Issue 82

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Family Matters No. 82, 2009

Journal issue feature image

Family portraits

Parents and their young adult children; children's participation in family law disputes; characteristics of cohabiters; children's relationships with step-parents; effective caring in carer support sector; sole-parent families; Indigenous social exclusion

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Executive Editor: Elly Robinson

Editorial panel: Ben Edwards, Matthew Gray, Alan Hayes, Daryl Higgins, Rae Kaspiew, Robyn Parker, Elly Robinson, Ruth Weston

Editor: Lan Wang

Cover art: The Family Matters 82 cover painting is by Gordon Richards, Catching Blossoms, acrylic on linen, 183 x 214 cm. Courtesy of Richard Martin Art.

Publication details

Family Matters No. 82
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2009, 68 pp.
1030-2646 (print) 1832-8318 (online)

Copyright information


Refining our understanding of family relationships

Elly Robinson

The complexity of defining what or who constitutes a family is well known. With increasing variability in family structure and type over time, the idea of achieving a single, workable definition appears elusive for researchers, service providers and policy-makers alike. One view, proposed by Families Australia, cuts through these debates to suggest that families are what individuals define them to be. As such, family can be a fluid concept that may have markedly different meanings to different individuals, even those living under the same roof. This article explores some of the many approaches to defining families, as well as providing an overview of the feature articles in this edition of Family Matters.

The roles that parents play in the lives of their young adult children

Suzanne Vassallo, Diana Smart and Rhys Price-Robertson

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is commonly accompanied by major changes in relationships between parents and their children. Surprisingly little is known about this process, and in particular parents' perspectives of it. This article explores parents' views of their parenting roles at this life stage and the types of support they provide to their sons and daughters. Using data from the Australian Temperament Project - a large longitudinal study of children's development that commenced in 1983 and has collected 14 waves of data over the first 24 years of life - this article examines how parents with children aged in their mid-20s perceive their parenting roles; the levels of financial and emotional support they provide; and whether parents' perceptions and support differ for young men and women and according to their adult child's place of residence (in the family home or elsewhere). The findings suggest that most parents continue to have a close involvement in their children's lives. There were few gender differences, but numerous differences according to whether or not young people were still living at home. Overall, a shift in parents' perceptions of their roles seems to be occurring, with many moving away from providing practical, tangible support to a more advisory and guiding role.

Children’s participation in family law disputes: The views of children, parents, lawyers and counsellors

Judy Cashmore and Patrick Parkinson

To what extent, if any, should children be involved in the process of resolving parenting arrangements when their mother and father cannot agree? Should they be given seats to the boxing match, or invited into the ring? Or should they rather be excluded from the venue? In recent years there has been a new awareness of the value of giving children a voice, and the benefits to the decision-making process that can result from listening to and involving children. This article provides an overview of the results of a series of interviews seeking to explore this issue that were conducted with parents, children, family consultants, mediators, lawyers and judges. Questions included: "How important do you think children's views are in terms of making satisfactory parenting agreements after separation?", and "Do you encourage parents to involve the children in the parent's own negotiations about the parenting arrangements?" Children, parents and counsellors - and lawyers to a lesser extent - were generally in agreement that it is important to hear children's views and for children to feel that they have been heard. The children themselves generally did not want to make the decisions about the residence and contact arrangements after their parents separated, but they did want their views to be heard and taken seriously.

The social and demographic characteristics of cohabiters in Australia: Towards a typology of cohabiting couples

Sandra Bucher, Janeen Baxter, Michele Haynes and Mark Weston

In this paper, variations in types of cohabiters were examined, emphasising the importance of understanding cohabiters as a heterogeneous group. The authors devised a typology that divides cohabiters into four groups, by intention to marry and previous marital status. They then compared these groups to one another and to married people using a range of demographic and attitudinal indicators, using data from the first wave (2001) of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. The authors found evidence of significant variation among cohabiters and between cohabiters and married persons. It was concluded that the recent rise in cohabiting relationships has led to significant diversity in the types of people choosing to cohabit rather than marry, and is a reflection of fundamental changes in patterns of family formation and the changing status of marriage in the life course.

Relationships with step-parents in the life stories of young adults of divorce

Claire Cartwright, Virginia Farnsworth and Vicki Mobley

Many children spend part of their childhood living in a step-family household and in recent years, researchers have concluded that compared to children and adolescents in non-divorced families, those in step-families are at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems. Using data from the Life Stories and Family Transitions (LSFT) Study, the authors examined the participants' accounts of relationships with their step-parents in order to further understand their experiences of relating to step-parents as children and adolescents, and the step-parent practices that were experienced positively or were considered problematic. The results of the study support the importance of step-parents developing relationships with step-children before attempting to take on any type of parenting role. It seems likely that step-parents would be more successful if they took time to get to know their step-children, demonstrate acceptance of them, give them support and support the parents' authority. This study also suggests the challenges that "take-control" step-parents have ahead of them. It may be desirable to focus particular clinical and research attention on assisting step-parents with an authoritarian style to adapt and cope with the demands of step-parenting.

A contribution to research and development in the carer support sector: Lessons on effective caring

Kathryn Williams and Alan Owen

The importance of supporting carers in their roles is now recognised in government policy at all levels and there is ample scope for improving the service system as well as the evidence base for promoting effective interventions. This paper summarises the findings of a project to review the literature on effective caring that was carried out as part of a larger body of work by one research centre working in the area of carer needs assessment. The aim of the project was to identify best practice models, as well as particular types of services that may benefit specific sub-groups of carers, identify priorities for improving routine practice in carer support, and to outline an agenda for research and development. The type and strength of the evidence was summarised through the use of a classification system related to the strength of the evidence on interventions. The aim of a research and development strategy for the carer support sector would be to strengthen a "virtuous circle" where effective services, based on better use of evidence, and communication of the findings, leads to better policy to support even more effective services.

Opinion: Sole-parent families

Elly Robinson

Sole-parent families are on the increase in Australia, and will continue to be a significant minority of family types. As such, it appears timely to ask what we know about sole-parent families and whether policy and practice responses to their needs are based on contemporary evidence. This article explores themes within the literature on sole-parent families and considers the extent to which sole parenting itself, or associated factors, impact on outcomes for children. What helps sole-parent families, in terms of a more sophisticated understanding of their needs and methods of support, is also considered.

Indigenous social exclusion: Insights and challenges for the concept of social inclusion

Boyd Hunter

The terms "social exclusion" and "social inclusion" arose because the debate about the causes and consequences of poverty has moved away from the rather narrow historical focus on the lack of income. The new focus on the dynamic social processes that perpetuate the lack of social participation in society is welcome; however, it is timely to ask what people are being socially excluded from or socially included in. Furthermore, do such distinctions matter? If social exclusion and/or social inclusion are important, how should policy be constructed to take it into account? Indigenous disadvantage is complex and multidimensional and the notions of social exclusion and social inclusion seem particularly relevant. However, a definition of social inclusion that includes local decision-making has not been implemented. It is theoretically difficult to achieve this when there is a wide cultural gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on the issues involved. There is little effective difference between social exclusion and inclusion as an organising principle for Indigenous policy. Notwithstanding, this article argues that it is important to attempt to reconcile these disparate perspectives to engage the Indigenous community so that problematic behaviours can be addressed in a constructive manner.