Publication - Children's Experiences of Parental Separation

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Diane Hogan, Ann Marie Halpenny and Sheila Greene Children's Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin

2002 The authors

Published by:
The Children's Research Centre
University of Dublin
Trinity College
Dublin 2

ISBN: 190 223 015 9

The Children's Research Centre was set up by Trinity College in 1995 as a joint initiative of the Department of Psychology and the Department of Social Studies. The Centre undertakes research and evaluation on issues and policies concerning children and young people. The Centre is multidisciplinary in approach and works in close collaboration with other members of the University, practitioners and policy makers, and international colleagues. It also works through partnerships with statutory, voluntary and community bodies concerned with children and young people. The Centre has a range of publications.

The Centre may be contacted as follows:

The Children's Research Centre
Trinity College
Dublin 2

Tel. +353 1 608 29 01
Fax: +353 1 608 23 47

The research was undertaken with the support of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The views expressed in this report are the authors' and are not necessarily those of the Children's Research Centre or of the study's funders.


List of Tables
List of Figures




Background to the study
Overview and aims of the study
Approach to the research
Structure of the Report

The Irish socio-demographic context
The Irish legislative context
The Irish socio-cultural context
The family policy context
The research context

Study design and parameters
Definition of terms
Sampling approach and process
Ethical issues
Data collection
Data analysis

Age and gender of children
Length of time since parental separation

Awareness of parents' relationship difficulties
Learning about the separation
Children's involvement in decision-making about family arrangements

Initial reactions
Children's feelings
Children's views about parental separation
Children's expectations regarding their parents' separation

Change of residence
Change of school
Patterns of contact with non-resident parents
Contact with extended family
Impact on school work

Resident parents
Non-resident parents
Inter-parental conflict
Inter-parental co-operation

Informal sources of support
Support Services
Barriers to seeking and accepting support
Personal coping strategies
Views on what could have helped

Feelings and perspectives associated with the separation
Consulting children
Patterns of change associated with separation
Patterns of adjustment and coping
Key findings


Appendix A: Overview of selected service provision for children of separated parents
Appendix B: Interview Schedule

Table 1: Ages of children
Table 2: Number of years since parental separation
Table 3: Change of residence by age group of children
Table 4: Resident parent by age group
Table 5: Change of school by age group of children
Table 6: Contact with non-resident parent
Table 7: Type of service attended

Figure 1: Ages of children
Figure 2: Gender breakdown of children by age group
Figure 3: Number of siblings
Figure 4: Length of time since parental separation
Figure 5: Feelings experienced by children
Figure 6: Change of residence
Figure 7: Resident parent for each age group
Figure 8: Location of non-resident parent
Figure 9: Type of service attended


We have all heard in recent times about the changing face of modern Ireland. Many of us will know of couples who have gone through the trauma of separation and I am acutely aware of the increased support that families need in time of difficulty.

But what about the children of these families? Government, through the National Children's Strategy, promised that children's lives will be better understood. Nowhere is that promise more important than in the whole area of parental separation.

The publication of Children's Experiences of Parental Separation is one of the most anticipated events since the Government's Families Research Programme was first launched in 1999.

The study, which was supported by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, deals with the experience of sixty children, aged between eight and seventeen years, most of whose parents had separated within the last five years. The study set out to gain an understanding, from children's perspectives, of the impact of parental separation on their lives and the support needs that arise from these experiences.

The summary of the findings will make a major contribution to the debate about the separation of couples, the consequences for their children and how their lives can best be supported and enhanced.

I was struck by the findings that children differed in their experiences of parental separation and that consequently it was not possible to conclude that separation was either a positive or a negative experience. However patterns of shared feelings and perspectives were identified and these could contribute a greater insight into how children can be best supported following parental separation.

The experiences and reactions of children, which are documented in detail in the study, are stark testimonies of the emotional angst experienced in times of parental separation. Worry for themselves, worry for their parents, distress, embarrassment and a strong sense of being different to other children were some of the common feelings identified by children themselves in the research. These testimonies should remind all of us with a brief in this area that we should remain focused on the people at the centre of a break up and on the services and supports that they need.

Finally I would like to express my thanks to Diane, Ann Marie and Sheila for this excellent report which is a prime example of the type of research needed to help direct family policy towards a more inclusive and caring society.

Mary Coughlan TD
Minister for Social and Family Affairs


This research was funded under the Families Research Programme of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Department and the Family Affairs Unit.

We are especially grateful to all of the children who met with us and told us about their experiences. We also wish to thank their parents for agreeing to the interviews and facilitating meetings with us.

