliation of wounded relationships.

6. Social and economic resources

  • Mobilize kin, social and community networks; seek models and mentors.
  • Build financial security; balance work/family strains.
Communication/problem solving

7. Clarity

  • Clear, consistent messages (words and actions).
  • Clarify ambiguous information; truth seeking/truth speaking.

8. Open emotional expression

  • Share range of feelings (joy and pain; hopes and fears).
  • Mutual empathy; tolerance for differences.
  • Take responsibility for own feelings, behaviour; avoid blaming.
  • Pleasurable interactions; humor.

9. Collaborative problem solving

  • Creative brainstorming; resourcefulness.
  • Shared decision making; conflict resolution: negotiation, fairness, reciprocity.
  • Focus on goals; take concrete steps; build on success; learn from failure.
  • Proactive stance: prevent problems; avert crises; prepare for future challenges.

Source: Walsh (2003c, p. 406)

The Family Strengths Research Project, conducted by Silberberg and her colleagues at the Family Action Centre of the University of Newcastle, was designed to identify key attributes of strong, resilient families in Australia - as reported by respondents who believed their family to be "strong" - and the language such respondents use to describe these strengths. Respondents were asked to complete an Australian Inventory of Family Strengths and/or a Family Strengths Survey or to participate in an interview. The inventory consisted of 85 strength statements and the survey consisted of 14 open-ended questions inviting the respondents to write stories and express their views on a range of issues relating to family strengths. Silberberg (2001) summarised the findings of this research as follows:

Strong families are able to adapt to changing circumstances and have a positive attitude towards the challenges of family life. They deal with these challenges by means of communication - talking things through with each other; supporting each other in times of need and/or seeking outside support when it is beyond the family's capability to deal with the situation; and togetherness - pulling together to form a united front and to find solutions. (p. 55)

In addition, Silberberg (2001) noted that some family strengths research is based on a dichotomy between strong/functional and troubled/dysfunctional families. She suggested, however, that:

An inherent quality of all dichotomies is that this either/or proposition blinds us from possible shades of grey. We run the risk of imposing cultural assumptions on family life, and overlooking the existing skills within the family. Rather than teaching families a set of strength practices, our task is to facilitate families in the process of identifying their own strengths. This process empowers families to regain faith in their own capabilities to rebuild resilience. (p. 55)

Silberberg (2001) and her colleagues agreed with Walsh (1998) that families can be nurtured and mobilised by using approaches ranging from family therapy to social policy. They noted that being a family is a constantly evolving process that requires ongoing action and maintenance. In their view, families can lose sight of their strengths in unstable times and become immersed in their problems. When they seek assistance:

[families'] problem-saturated stories are often thickened by the conventional models of deficits and pathology. Professionals who work from a strengths perspective … focus on what is working in the family rather than what is not. This is not to say that these professionals minimise the family's issues, it is to say that they avoid pathologising or labeling the family into categories of deficit, disorder or illness. The focus is on the qualities that a family may already possess that can be drawn on to help them manage the problem. (p. 55)

The findings of the study were incorporated into a framework, named the Australian Family Strengths Template, one aim of which was to assist in developing community resources.

The Australian Family Strengths Template is founded on eight qualities, identified in the research as communication, togetherness, sharing activities, affection, support, acceptance, commitment and resilience (Silberberg, 2001):

  • Communication is a strength when the family interacts with each other frequently, and predominately in an open, positive, honest (and sometimes humorous) manner.
  • Togetherness is the "invisible glue" that bonds the family and gives members a sense of belonging.
  • Sharing activities is when strong families like to share time and activities with each other.
  • Affection is a strength, when family members show love, care, concern and interest for each other on a regular basis through words, hugs, kisses and thoughtfulness. Expressions of affection are often ritualised in strong families.
  • Support is assisting, encouraging, reassuring each other and looking out for each other. Members of strong families feel equally comfortable to offer or ask for support.
  • Acceptance means showing respect, appreciation and understanding for each other's individuality and uniqueness.
  • Commitment is showing dedication and loyalty toward the family as a whole. Strong families often view the wellbeing of the family as a first priority and express commitment in a variety of ways.
  • Resilience is when the above attributes are encompassed within the concept of family resilience, defined by Walsh (1996) as "the ability to withstand and rebound from crisis and adversity" (p. 261).

