Child Mental Health after Parental Separation: The Impact of Resident/ Non-Resident Parenting, Parent Mental Health, Conflict and Socioeconomics

By Lucas, Nina; Nicholson, Jan M. et al. | Journal of Family Studies, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Child Mental Health after Parental Separation: The Impact of Resident/ Non-Resident Parenting, Parent Mental Health, Conflict and Socioeconomics


Lucas, Nina, Nicholson, Jan M., Erbas, Bircan, Journal of Family Studies


ABSTRACT: Children of separated parents are consistently shown to have greater likelihood of poor mental health than children of intact families. Explanations to date have focused on the impacts of parental conflict, and the role of resident mothers, neglecting the potential importance of non-resident fathers. Using recent data from the longitudinal study of Australian children, this study: (1) compares the mental health of children from intact families with resident fathers to those from separated families with non-resident fathers; and (2) explores predictors of poor mental health among children from separated families. Children from separated families had poorer mental health than those from intact families, but this difference was explained fully by exposure to parental conflict, socioeconomic status and parent mental health, and to a lesser extent by parenting practices. Among children from separated families, the strongest predictor of child mental health was maternal parenting consistency. Policy implications are discussed.

KEYWORDS: child mental health, divorce, fathers, parental conflict, non-resident parent, parenting

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Compared to those from intact families, children of separated parents show poorer outcomes in multiple domains (Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991). However parental separation per se is unlikely to be a direct cause of these outcomes, with a well replicated body of empirical literature now showing that poor outcomes exist before parents separate (Amato & Booth, 1996; Sun, 2001), do not reduce after parental remarriage (Amato, 2005; Furstenberg, 1988), and arise regardless of whether separation occurred during or after childhood (Rodgers, Power, & Hope, 1997). Researchers have therefore investigated other possible explanations, such as reduced economic resources of lone mothers, poor post-separation parenting, poor mental health of lone mothers, and exposure to family conflict (Amato, 2005; Lamb, 1999). Research in this area has primarily investigated mothers as the main drivers of child wellbeing after separation, with research about non-resident fathers focusing largely on custody and child support arrangements (King & Sobolewski, 2006). This leaves a knowledge gap regarding other potentially important areas, such as the socioeconomic circumstances, mental health and parenting behaviours of non-resident fathers. The current study seeks to address this gap by examining a broad range of factors that may influence the mental health of children from separated families where fathers are non-resident. As a large number of Australian children have a non-resident parent (just over 1 million, or 22% in 2006-2007; Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2008) the findings may have substantial policy implications.

Possible explanations for poor mental health following parental separation

This section explores possible explanations for the poorer mental health of children following parental separation, with a particular focus on the characteristics and behaviours of non-resident fathers. These explanations posit that children's mental health difficulties are due to socioeconomic disadvantage, exposure to poor parenting, poor parent mental health, and exposure to parental conflict.

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a likely explanation for poor child mental health after parental separation because it is both associated with poor mental health, and is more common after separation. Children whose parents are on low incomes, have low levels of education or are employed in low status occupations are at increased risk for socio-emotional difficulties from birth through to adulthood (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Kiernan & Mensah, 2009; McLoyd, 1998; Mensah & Kiernan, 2009; Nicholson, Lucas, Berthelsen, & Wake, 2010; Strohschein, 2005). Poverty in single-mother households is well documented (Linacre, 2007), and is possibly due to the legal costs of separation, the need to setup and maintain a second household, and reliance on a single income.

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