We gratefully acknowledge the time and support given to this research project by all members of the research advisory group: Aileen Courtney, Claire Missen, Irene Duffy O'Brien, Mary Lloyd, Eileen Fitzgerald, Heber McMahon, and Brendan Walker. We wish to highlight the contribution of Aileen Courtney, Claire Missen and Irene Duffy O'Brien, who played a central role at all stages of the project.

We are also grateful for the support we received from a number of agencies and schools. We thank the schools principals, home-school-liaison teachers, and guidance counsellors who helped us to make contact with families and allowed us to use their facilities for our interviews. We are also very grateful to the services that helped us to locate families and also offered the use of space in their offices: Barnardos, Teen Between, Teen Counselling, Rainbows, and the Family Mediation Service.

We would like to thank all our colleagues at the Children's Research Centre for their ongoing support and advice throughout all stages of the project. In particular we would like to convey our thanks to Robbie Gilligan for his helpful and insightful comments on earlier drafts of the report and for his help in making contact with schools and agencies. We also thank Fiona Daly and Elizabeth Nixon for their help with data analysis. We give special thanks to Anne O' Neill for her invaluable help in the production of the report.



The number of separated couples in Ireland is increasing, and public concern is growing about the consequences for children who experience this kind of change in their family life. The present study explores the experience of parental separation for children aged 8-17. The aim of the study was to describe how parental separation affects children's lives, from their own perspectives, including their views and feelings about the changes that occur in their everyday lives, such as at school, at home, and in their relationships with parents and other family members. Another aim was to discover what sort of support children experienced and needed, and the strategies they used to cope with the changes in their family life.


The study used a qualitative approach to explore children's perspectives on their parents' separation. Individual interviews were conducted with 60 children 36 girls and 24 boys most of whose parents had separated within the previous five years. The ages of the children at the time of the separation ranged from 2 to 10 years, with an average age of 8 years. Children were contacted through schools and a range of agencies. 67% of the children had attended support services in connection with their parents' separation. None of the children said that they had directly experienced court proceedings, and only two children mentioned court involvement in the separation. For the purposes of data analysis, two age groups were created: 8-11 years ('younger children') and 13-17 years ('older children').


Children differed considerably in their experiences of parental separation, sometimes even within the same families, and therefore it is not possible to conclude that separation is either a 'positive' or 'negative' experience for children. However, some patterns of shared feelings and perspectives were identified, and these can contribute to greater insight into how children's well-being can best be supported and enhanced following parental separation.

Experiences of the separation process

  • Children experienced the separation as both an event, usually marked by one parent moving out of the house, and a process, involving adjustment over time, and experience of further changes in family structure.
  • Many children were aware of their parents' relationship difficulties but were typically shocked to learn that their parents were separating. Most were told about the separation by their parents once the decision had been made. A minority had not been told about the separation, but only realised that separation had occured when a parent left the home and did not return.
  • It was important for children to receive reassurances from parents that they were concerned about their children's well-being and committed to being available for them.
  • Communication between parents and children about the separation was highly important for all children, but especially adolescents. Children who were able to understand their parents' decisions or behaviour were better able to adapt to these family changes.
  • Communication was important not only at the time of separation, but over time, as families underwent further change, such as the addition of new family members, and as children themselves grew and changed.
  • Children whose non-resident parent had left suddenly and without explanation were particularly confused and distressed.
  • The large majority of children said that they had not been consulted about family arrangements concerning custody and visits with non-resident parents. Many did not want to be asked to make such major decisions.

Reactions to parental separation

  • Children typically reacted to their parents' separation with a mix of negative and positive feelings, often felt simultaneously, for example sadness and relief.
  • Most children felt that separation was the best solution for their family, given the relationship difficulties between their parents.
  • Many children had a strong sense of being different from other children, and felt embarrassed to talk abut their parents' separation.
  • Many children were worried about the implications of the separation, both immediate and long-term. Some were worried about their parents' well-being.
  • Some children were concerned about parents developing relationships with new partners. However, children tended to have strong expectations that their non-resident parent (usually their father) would continue to play the role of parent, in spite of any further changes.

Experiences of practical and social changes

  • All children had to adjust to living with one parent instead of two, and this adjustment process was experienced as a significant difficulty for most children.
  • There was, however, a great deal of continuity for many children in core aspects of their lives; for example, most children continued to live in the same house and attend the same school after separation.
  • Children experienced little change after the separation in their contact and involvement with members of their extended families, such as grandparents.
  • 90% of children lived with their mothers after the separation, while 7% lived with their fathers and 3% with relatives.
  • Most children said that they experienced high levels of contact with non-resident parents (mainly fathers); more than two-thirds of children said that they had contact with their non-resident parent at least once a week. There was no clear pattern of declining contact as time passed since the separation.
  • A minority of children had little or no contact with their non-resident parent at the time of interview, in some cases by their own choice.
  • One of the most important issues for children was maintaining their contact and relationships with non-resident parents. Children who did not see their non-resident parents as much as they would like, or who had no contact with non-resident parents, were more likely to be distressed about the separation.