On the reverse side, the areas that sap the strength of families and contribute to difficulties in negotiating life events, continue to be those identified in the AIFS Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms: family violence, child abuse, mental health problems and substance misuse (see Kaspiew et al., 2009). These issues are strongly associated with the problematic end of the separation and divorce spectrum, but as noted by Rodgers, Gray, Davidson, and Butterworth (2011), their negative effects are by no means confined to the separated and divorce cohort. These and other attributes of vulnerable families (e.g., low income, limited English skills, Indigenous status, members with a disability or chronic physical illness) tend to marginalise families and generate a host of very difficult life events.

Each of the next two sections focuses more intensively on a different single life event - the transition to parenthood and a child's transition from home to school respectively. These events affect the vast majority of families, although a child starting school tends not to feature in life events scales. While becoming a parent is not listed in either of the life events scales outlined above, the assumption is that the term "pregnancy" contains this idea. As will be seen, once events such as these are teased out, a considerable number of issues arise that are capable of enhancing or challenging the ways in which a family copes.

4.3 A case example: The transition to parenthood

The transition to parenthood is one of the most significant life events that individuals and couples experience in their life course. Typically, the newborn brings joy and fulfillment that strengthen the couple's relationship. At the same time, however, the caring requirements and intensive responsibilities can generate stress and pressures for the couple and family relationship dynamics. Research reviewed by Cowan and Cowan (2003) concluded that key changes for men and women around the birth of their first child occur in relation to: their sense of self; their relationships with their families of origin; the child, given his or her temperament and the structural change that occurs in the new family unit (from two to three members); levels of stress and social support; and the relationship between the couple themselves.

Importantly, the transition to parenthood has undergone significant changes since the mid-20th century in terms of the timing and pathways of the transitions. Understanding the nature of these changes has implications for how the transition to parenthood is perceived. These perceptions in turn affect the accuracy and quality of the information and services provided by government bodies and other agencies. This section discusses findings related to the timing and pathways involved in the transition to parenthood, challenges that new parents face, and factors that affect adjustments to parenthood. Implications for services arising from these data are noted in Chapter 5.

4.3.1 Timing of the transition to parenthood

The age at which people start having a family has increased over the past 50 years. While in the 1950s and 1960s women typically became mothers when they were 20-24 years old, the most common age for women today to have their first child is in their late 20s. In fact, four in ten new mothers in 2008 were aged 30 years and older, with women being more likely to make the transition to motherhood in their early 30s than in their early 20s (Laws et al., 2010).

The timing of the transition to parenthood has implications for the wellbeing of both parents and children. Using Wave 1 data relating to the infant cohort in LSAC (born between March 2003 and February 2004), Qu and colleagues (Qu, Soriano, & Weston, 2006; Weston, Soriano, & Qu, 2006) examined some of the age-related challenges faced by new mothers. The authors found that, consistent with prior research findings, teenage mothers and mothers in their early 20s had a lower socio-economic status compared with new mothers who were in their late 20s and early 30s. The authors also found that the two youngest groups of mothers were more likely than the oldest groups to be lone mothers and have unhealthy lifestyles (e.g., having an inadequate intake of vegetables and fruits, smoking, having risky levels of alcohol consumption). While women who made the early transition to motherhood were as confident about their parenting role and as warm to their child as the other women, the former group appeared to be more likely to adopt harsh parenting.

4.3.2 Pathways to parenthood

Enabled by medical advances in contraception, having a child is now more likely to be a conscious decision for many individuals and young couples than it was in the past. The AIFS Fertility Decision Making Project,29 which involved interviews in 2004 with over 3,000 Australians aged 20-39 years, suggested that key factors affecting the decisions made by men and women of this age about becoming parents or having more children included their ability to be good parents, financial capacity and security, and the stability of their relationship (Weston, Qu, Parker, & Alexander, 2004). Age-related concerns also featured strongly for women in their late 30s, while finding a suitable partner was important for those who were single. Nevertheless, unplanned births or unplanned timing of births are still common (see Sassler, Miller, & Favinger, 2009),30 and this affects the adjustment of new parents to their parenting role. For example, new fathers and mothers with unplanned births appear to be more likely to experience depressive symptoms than those parents whose births were planned (Houts, Barnett-Walker, Paley, & Cox, 2008).

