The meaning of home for children and young people after parental separation
Monica Campo, Belinda Fehlberg, Bruce Smyth, Kristin Natalier
Parental separation is likely to result in significant changes in home arrangements for children and young people, yet no research has looked at how children and young people experience and define ‘home’ when parents separate. Our new study, funded by the Australian Research Council, aims to do this. By asking children, young people and their parents about what home means for children after parents separate, our study aims to encourage adults to ‘stand in children’s shoes’ when working out their living arrangements.
Here, we draw on our literature review, and our analysis of child interview data from a previous study (also recently published in the Child and Family Law Quarterly journal), to provide a sense of the issues to be explored over the next three years in our larger project. Our preliminary analysis suggests that relationships – especially with parents, but also with others in the household – are especially important in underpinning children’s sense of home.
The importance of home for children
Home – a familiar yet complex concept – has been a research focus in many other disciplines but not family law. Previous research conveys that the concept of home has great social and personal significance extending beyond a physical dwelling. Home is a crucial site for the development of trust in the constancy of people and things, identity, a sense of belonging, the capacity for social agency, and emotional and mental wellbeing. It follows that children and young people may suffer when their need for home is overlooked.
Yet surprisingly, children and young people’s experiences of home and homemaking after parental separation have remained largely unexplored. This is so even following family law amendments in many Western countries, including Australia, to encourage separated parents to share the care of children across time and households. The common pattern that children in separated families live primarily with their mothers and spend time with their fathers continues, but shared time parenting has also gradually increased. As a result, children are increasingly likely to move between two households – challenging the prevailing notion that home is understood as a single place.
Although the child’s ‘best interests’ are still the main consideration when courts make parenting orders (Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) s 60CA), there is a tendency in practice to focus on parents’ clock-time – that is, length of time children spend with each parent – rather than the quality of time spent with each parent. Thinking about home from children’s and young people’s viewpoints is a way of encouraging a shift away from ‘mathematised’ time.
Emerging themes of children’s sense of home
We analysed existing data collected from interviews with 22 children of separated families between 2009–2011 to look at how children described home.
The central theme to emerge was that, for the children interviewed, home and the absence of home was formed through relationships with family members and issues arising in those relationships.
When children felt at home, they described:
- A sense of ease and comfort
- A sense of belonging or feeling welcome
- Shared interests and experiences with parents and other household members
- Having access to things that they enjoyed or that mattered to them.
Shared interests and experiences provided a basis for maintaining and developing relationships, and a context for experiencing a sense of ease, comfort and belonging. The interests and activities children spoke of most positively often involved mundane daily domestic activities, rather than special activities designed for them.
[W]hen my sister has gone to bed, [Mum and I] love just sitting there talking, watching TV and everything. (Anna, aged 10)
Conversely, when the factors described above were absent, children did not feel that the parent’s household was their home. Children who conveyed not feeling at home described:
- A lack of emotional connection (to a parent or more usually a new step-parent)
- A lack of control over space and objects (often due to the actions of a new step-parent and/or step-siblings).
I never felt like that was a home. It was just a place that I was staying. (Benjamin, aged 16)
These factors were not linked to the amount of time spent in a parent’s household. Thus, a child could live with one parent and spend time with the other, yet describe having two homes. Alternatively, a child could be in a shared time arrangement but experience only one home. Our data also suggested that relationships with parents could endure after a child’s sense of home in that parent’s household had ended if parents listened and acted to support their child.
Conclusion and future steps
Our preliminary analysis and review of the literature suggests that relationships underpin children’s sense of home. It suggests the value of exploring and highlighting children’s descriptions of home (including space, routines, events, personal belongings and logistics) as a way to encourage the formulation of post-separation living arrangements that work for them.
The project’s next stage involves undertaking interviews with children and parents in Victoria, the ACT and South Australia. Recruitment began in August 2018.
The authors wish to acknowledge the Australian Research Council for funding The Meaning of Home for Children and Young People after Parental Separation project.
Featured image: © SolStock
Further reading and related resources
- Caring for children after separation or divorce
In this short article, Professor Lawrie Moloney discusses parenting and parental absence after separation.
- Sharing the care of children after separation: Thinking beyond “custody and access” or “residence and contact”
In this short article, Professor Lawrie Moloney discusses what works in shared parenting arrangements after separation or divorce.
- Separated parents and the family law system: What does the evidence say?
In this short article, Dr Rae Kaspiew discusses findings from a large research study on Australia's family law system.
- Parenting in contexts of family violence and inter-parental conflict: Implications for practice
This webinar explored the implications of recent research on women's and children’s experiences of family violence and inter-parental conflict.
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Fehlberg, B., Natalier, K., & Smyth, B. (2018). Children’s experiences of ‘home’ after parental separation. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 30(1), 3–21.
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Natalier, K., & Fehlberg, B. (2015). Children’s experiences of “home” and “homemaking” after parents separate: A new conceptual frame for listening and supporting adjustment. Australian Journal of Family Law, 29(2),111–134.
Smart, C. (2002). From children’s shoes to children’s voices. Family Court Review, 40(3), 307–309.
Smyth, B. (2017). Special issue on shared‐time parenting after separation. Family Court Review, 55(4), 494–499.