Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A new approach to improving youth mental public health - the TRIUMPH network

In this blog, Professor Lisa McDaid, Programme Leader of the Social Relationships and Health Improvement programme, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, announces the launch of The Transdisciplinary Research for the Improvement of Youth MentalPublic Health (TRIUMPH) Network.

One in eight children and young people experience mental health problems and the majority of these have onset before their mid-twenties. Yet, 70% of young people have not had the appropriate intervention that they need. Young people face considerable pressures as they grow up; pressures that are driven by the ever-changing environment in which we live. Changes in technology, communications and the media that we are exposed to have coincided with an increasing prevalence of mental health problems, especially among girls – just last week, a new study reported that nearly one in four young women aged 17-19 have experienced mental illness. Yet we have few effective solutions for the improvement of youth mental public health.

Treatment and care, when accessible, treats the problems, not the causes.

The traditional mental health sciences most often focus on understanding and solving mental health problems at the individual level, but many of the drivers of poor mental health sit at the broader social, environmental and cultural level and are affected by the relationships we have, and the settings and communities that we live within.

The TRIUMPH Network

In setting up the TRIUMPH (Transdisciplinary Research for the Improvement of Youth Mental Public Health) Network we believe that there is a different, solution-focused approach. One that seeks to understand young people’s strengths, assets and resiliences, which we can draw on to improve health. Moving from problems to solutions is not easy, but if we do not act, we are in danger of failing a generation of young people. 

To improve youth mental public health, the TRIUMPH Network will bring together young people with academics from across the clinical, social, arts and design sciences in sustained collaboration with practitioners, policy-makers and third sector partners.  To make a difference, and deliver a transformative agenda of engagement and research, we will incorporate two core approaches: co-production and co-design with young people.


Young people will be at the centre of the TRIUMPH Network. We as researchers will work with young people to facilitate their ideas, using our knowledge, training, methods and techniques to turn these into reality, into new solutions to improve youth mental public health. We will work together to find new ways to improve mental health and wellbeing, especially among marginalised groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and care experienced young people, where need is greatest. We will target our efforts at the peer groups, social networks and education settings with strongest influence on young people’s health and behaviours.


To understand and identify innovative solutions, while recognising the complexity of youth mental public health, we will take a participatory design approach. This means using different visual methods and creative outputs to support engagement with young people, bringing innovation to our planned activities, making the decision-making process more accessible, and supporting productive dialogue across the Network and beyond. This will include workshops to understand the mental health problems facing young peopleidentify possible solutions and take forward project ideas, and information exchange and community engagement events to share learning and increase the involvement of those most affected by youth mental ill-health.

Youth mental public health is a big problem and identifying solutions at the population-level needs a bold approach. TRIUMPH’s long-term vision is to improve youth mental public health in the UK; to reduce the proportion of young people that do not receive appropriate intervention. By finding the solutions to prevent and reduce mental health problems, we can benefit young people, as well as their families, friends and the communities they live in.

TRIUMPH will achieve this by focusing where need is greatest, co-producing solutions, and building transdisciplinary research capacity to take forward interventions that are effective, acceptable, and sustainable in the real world.


The TRIUMPH network is open to anyone with an interest in young people's mental health and wellbeing, including young people, service uses, those with lived experiences, and others directly affected by mental health issues. If you would like to join, please visit: http://triumph.sphsu.gla.ac.uk/contact 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

The TRIUMPH Network is funded by UKRI. The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Medical Research Council or the Scottish Government.

Making Scotland an ACE informed nation: continuing the conversation - an event summary

CRFR co-director Dr Emma Davidson summarises the key themes emerging from our recent seminar reflecting on the emergent ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and resilience agenda in Scotland.

We began a conversation on ACEs and resilience in December 2017 at the seminar, ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’, where Dr Eric Carlin and myself voiced our concerns that the dominant narrative on resilience could obscure inequalities; penalising individuals by making them responsible for their own wellbeing. Since then, we have witnessed the mounting influence of ACE and resilience-focused policy in Scotland. It is now even more important to provide a space in which popular rhetoric on ACEs and resilience can be constructively and respectfully critiqued.

Our event on 6th November 2018 aimed to reignite that process. We welcomed three speakers: Dr Amy Chandler, Dr Cara Blaisdell and Laura Wright, each of whom talked from their perspective of their own field of research.