The pathways to parenthood and the context in which children are born, have also undergone other marked changes. As noted in Chapter 1, the proportion of babies born outside of marriage has increased dramatically, from 12% in 1979 to 35% in 2009, and it appears that the majority of these babies are born to cohabiting parents.

Based on data from the 4-5 year old cohort of LSAC, Qu and Weston (2008) suggested that cohabiting families with children have different socio-demographic characteristics to married families with children. The authors found that, compared with married mothers, cohabiting mothers tended to be younger, less well educated and were less likely to be in paid work. They also tended to have lower family incomes and to report lower quality relationships with their current partners. Consequently, children living with cohabiting parents fared less well in terms of socio-emotional development than those living with married parents. The authors also found that children with cohabiting parents were more likely to experience parental separation across the two-year period examined than those with married parents. These findings are consistent with overseas studies (e.g., Artis, 2007; Brown, 2004), which suggest that children living with cohabiting parents tend to do less well and have access to more limited economic resources than children with married parents.31

4.3.3 Impact of parenthood on personal wellbeing and couple relationships

A great deal of evidence suggests that children are generally a stabilising factor in marriage (see Bradbury, Fincham, & Beach, 2000; Wagner & Weib, 2006). At the same time, many adjustments are required after the arrival of a child, especially in the first few months (see Glade, Bean, & Vira, 2005). Claxton and Perry-Jenkins (2008), for example, found that couples experienced a decline in both shared and independent leisure after the birth of their child. Although the situation started to reverse after mothers returned to work, they could not return to the level of shared and independent leisure time before having the child. Houts et al. (2008) found that the views of fathers and mothers about their marriage became more negative over the four years following the birth of their first child. Kluwer and Johnson (2007) also found that both female and male partners reported a decline in the quality of their relationship and an increased frequency of conflicts in the four years after the birth of their first child. In a longitudinal study of African and White American couples, Crohan (1996) reported similar results.

Relationships between partners and personal wellbeing are, of course, intextricably linked (e.g., see Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007). Not surprisingly, there is considerable evidence suggesting that women have an increased risk of anxiety and depression before and after giving birth to a child, with postnatal depression receiving increasing attention (see Bilszta, Gu, Meyer, & Buist, 2008; Bradbury et al., 2000; Glade et al., 2005). Estimates of the prevalence of pre- and natal depression vary according to measures and threshold scores used. Bilszta et al., using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), observed a higher rate of prenatal depression in their sample of women from urban areas of Victoria than women from rural areas (9% vs 3%), but no significant differences between these two groups in the prevalence of postnatal depression (7-9%). In a study by Yelland, Sutherland, and Brown (2010), of women who gave birth during September-October 2007 in Victoria and South Australia, 13% reported symptoms of anxiety six months after giving birth, while 17% reported symptoms of depression (based on the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales [DASS-21]). In addition, nearly half had experienced stressful life events or health issues during that period.

Parental mental health has been found to affect parenting behaviours, parenting quality and support and cooperation between parents (see Pinquart & Teubert, 2010). Furthermore, psychological distress can reduce the level of parents' sensitivity to their children's needs and has been found to be associated with harsh and inconsistent parenting practices (e.g., Baxter & Smart, 2010).

Research on the transition to parenthood tends to pay greater attention to the experiences of women than men, probably because women continue to shoulder the bulk of caring responsibilities (e.g., Craig, Mullan, & Blaxland, 2010). But what does the transition to parenthood mean to men? The transition to fatherhood traditionally means increased financial responsibility to provide for the family. Despite the increasing numbers of women in paid work, mothers tend to work part-time, especially when their children are young (Gray, Qu, de Vaus, & Millward, 2003). In addition, the wage rates for women continue to fall behind those of men at an aggregate level (ABS, 2000a). Smyth, Baxter, Fletcher, and Moloney (in press) have observed that the role of fathers in Australia has largely remained that of the primary economic provider, and the traditional gender division of labour continues to prevail. However, the authors maintain that change is occurring, with many fathers spending time with their children in play and social activities - despite often doing so in the presence of mothers - and argue that fathers will continue to increase their involvement in their children's daily lives.

