Research into post-separation parenting

The LSE and the University of Kent have conducted a study into post-separation parenting. The research used data from the Millenium Cohort Study, a UK wide study of around 19,000 children born to UK resident families between September 2000 and January 2002. The researchers asked two key questions: what are the links between fathers’ parenting before separation and contact after separation, and is the parenting competence of mothers affected by separation, and if so, does it recover? The survey also looks at whether the impact of separation on parenting competence is linked to maternal mental health, child behaviour, and the level of contact the child had with his or her father.

Unsurprisingly, overall the study found that fathers who were more involved pre-separation had high rates of contact post-separation, and that separation did have a negative impact on mothers’ evaluation of their parenting competence. However, some of the detail is fascinating, and rather more surprising – just a few of the highlights are set out below.

Overall levels of contact were high, with at least 8 out of 10 separated fathers in contact with their child. Six out of 10 fathers saw their children at least once or twice a week, and of those who had contact, at least 4 out of 10 had their child stay overnight ‘often’ from the age of 5.

Whether contact is taking place at all appears not to be affected by the fathers’ pre-separation parenting. What does seem to matter for losing or maintaining contact is the age of the child at the time of separation and the length of time since separation. Loss of contact increases with time since separation and is more likely if the child is younger at the point of separation.

Looking at how often the non-resident parent sees their child tells a different story, with the involvement of fathers prior to separation making a real difference in this regard. Where the father was involved in parenting and had looked after the child by himself, contact tended to be more frequent after separation.

Interestingly, whether the child is a boy or girl affects frequency of contact, even where the level of pre-separation parenting was the same. Contact tends to be more frequent when the child is older at the point of separation and is a boy.

Importantly the study found no significant differences in initial parenting confidence among those who went on to separate compared to those who did not. This means that it was not those who have lower confidence in their parenting who subsequently separate, but that it is separation which is likely to be causing any reduction in self-evaluated competence.

The study found that separation is likely to go hand in hand with higher rates of maternal depression and with higher rates of child behavioural problems, and that either of these results in a reduced evaluation of parenting competence. Interestingly, mothers who had been separated for longer did not tend to have a higher sense of their own parenting competence compared to mothers who had been separated more recently. Mother’s mental health tended to recover over time since separation, other things being equal, but self evaluation of parenting competence showed little improvement with time since separation. Also, more sharing of parenting did not increase mothers’ perception of their own competence.

For an article by the Guardian, click here.

For the study itself, click here.