Child wellbeing after parental separation
This research summary highlights some key findings from a range of studies dealing with: the experiences of separated families; children's needs in the context of the family law system; and the impact of domestic and family violence on parenting.
Most children are faring well after separation, according to their parents.
Children in families affected by family violence are less likely to be doing as well as those in families not affected.
Children and young people want their views to be considered and taken seriously by parents and, where applicable, by family law professionals, especially when safety concerns are raised.
Parents' assessment of child wellbeing
Most parents in the Experiences of Separated Parents Study (Kaspiew et al., 2015) provided positive reports of their child's wellbeing after separation regardless of the time since separation. The Experiences of Separated Parents Study involved two samples of the Survey of Recently Separated Parents (conducted in 2012 and 2014) of approximately 12,000 parents. Findings in this summary focus on the 2014 survey, which involved 6,000 separated parents interviewed on average around 17 months after separation.
Among school-aged children, the majority of parents (86-93%) rated their child as doing the same as, or better than, peers in terms of school work, getting on with others and most other areas of their life.
Parents were asked about difficult child behaviours experienced in the three months before the survey. The results showed that:
- More parents raised concerns about the worsening social interactions of 3-4 (40%) and 5-11 year old children (42%) compared to the other ages surveyed (0-2, 12-14 or 15-17).
- Parents reported that more professionals (such as a teacher, GP or nurse) expressed concerns about 15-17 year old children (17%) than about children in other age groups.
- More parents reported children aged 15-17 years exhibiting distress at routine separation (21%) compared to other ages.
Exposure to family violence and wellbeing
Exposure to or witnessing family violence had an effect on parents' reports of child wellbeing.
Kaspiew et al. (2015) found that parents who reported experiencing physical violence or emotional abuse before and/or during separation (63%) or since separation (58%) were more likely to report:
- lower overall levels of child wellbeing (and see Figure 1) and physical health
- that their school-age child was faring worse than peers (particularly in learning or school work)
- higher levels of behaviour problems among 1-3 year old children.
Figure 1: Parent's satisfaction with overall child wellbeing, by experience of family violence
Source: Kaspiew et al., 2017, page 143
The timing of the family violence also influenced parents' perceptions, with children exposed to family violence since separation reported to be faring less well overall than those who had been exposed to family violence before and/or during separation only, or not at all.
Overall, the majority of parents (71%) in the 2014 Survey of Recently Separated Parents (Kaspiew et al., 2015) who reported that their child had witnessed family violence felt that the experience had affected their child in some way.
Figure 2: Whether witnessing family violence affected the child, by percentage
Note: Figures have been rounded.
Source: Kaspiew et al., 2015, Table 7.3
Some parents were asked to describe the effects on their child. The more commonly reported effects on children are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Commonly reported effects of family violence on children
Source: Kaspiew et al., 2015, pages 156-157
Similar findings were made in the Domestic and Family Violence and Parenting project (Kaspiew et al., 2017, p. 108). That study highlighted the ongoing physical and emotional consequences of children being exposed to domestic and family violence, including high levels of stress and anxiety, and impaired social, emotional and educational functioning.
Similar findings arise from the Longitudinal Study of Separated Families, a national study of some 10,000 parents (Kaspiew et al. 2009; Qu & Weston, 2010; Qu et al., 2014), with this research providing insight into the longer-term effects of separation on child wellbeing.
Parents were asked about their children at different periods after separation, 15 months (Wave 1) and five years (Wave 3). Parents generally provided favourable reports of their child's health, learning, peer relationships and general development. Overall, more than half of the parents indicated that their child's progress in most areas of their life was better than other children of the same age or had improved over time.
Figure 4 shows the change in overall wellbeing reported by parents for children over 4 years old, between Waves 1 and 3.
Figure 4: Change in overall wellbeing between Waves 1 and 3 (children aged 4+ in Wave 1)
Note: Figures have been rounded.
Source: Qu et al., 2014, Table 8.5
Where assessments had changed between Waves 1 and 3, the change was more likely to suggest that wellbeing improved rather than worsened.
However, parents experiencing sustained family violence/abuse, holding safety concerns or having negative interparental relationships were more likely to report low or worsened child wellbeing over time.
Overall, these findings provide a positive picture of how most children are faring after separation. Children who live in families affected by violence/abuse, safety concerns or negative interparental relationships are more likely to be experiencing compromised development and wellbeing, particularly when those conditions are sustained over time.
What do children and young people want after separation?
In 2010, Lodge and Alexander highlighted the importance to adolescent wellbeing of parents being sensitive and responsive to their children's needs, including involving them in decision making and minimising parental conflict. In 2018, AIFS spoke with 61 children aged 10-17 years whose parents had separated (Carson, Dunstan, Dunstan, & Roopani, 2018). Consistent with Lodge and Alexander's findings, these children and young people wanted:
If you or your family are affected by family law issues or domestic and family violence:
Family law advice
AIFS is unable to provide advice or to assist with specific concerns in relation to individual family law matters. There is a range of information and advice available at the Family Relationships website.
You can also contact the Family Relationships Advice Line on 1800 050 321 for information and referrals. If you have a lawyer, you may also wish to discuss your family law matter with them.
Call 000 at any time if you are worried about your safety, or the safety of another person or a child.
For children: A great place to start if you want to talk about any issue in your life, is the Kids Helpline. Freecall on 1800 551 800.
If you have questions about the law, help is available at Lawstuff.
Domestic and family violence
If you are experiencing domestic and family violence, or you need advice or support about domestic and family violence, please contact the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service ( 1800 Respect) on 1800 737 732 for 24/7 advice and support.
If you need some extra support or advice about issues in your life, Lifeline provides general and crisis telephone counselling. Call 13 11 14.
- Child and parent-friendly summary. (2018). Children and young people in separated families: Family law system experiences and needs. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Parenting arrangements after separation. (2019). Research summary. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Carson, R., Dunstan, E., Dunstan, J., & Roopani, D. (2018). Children and young people in separated families: Family law system experiences and needs. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Kaspiew, R., Carson, R., Dunstan, J., De Maio, J., Moore, S., Moloney, L. et al. (2015). Experiences of Separated Parents Study (Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Kaspiew, R., Gray, M., Weston, R., Moloney, L., Hand, K., Qu, L. & the Family Law Evaluation Team. (2009) Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Kaspiew, R., Horsfall, B., Qu, L., Nicholson, J. M., Humphreys, C., Diemer, K. et al. (2017). Domestic and family violence and parenting: Mixed-method insights into impact and support needs. Final report. Sydney: ANROWS.
- Lodge, J., & Alexander, M. (2010). Views of adolescents in separated families: A study of adolescents' experiences after the 2006 reforms to the family law system. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Qu, L., & Weston, R. (2010). Parenting dynamics after separation: A follow-up study of parents who separated after the 2006 family law reforms. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Qu, L., Weston, R., Moloney, L., Kaspiew, R., & Dunstan, J. (2014). Post-separation parenting, property and relationship dynamics after five years. Canberra: Attorney-General's Department.