4.3.4 Factors affecting adjustments to the transition to parenthood

Consistent with Bronfenbrenner's (1979) model, research broadly suggests that the extent to which new parents can adapt well to their parenting role is affected by a range of individual and family characteristics, as well as support from extended families, friends, communities and the broader social system.

Zachariah (1996) reported that greater husband-wife attachment and higher levels of social support had positive effects on women's psychological wellbeing during pregnancy, while stressful life events had the opposite effect. Similarly, Yelland et al. (2010) found that postpartum anxiety and symptoms of depression are linked with stressful life events during the pregnancy. It is worth noting, however, that the same life events can have different meanings to individuals in different circumstances. Thus, in the study by Zachariah, women reported quite different views about various life events they experienced, such as making a major financial purchase or major decision, getting married and changing living conditions. These findings are consistent with the outcome of recent research by Plagnol and Scott (2011), who studied perceptions of what matters for "quality of life" (QoL) in a large-scale longitudinal study conducted in Britain. The authors suggested that changes in perception of QoL are related to important life events, such as the birth of a child or retirement. "These life events constitute 'turning points' after which individuals often shift their priorities on what matters for their QoL" (p. 115).

Couple characteristics have also been found to affect new parents' adjustments to parenthood. The US study by Houts et al. (2008) indicated that marital problem-solving patterns among couples affected parents' psychological adjustments after the birth of their child. Husbands and wives with consistent destructive problem-solving styles, over five years reported more depressive symptoms at each of four interviews after the birth of their child; compared with those who used consistent constructive problem-solving styles and those whose styles shifted between constructive and destructive. The wives of the first group also became less positive than those in the other two groups.

In addition, Houts et al. (2008) found that while couples' problem-solving styles were relatively stable, the destructive style was notably prevalent in the first few months after the birth of their child. This is likely to reflect the fact that some parents had unrealistic expectations about parenthood and, as a result, "tempers may flare and couples become less 'cautious' about how they deal with these difficulties, leading to an increase in the relative frequency of Destructive conflict tactics at the 3-month assessment" (p. 118). The authors argued that this could have flow-on effects with respect to parenting. There is also evidence that couples' communication styles and emotional support between the partners are linked with mothers' sensitivity to their children's needs (Glade et al., 2005).

The availability of a social support network has been found to be beneficial to the adjustment to parenthood. Prior research (Cutrona & Troutman, 1986; Haslam, Pakenham, & Smith, 2006) found that social supports increased new parents' self-efficacy, enabling them to respond their newborn's needs and improved maternal psychological wellbeing and couple relationships. Other factors affecting parental adjustment include infant characteristics and family-of-origin experiences (see Glade et al., 2005). A Canadian study by Bouchard and Doucet (2011) reported that women from divorced families had more conflict and less support from their fathers and that women's relationships with their mothers affected their adjustment during their first pregnancy.

While this section focuses on the transition to parenthood and difficulties that people may encounter, it should also be kept in mind that parents who have more than one child also face similar challenges. For example, Gray et al. (2003) found that parents with more than one young child were less likely to be in paid work compared with those with just one.

4.3.5 Some implications for services

Glade et al. (2005) argued that the transition to parenthood has been neglected in terms of intervention and early prevention programs, and recommended that childbirth education class should include a relational information or intervention component. They also suggested that such programs be in a group format, whereby both men and women can draw support and learn from the experiences of other group members.

