Family-related life events

Insights from two Australian longitudinal studies
Research Report No. 22 – December 2012

4. Summary of key findings and implications

4.1 Overall prevalence

This report focuses on the experience of life events of participants in the HILDA and LSAC surveys. HILDA provides a broad population view, with respondents including men and women aged from 15 years on. In contrast, the LSAC data that are currently available focus exclusively on families with young children.

The HILDA dataset allows investigation of life events that occur across the adult life course; for example, forming relationships and having children, possibly separating, and retiring from the workforce. The different nature of life events experienced by men and women can also be explored. On the other hand, the LSAC dataset allows us to examine the sorts of events that are commonly experienced by subgroups of parents whose children are of much the same age. In addition, LSAC respondents who were living with a partner (in most cases the child’s father) report on life events that happened to either them or their partner.

The list of life events reported on in each dataset differed somewhat, although both captured events relating to family and relationship changes (for example, couple formation, separation, and births), illness or injury of self or close friends or relatives, the death of a close friend or relative, major worsening of financial circumstances, loss of paid work, and moving house.

Overall, a higher percentage of LSAC than HILDA respondents indicated that at least one of the events listed had been experienced in the previous 12 months (70%, compared to 50%). This difference may be partly explained by variations in age and concomitant life course circumstances of the two samples, and associated differences in the potential relevance of the life events measures. Unlike the situation for HILDA respondents, the experience of the various life events used in LSAC would have been feasible for virtually all LSAC respondents, given their common life stage (parents of young children). In addition, partnered LSAC respondents would have nominated life events that were directly experienced by their partner (as well as those occurring to themselves), whereas all HILDA respondents focused on personal experiences alone.

Despite these differences, considerable consistency in the findings from the two studies emerged. For example, the most commonly experienced life events in each study included changing residence, having an illness or injury occur to a close relative, having a close friend or other relative die, and suffering a serious personal injury or illness. The percentages of respondents experiencing these life events tended to be higher in LSAC—a trend that may reflect the fact that that these data capture events that have occurred to either the respondent or partner (where relevant).

The analyses of both datasets showed that many of the life events that were explored are quite uncommon across the populations when the focus is on a 12-month period. Some were more common when the focus was on those who are at a particular stage of life. Of course, the experiences of life events will accumulate, with some defining or contributing to the direction the life course takes.

4.2 Characteristics associated with the experience of life events

While both sets of results showed that several events, such as the serious illness or injury of a family member, can occur at any time, the HILDA results highlighted some of the ways in which the experience of life events varies across age and associated life course circumstances. This was less apparent in the LSAC analyses, given its focus in the early survey waves on families with young children. The experience of life events apparent for LSAC parents varied according to other differences in family circumstances, as outlined below.

In both studies, experiences of some life events were closely linked to relationship status. Indeed, having a partner is a prerequisite for undergoing relationship separation, and being single is almost a prerequisite for forming a couple relationship, though some partnered individuals may move in with a new partner without encountering an intervening period of being single. We found that people who were cohabiting had a somewhat greater chance than those who were married of experiencing changes in intimate relationships—both separation and the formation of new relationships. The cohabiting respondents were also more likely than their married counterparts to have experienced a pregnancy or birth of a baby during the 12-month period.

The experiences of some events also varied according to socio-economic status. These events included relationship status changes, a major worsening of financial circumstances, and moving house.

In relation to circumstances that may lead individuals or families to seek additional services or supports from the Department of Human Services, or indeed from other places, the results suggest that certain information may be useful for identifying those at considerable risk of experiencing certain life events. For example, some life events, such as being jobless or being a young parent, are linked to socio-economic disadvantage or to regions within which people live, while others are necessarily linked to relationship status, as noted above.

Of course, some events are seemingly random and others are influenced more directly by the decisions that people make (e.g., separation for at least one of the partners). Some may arise from previous experiences of life events or ongoing difficulties spanning several years, and some of those examined (e.g., having a family member with drug or alcohol problems) may represent ongoing difficulties triggering other challenging events.

4.3 Life events and wellbeing

From both the HILDA and LSAC analyses, two key findings stand out:

  • those who experienced certain life events tended to have lower wellbeing prior to the life event occurring; and
  • experiences of some life events were associated with further declines in wellbeing.

Clearly, some life events (such experiencing a major financial crisis) are likely to have greater implications for wellbeing than others (such as moving house). In both HILDA and LSAC, major financial crises and relationship separation were associated with a significant decline in wellbeing, from an already relatively low base. The HILDA data also showed strong associations between being a victim of physical violence and wellbeing, with those who experienced this event indicating significantly lower wellbeing than others at the outset and significant deterioration in wellbeing over the 12-month interval investigated.

Given the nature of the events examined here, which were mostly problematic, it is not surprising that the the greater the number of events experienced, the greater was the apparent erosion of wellbeing—again from a relatively low base.

Of course, wellbeing can always be measured in more extensive ways, and many other life events not examined in this report may have had major effects on wellbeing (e.g., a child starting school, or mothers’ return to workforce). In addition, many life events are, by their nature, family events (e.g., relationship separation, financial crises and moving house) and many others become family events (e.g., an adult child experiencing relationship breakdown or job loss, or a child being bullied by peers—issues not examined in this report). Such events may affect all family members directly and/or indirectly through the way in which each member responds to them and the way in which their responses affect the quality of relationships within the family. Such processes, which could not be examined, may have contributed to strength of links between life events and wellbeing, and changes in wellbeing, observed.

The associations between life events and wellbeing outlined in this report would, to some extent, be influenced by a range of other factors associated with the events and circumstances. These analyses showed that, while the experience of life events do seem to matter to wellbeing, these events should be viewed in the broader context of other important circumstances affecting the wellbeing of individuals and families. For example, wellbeing tended to be lower for single-parent families and those experiencing financial disadvantage. For families such as these, the repercussions of experiencing life events may be more likely to have serious (“last straw”) effects.

Put another way, adverse life events can be an important signal of need for assistance, but the events themselves may be the culmination of an extended negative process that needs to be addressed. In some cases, an event such as parental separation can provide relief from highly damaging circumstances; in other cases, it can dramatically worsen the plight of at least one family member. But in relation to such events as natural disasters, the negative effects are likely to dominate.

Such findings highlight the need for prevention and early intervention. Considerable damage can occur for partners and children before the event of separation takes place (e.g., see Amato & Booth, 1997; Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998; and Pryor & Rodgers, 2001, regarding the negative effects of high levels of pre-separation conflict on children). At the same time, the data suggest that sole reliance on “life events” as indicators of need for service provision would be unfortunate. The identification of individuals or families who are vulnerable to experiencing adverse events in the future is clearly important, but so too is the identification of families experiencing chronically destructive circumstances, such as family violence.

A limitation of these analyses is that we have not taken account of the fact that some of the events examined may have been chronic, or may represent stages in a long-term process. For example, separation is likely to result from a long process of relationship breakdown, at least from the perspective of one of the partners. Each of these longitudinal studies offers the potential to examine these processes across multiple survey waves.

4.4 Final comments

Taken together, the present analyses indicate that events differ in their likelihood of occurring at the various life stages; and that life events are more likely to be encountered by some people than others. Social address influences the likelihood of experiencing multiple potentially stressful life events and limits the capacity of individuals and their families to negotiate these successfully. The results also provide a basis for targeting services to those who are more likely to be placed at risk as a result of the load of life events that may befall them. As such, prevention and early intervention efforts are best targeted and tailored to those most at risk.