Date of Submission
Knight, B. A. (2019). Holding their words: Children's experiences of parental separation and divorce (Thesis, Australian Catholic University). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.26199/5de03fdcb8d6b
Many children in Australia experience parental separation during their childhood, with one-quarter of Australian children under 18 years spending some of their childhood apart from one of their parents. Parental separation often precipitates significant changes to a child’s relationships and physical environment. This can include changing schools, or living locations, and residing in two households. Relationships with parents, siblings, extended family, step-parents and step-siblings are also significant and present various challenges for children. These changes can be stressful and potentially impact on children’s adjustment, development and long-term wellbeing. The consequences of parental separation can be long lasting, affecting children’s wellbeing throughout their lives and into adulthood. Current understandings of the impact of parental separation and divorce on children primarily draw on adult perspectives of children’s experience, either through retrospective accounts of adults who experienced parental separation as children, or from adults, including professional and parental assessment of children’s wellbeing. This thesis aims to fill this gap by drawing on theory from Childhood Studies to explore how children experience and make sense of the changes that occur when parents separate. A qualitative approach was adopted to better understand children’s experience. A child reference group provided advice and guidance at the beginning of this study and reflected on the findings near the completion of the study. Twelve children aged 8 to 13, participated in in-depth, semi-structured interviews. All children were recruited from a Family Relationship Centre (FRC) in Canberra, Australia, and all had been part of a group program or engaged in individual counselling under the Supporting Children after Separation Program (SCASP) framework. Data were analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This method ensured that the findings remained grounded in, and reflective of, children’s perspectives and experiences. Systems theory was used during analysis to assist with an understanding of how the impact of parental separation brings changes to both the micro and macro systems of children’s lives. A range of themes emerged across the children’s experiences. Sadness and loss were evident in all the children’s stories. For some, these feelings were ever-present and, at times, overwhelming. Many spoke of feeling left out and not valued in re-formed families. Children also identified the need for adults to: just listen; include them and give them a say in decisions about their lives; and provide information about what is happening in their families. Children highlighted the need to be engaged in family life and their need to feel valued. Children demonstrated a range of strategies to manage the changes and the difficult feelings, including seeking formal counselling/support, making decisions about contact with parents, seeking support from friends and developing internal cognitive strategies. Changes in family formation brought about through parental separation have precipitated significant policy changes and reforms to the family law system in Australia. In this study, a number of children reflected on their experience of shared parenting, shared care and court mediation, providing a perspective on the way legislation and policy are experienced by children. In exploring children’s experiences and understandings of parental separation, this study extends and challenges dominant understandings of the effect of parental separation on children and builds knowledge of the supports required for children to manage and respond to these changes in their lives. This thesis makes an essential contribution to understanding the way in which children experience and make sense of parental separation. Drawing on the perspective of children, the thesis makes a further contribution to the development of policy in relation to families.
School of Allied Health
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Faculty of Health Sciences