Glade et al. (2005) maintained that emotional and practical support from members of the extended family also plays an important role in helping new parents to adjust to their parenting roles. In addition, they stressed the need to examine couples' current and postnatal expectations regarding household work, child care, parenting style, paid work, and involvement of friends and family, as well as their conflict management style (especially the husband's), intimacy and emotional regulation:

Individual characteristics of each partner should be addressed in regards to such issues as temperament, expectations, gender ideology, and personal identity. No class or program will change a person's "temperament," but it will allow couples to address how individual characteristics may affect their parenting and couple relationships. (pp. 330-331)

In this regard, Pinquart and Teubert (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of 21 interventions to examine the effect of couple interventions during the transition to parenthood. The analysis showed that couple-focused interventions had small but significant effects on couple communication, couple adjustments and parenting. Interventions during both prenatal and postnatal periods had "stronger effects on couple communication than interventions that were only delivered during or after pregnancy" (p. 227). The quality of service workers and number of sessions were also important factors in effective service delivery. The service sessions delivered by professions had a significant effect on couple adjustments and communication compared with the services from non-professionals. In addition, interventions with more than five sessions had stronger effects than those with fewer sessions. The meta-analysis suggested that quick and short intervention programs are less likely to achieve goals related to helping couple's transition to parenthood.

The study by Sassler et al. (2009) highlighted the importance of contraception education in preventing unprepared, early transition to parenthood, which has long-term ramifications for young adults and their children. Glade et al. (2005) also noted that some men did not interact effectively with their infants. They suggested that working to improve these men's parenting skills would have beneficial effects for both the couple and the children.

4.3.6 Possible future research

Two longitudinal datasets are important sources for conducting further research in this area - the HILDA survey and LSAC - analyses of which have already been cited. Both surveys are national and funded by FaHCSIA. The HILDA survey began in 2001, involving about 7,600 households, and interviewing nearly 14,000 individuals aged 15 years and older. The household members are followed up annually. So far, eleven waves of data collection have been completed, with nine waves of data having been released. LSAC focuses on two nationally representative samples of children, with around 5,000 in each age cohort: those born between March 2003 and February 2004 (infants) and those born between March 1999 and February 2000 (children aged 4-5 years). These children are followed up every two years and, so far, four waves of data have been collected, with four waves having been released.

Issues that could be examined using LSAC data include:

  • age of transition to motherhood and its implications for child development - characteristics of mothers who made an early transition to motherhood and stayed on positive trajectories (Booth, Rustenbach, & McHale, 2008) could be further examined; and
  • social support, use of services and their impacts on how families cope with the transitions in the longer term (e.g., parental wellbeing and child wellbeing, changes in family structure).

Issues that could be examined using HILDA data include:

  • individual and couple characteristics and their effect on the adjustment to parenthood; and
  • the quality of couple relationships and social support, and their effects on the adjustment to parenthood.

4.4 A case example: Children's transition from home to school

Apart from the very small minority of parents who "home-school", the vast majority send their children to the care of a school. It is an obligatory rite of passage in many societies. Educational transitions - including the transition to school - are important life events (Ecclestone, 2009).

The transition to school is a key milestone in the process that defines children's identity and influences their sense of agency as they navigate pathways, structures and systems (Ecclestone, Biesta, & Hughes, 2010; Griebel & Niesel, 2002). As Entwisle and Alexander (1999) noted, a child's entry to elementary school is marked by changes to his or her self-concept. Children need to learn to operate away from the familiarity of their home during the day and develop many new relationships with their many peers, older children and adults at school.

School is a world on a scale that is larger than previously encountered by most children. The rules, practices and culture for many, if not most, can be frankly impenetrable during the initial months, if not years. As the German saying goes, Aller Anfang ist schwer, which can be variously translated as "every beginning is difficult" or "the first step is the hardest". Of course, as for any journey, the ease or difficulty of that first step, and those that follow, comes down to the effectiveness of planning and preparation, although child- and family-related factors also play key roles. Children vary greatly in their preparedness to take this crucial step to the world of school. Factors in their background, such as their parents' education and experience of school, along with the skills and capabilities each child brings, can make a huge difference. It is all too easy to overlook or underestimate the extent of children's developmental differences on starting school. Individual differences are the norm. They may be obvious or subtle; evident or emergent; malleable or annoyingly immutable.