Relationships with parents following separation

  • Children who had good relationships with parents before the separation were likely to continue to have good relationships after the separation.
  • Children who had experienced high levels of conflict or violence in the home felt relief when this was resolved. They felt more at ease with both parents, and felt that parents had more time to focus on them. A continuation of conflict after the separation was upsetting for children and exacerbated their sense of being different from other families.
  • The adjustment was more difficult when parents criticised each other or where there was little or no positive contact between the parents. Cooperation and mutual respect between parents helped children to have a better relationship with each parent.
  • Clear and open communication contributed to better child-parent relationships, helping children to understand their parents' feelings and behaviour.
  • 30% of children believed that their relationship with their non-resident parents had mainly improved since the separation in terms of the quality of the time they spent together, and parents' emotional availability. 28% of children perceived their relationship with non-resident parents to have disimproved. A further 28% stated that there had been no change in the relationship. 14% did not discuss this issue. The most sensitive issue was that of contact. Relationships became strained when children perceived parents to lack commitment to maintaining contact and involvement.

Coping and support

  • The family, and particularly parents, constituted the most important and valued source of support for children. Friends were also an important source of support, but not necessarily as confidantes. Most children who had received support from formal services found them to be very helpful. School was also found to be helpful by some children.
  • Family members helped children by listening and by providing information and reassurance. Services providing individual counselling helped because they provided someone to listen and to help children to make sense of their own views and expectations about family change. Participating in a group-support service, used by approximately two thirds of the younger children, helped by reducing children's sense of being different from others. Schools and peers often helped children in indirect ways, such as providing a source of distraction.
  • Parental separation was a very private matter for children and most were reluctant to talk to other children or to teachers. They were sometimes unsure about whom they could trust to understand and accept them and were most willing to talk to people they believed would understand them, such as other children whose parents had separated or divorced.
  • Children valued distraction as a way of coping, especially those of primary school age. They enjoyed spending time and sharing activities with others who had similar experiences, though not necessarily talking about such matters.
  • Many children actively helped themselves to cope and to adapt, making conscious choices about whom to talk to about the separation, and adopting strategies that helped them to cope.


  • There was gender imbalance in the study in children's contact with services; a higher proportion of adolescent girls than boys had been in contact with support services in relation to their parents' separation. Most children, however, both boys and girls, who had been in contact with a service, felt that it had helped them in some way.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to indicate that friends had been an important source of help.
  • More girls than boys said that their relationships with resident parents had improved after the separation. More girls than boys found that missing their non-resident parent was the most difficult aspect of the separation. There were no gender differences, however, in reported frequency of contact with these parents. 


Children's age was an important factor in their experience and support needs.

  • Some children who were very young when their parents separated were unable to remember their parents living together, but could articulate the meaning that separation had for their lives.
  • Older children were better able to understand their parents' choices and behaviours and this helped them to cope with the separation
  • Younger children were more accepting of arrangements made by their parents about residence and visiting non-resident parents. Children who had chosen to have reduced or no contact with their non-resident parent were all in the older age group.
  • Younger children did not necessarily feel the need to talk about the separation; they felt comforted by engaging in play or other activities with children whom they knew had similar family circumstances. Friendships were more important to older children as a source of support.

Families with multiple problems

  • Some families experienced a number of significant difficulties in addition to separation, such as alcoholism, domestic violence, parental depression, etc. These difficulties may be exacerbated by the separation and present further barriers to children's coping.
  • A range of accessible support programmes should be offered to address the varied and changing needs of all family members, both at the time of separation and afterwards. Support services should be available for those who need it on a rapid basis around the time of the separation.
  • Attention should be given to the particular service needs of families experiencing multiple difficulties in addition to separation.
  • Information on services should be widely disseminated.
  • Provision should be made for ongoing research and evaluation. There is a need for research on trends in service uptake by children, parents' support needs, and children's experiences of court processes. Current services for children should be evaluated.
  • Family policy regarding supports for families experiencing parental separation should be coordinated with legislative developments and service planning.
  • The needs and rights of both children and parents should be given due consideration in the development of policy, should be underpinned by Irish legislation and by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and should be integrated with the National Children's Strategy.
  • Family policy should encourage continuity and stability in family relationships, should promote an ethos of lifelong parental responsibility for children and facilitate long term contact and involvement between children and non-resident parents. It should also promote parental cooperation after separation.
Last modified:30/09/2008

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