This research focuses on children's perceptions of family change and stepfamily life, and on sources of support for them.
The report draws on a detailed study of children growing up in a variety of family situations. It examines children's recall of communicating and confiding with others following family change, their current experience of confiding about family issues, their relationships with family and stepfamily members, with grandparents and friends, and their views of the role of stepparents and of life in two households.
The results show that most children had very little communication with their parents about family change. Grandparents and friends were the key confidants; confiding in fathers was particularly rare. Confiding and emotional closeness were less common with step- than with birth parents, and with parents who had experienced more adversity earlier in their lives. Relationships with maternal grandparents were of real significance: children who were close to their maternal grandparents had fewer adjustment problems. And over half the children who 'divided' their lives between two households had positive feelings about this, especially if they had an active role in decisions about this and other aspects of stepfamily life.
Increasing numbers of children experience parental separation and life in stepfamilies. How do children view their experiences within different kinds of families, including stepfather, stepmother and single-parent families? A team from King's College London examined the perspectives of 467 children from diverse families and aged between 5 and 16. The research found:
Increasing numbers of children experience the separation of their parents; this separation frequently forms part of a chain of changes in their families, with new partners for their parents, periods living with a single parent, sharing their homes with stepsiblings and half-siblings, and the experience of living in two households. These events increase the risk that children will have problems in adjustment, with their health and at school. But the way children respond to family change varies greatly. This research investigated the views of children on their experiences and what they found helpful.
Most children reported that when their parents separated there had been little communication with them about what was happening or why. A quarter said no one talked to them at all. Most reported being very confused and upset. Only 5 per cent said that they had been fully informed and encouraged to ask questions.
In the weeks following parental separation, the key people in whom children confided intimately were grandparents - especially on their mother's side - and friends; the next most frequent confidantes were mothers. Children rarely confided in their fathers or siblings.
Feelings of warmth, closeness, companionship and confiding were less common between children and their step-parents, on average, than with their birth parents. However, children in single-mother families did not differ from those in two-parent families in the warmth and closeness of their relationships with their mothers and described more shared family activities.
Children differed very much in the extent of conflict and hostility they described in their relations with their parents, but these differences were not linked to whether the family was a stepfamily, single parent or 'birth' family. They were associated with adjustment problems: children who had difficult, negative relationships with either father or mother were more likely to be anxious, depressed, worried or to be aggressive or have problems at school. It was not clear whether the poor relationship caused the adjustment problems or vice versa.
The children completed 'maps' of the emotional closeness of their various relationships and the youngest (aged 5-6) also drew pictures of their families. Both 'maps' and drawings paralleled the findings from talking to the children. For instance, children who placed their fathers or stepfathers on the 'map' as not emotionally close were almost three times more likely to be reported by teachers as having problems at school.
The children's views of their relations with their parents - whether from interviews or 'maps' - were more negative in families in which the parents themselves had experienced adversities in their earlier lives, had been teenage parents, or had had several changes in relationship. Strikingly, the children's view of their closeness to their fathers (birth or step-fathers) predicted which children would have adjustment problems even when these aspects of the parents' lives and other features of the family situation, such as income, were taken into account.
Many children said they missed their non-resident parent very much indeed and longed to see more of them. They made practical suggestions on how to achieve this. One child commented that he would like to see his father at weekends rather than on weekdays, because they did not get time to talk on schooldays. Others said they wanted to do things with their non-resident parents, not simply watch TV. The unreliability of non-resident fathers was a common theme and caused much distress.
Over half the children who lived in two households because of separated parents were positive about their 'divided' lives. Some, for example, were pleased to get away from their step- and half-siblings at the weekend. Children who had been given a role in decisions about visiting times etc were more likely to feel positive about moving between two households.
If children felt that they could not talk about their problems in moving between two households or problems they might be experiencing in their 'other' households, they were more negative about their 'divided' lives. However, they were very sensitive to criticism of one parent by the other and to conflict between birth parents.
The children saw the role of step-parents in very different ways. Some stressed that the step-parent should be a friend, others said a parent. Many said they found discipline by a step-parent difficult to take. Fifty per cent felt that they took second place to children born to their own parent and step-parent and 30 per cent felt they were displaced by their step-parents' own children.
Grandparents were key confidants for children facing family changes. Children felt closer to their maternal grandparents than to their paternal grandparents and children living in stepfamilies saw less of their birth father's parents.
Children who felt emotionally close to their maternal grandparents were less likely to have adjustment problems - to be depressed, anxious, worried or aggressive and difficult at school. This effect was significant even when other family difficulties such as mothers' depression or problems in the child's relationships with the parents were taken into account.
Seventy-nine per cent of children said that the person in whom they currently confided their problems was a friend not a family member. The research examined whether family relationships were linked to the kinds of friendships children developed:
The researchers conclude that the perspectives of children on their families - even those as young as five - can be studied with rigour and sensitivity. In particular, the study suggests that those advising and supporting families - and especially children - need to be more aware of the following:
The sample was drawn from a large epidemiological study of around 10,000 families in the West of England. The 467 children who took part in this study came from diverse family situations: 125 from stepfather families; 123 from complex stepfamilies in which both mother and father brought children from previous relationships, 106 from single-mother families, and 113 from two-parent 'intact' families.
The children talked about their current family relationships with parents, step-parents and siblings, about their experiences at the time their parents separated and about their friendships. They also completed 'maps' showing the people to whom they felt emotionally close and the younger children (aged 5-7) drew pictures of their families. Parents and teachers completed reports on the children's adjustment.