4.4.1 The transition to school: Stress and coping

The transition to school is a potentially stressful life event for children and their families, and the stress can start well before the event. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, tend to be high six months before children start school and are linked to their anticipation of the event. After six months at school, these levels are likely to fall, leading to the conclusion that children have adjusted (Turner-Cobb, Rixon & Jessup, 2008).

On making the transition, children typically experience stress related to the evaluation of their behaviour and scholastic performance as well as other factors, including those related to socio-economic background and ethnicity. When coupled with other stressful life events - particularly those relating to poverty, social alienation and isolation - the transition to school can be particularly daunting for many children (Melton, Limber & Teague, 1999).

Parents of kindergarteners are relatively young adults whose work experience and incomes are more limited than parents with older children. Moreover, many are relatively new to parenting compared to parents with somewhat older children, and are learning new roles as parents within the school system. As such, the successful transition into parenthood represents an important milestone in the behavioural development of adults (Cowan, Cowan, Heming, & Miller, 1991), which is followed by a series of adjustments related to the developmental milestones experienced by their children. Even when children have had experiences in other early childhood settings, school entry can be a stressful normative change involving adjustments by the entire family, including altered schedules and changing expectations of parenting (McClelland, 1995; Wildenger, McIntyre, Fiese & Eckert, 2008).

The transition to school, then, marks a major change for children and their families. Many children start school with relative ease - most likely just experiencing some anxiety tinged with anticipation. With appropriate information and support, many children find the start of school a time of excitement (Dockett & Perry, 2005; Peters 2003). Other children find this to be a challenging time as they change their roles and identity, and seek to understand new people, environments and expectations within the school culture (Deyell-Gingold, 2006; Dockett & Perry, 2007; Griebel & Niesel, 2002). Estimates of the numbers of children who find the transition to school challenging vary. However, it is noticeable that teacher ratings of children experiencing such challenges are highest in communities characterised by high levels of poverty and minority populations (Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2011; Hair, Halle, Terry-Humen, Lavelle & Calkins, 2006; Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta & Cox, 2000).

Most children, however, manage the transition to school effectively. While they may feel initial anxiety, they seem to adjust to the new environment and, over time, feel comfortable about being at school.

There is consistent evidence that making a positive start at school is important for later social and educational outcomes (Alexander & Entwisle, 1998; Duncan et al., 2007; Ramey & Campbell, 1991; Reynolds & Bezruczko, 1993). The relationship between children's responses to school and subsequent social, academic and psychobiological functioning are also well documented (Davis, Donzella, Krueger, & Gunnar, 1999; Ladd & Burgess, 2001; Wildenger et al., 2008).

4.4.2 Social address, child and family characteristics and the transition to school

The importance of the transition to school is highlighted by findings that revealed that differences in children's performance and school adjustment are apparent upon their entry to school, and these differences enlarge during the next several years (Entwisle & Alexander, 1999). As the analyses of data from LSAC show, children vary greatly in their preparation to make the transition to school (Smart et al., 2008). The gaps in development that open up across the first four or five years of life, as a function of social address, are well entrenched by the time children enter school. Socio-economic status makes an unfortunate difference that we should be further advanced in overcoming. Irrespective of their source, the extent of developmental age differences in an average class can be counted in years, rather than mere months. And developmental age makes a real difference to the acquisition of new concepts and the capacity to keep up with a curriculum that all too often proceeds by calendar time. When this occurs, expectations can be out of kilter with the pace that is appropriate for individual learners. While not the whole story, respecting individual differences lies at the heart of a successful transition to school.

4.4.3 Impact of a negative start at school

A poor, as opposed to a good, start carries considerable scope for significant, adverse effects across life (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Ladd & Price, 1987; Malaspina & Rimm-Kaufmann, 2008; Margetts, 2009). The effects can occur in a range of areas of development, including language, learning and cognition; behaviour, social skills and participation; and physical and mental health. In the best and worst cases, it is "all of the above"! Children who experience academic and social difficulties in their start at school are at risk of experiencing a continuation of problems throughout their school careers, and often into adulthood (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Blair, 2001). It is notable that children described as experiencing academic and social difficulties at the time of school entry are overwhelmingly those from minority backgrounds and/or living within the context of socio-economic disadvantage (Boethel, 2004; Brooks-Gunn, Rouse, & McLanahan, 2007; Comber & Hill, 2000; Smart et al., 2008). It is also the case that a wide disparity in achievement is evident even before children start school and that this achievement gap is often linked to socio-economic and/or cultural status (Lee & Burkam, 2002; Zubrik et al., 2006).

4.4.4 Support for the transition to school

While individual characteristics and family background make a difference, a range of community factors can also smooth the path or make for a rocky road in the transition to school. It is not just a matter of children's readiness for school, but rather the readiness of schools and their educators to embrace and celebrate the diversity of the children they enrol. It is also a matter of the quality of the relationship between parents and teachers (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Silver, Measelle, Armstrong, & Essex, 2005). Successful transition practices adopted by schools lead to enhanced transition-to-school experiences, both for children and families (Fabian & Dunlop, 2006).

A recently released position statement from the Educational Transitions and Change (ETC) Research Group (2011) on the transition to school represents a very important landmark on the path to ensuring that children are supported to make successful transitions to school. It distils the experience and insight of some of the leading researchers in the field, from Australia and abroad, and is a mix of aspiration, research, practice and policy expertise.

Smoothing the way for children from diverse backgrounds to enter and succeed in the mysterious world of the school requires a team effort. It involves effective partnerships between families, educators, other professionals and the community, as the position statement underscores (ETC Research Group, 2011). When partnerships work successfully, children can be supported to make a secure transition in an environment that respects the richness of their individuality. Each child brings diverse capabilities, and their cultural heritage, family background, personality and preferences. Success lies in making children feel a sense of belonging, being valued and being respected in their own right, thereby laying the groundwork for effective developmental progress. Understanding and aligning the expectations of children, their parents and their educators are key contributors to successful transitions.

Respecting what children and their parents bring to the endeavour is another of the keys to success outlined in the ETC Research Group's (2011) position statement. As the position statement eloquently argues, the active involvement of parents and children in the transition process is fundamental to making a successful transition. In turn, successful transition is a key element in providing a high-quality education. Education is one of our most powerful engines of opportunity. High-quality educational opportunities lay the foundations for success, satisfaction and social mobility, throughout school and in the world beyond. All children are entitled to nothing less, and a socially inclusive society cannot expect any less! The position statement succinctly and clearly outlines the rationale for making the focus on school transitions a priority. It does much more, however, than merely rehearse the arguments. It also identifies, on the basis of the accumulated research, the key contributors to successful transitions to school. Most importantly, however, it frames recommendations that provide an achievable call to action.


27: For example, a scale may increase the value of the mortgages in items 20 and 37 or refer to a "large" and a "minor" mortgage respectively, and/or it might change the term "wife" in item 26 to "spouse" (e.g., see the MindTools website <mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_82.htm>).

28: The instructions provided to respondents for the development of LCU scores acknowledged individual differences in responses to events. Respondents were asked to develop average ratings, based on their personal experience and learnings from others. Marriage was given the arbitrary value of 500 and respondents were asked to compare the other events with marriage, in terms of amount of readjustment required and duration of time required for readjustment.

29: This study was undertaken in collaboration with the Australian Government Office for Women & FaHCSIA.

30: Parents in the AIFS Fertility Decision Making Project were asked a series of questions regarding each of their children, including whether the pregnancy had been planned. Their answers suggested that 57% of all the children represented in the study had been "definitely planned", 13% had been "vaguely planned", and 30% had been "unplanned" (unpublished results derived for the present document).

31: In a small qualitative study (involving 30 working class cohabiting couples) in the US, Sassler et al. (2009) found that the arrival of newborns was often the result of inadequate use or failure of contraception, and that parenthood had "disruptive" effects on couples' lives. Some couples were still dating or had not been in a relationship for long, and began living together because of the birth of the child. Some were students and had to put their study on hold, while some others were not financially in a position to raise a family. Common concerns included whether they were ready for a child, if they ever wanted to be parents, and the future of their relationship.