Amy’s presentation (which you can watch here) examined the potentially counter-productive ways ACEs are used in research on suicide and self-harm. Early experiences, Amy noted, are undeniably important in shaping later risks of, or experiences with, suicide and self-harm. However, there is a tendency to rely on a mechanical or ‘addictive’ analysis, with a correlation drawn between early adversity and later problems. The work of explaining what these correlations actually mean, or understanding the mechanisms behind them, are less well developed. Drawing on her own research, Amy highlighted that this focus can mean that interpretation and meaning is omitted – what do adverse experiences mean and feel like to different people, at different times? And how are social and political conditions implicated in this? Also absent, Amy suggested, is the role of agency. The popular narrative of resilience plays into the long standing stigmatisation of mental health problems as being associated with weakness. This way of thinking about resilience implies that those experiencing self-harm and suicide are not resilient.  The reverse can in fact be true, with the practice of self-harm being evidence of extreme resilience in extreme circumstances.

Dr Cara Blaisdell’s work picked up on this critique within an early years setting (read Cara’s new blog here). She highlighted the potential for the ACE agenda in Scotland to reinforce what Tuck (2009) refers to as a ‘damage narrative’. Rather than holding those in power to account, these narratives can reinforce particular ideas about children and society: where the ‘poor’ child is a site of damage to self and society; where professional labels children and seek to ‘fix’ them; and where structures of oppression remain unchallenged and unchanged. Cara’s made the acute observation ‘what you focus on is what grows’. This is not a denial that bad things happen, but rather an acknowledgement that deficit based models can label, provoke normative ideas (of family, of parenting, of childhood). Ultimately deficit models stigmatise, and they leave little room for the complex meaning making emphasised by Amy as being so crucial.

Our final speaker was Laura Wright who raised what is an under-acknowledged issue within ACEs – and that is the role and status of children’s rights. Scotland is, noted Laura, a country recognised as a global leader in children’s meaningful participation. This work is supported by multiple organisations, initiatives (we are now coming to the end of the Year of Youth People) and legislation (i.e. Children and Young People (Scotland_ Act 2014). A tension, nonetheless, remains between participation and protectionism – with the latter superseding the former. The implications of this, argues Laura, requires exploration. At present, children and young people have not been given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in discussions about what is included or excluded from the list of ‘adverse childhood experiences’. Indeed, at an individual level, adults are completing checklists for children and young people, and using this to make decisions about possible interventions. What, asked Laura, does such an approach look like, and how it is given meaning by children and young people? Critically, how can a plan designed to be child-centred, like Getting it Right for Every Child, better engage children and young people in active conversations about their own well-being?

There is – as Laura concluded – no magic bullet. However, the speakers agreed that the way forward is not simply to shift from asking ‘what’s wrong with you’, to ‘what happened to you’. Rather, what is required is a move towards a strengths approach which asks what is right with you, your family, your community and your society. On a practical and pragmatic note, more reflection and time needs to be spent on how complex ideas – such as meaning, context and interpretation – be meaningfully incorporated in institutional structures and practices already under incredible pressure.

We intend to continue these conversations and look forward to seeing you at our forthcoming events. There are four more seminars planned for 2019. Each will consider ACEs and resilience through a different conceptual lens. These are: 

·        ACEs and foetal & infant development
·        ACEs, resilience and gender
·        Resilience in the Majority World
·        ACEs and resilience in Scottish schools

We will be announcing dates for these seminars in the New Year. Please subscribe to the CRFR website for updates on this, and CRFR’s other events and research activities.

Further links

Drs Emma Davidson and Eric Carlin reflect on their CRFR Informal Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’.
Resilience – continuing the conversation

CRFR Associate PhD student Ariane Critchley provides her thoughts on resilience in response to the recent CRFR Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’ given by Eric Carlin and Emma Davidson.
How resilient do we want our children and young people to be?

Dr Caralyn Blaisdell from the University of Strathclyde continues our discussion on the theme of resilience and how this term is being used, with specific reference to early years.  
Resilience in early years – continuing the conversation

Laura Wright, University of Edinburgh talks about engaging children in the ACE agenda.

Monday, 10 December 2018

ACE Awareness, damage narratives and social justice in early years practice: personal and professional reflections

Dr Caralyn Blaisdell from the University of Strathclyde continues our discussion on the theme of resilience and how this term is being used, with specific reference to early years. 

As an experienced practitioner, researcher and lecturer specializing in early childhood education, I have had a mixed reaction to the recent push for being ACE Aware. Discussions about love, kindness and empathy are very welcome and needed. At Strathclyde, our students discuss how their settings are moving away from punitive practices, toward a deeper culture of listening to children and young people and reflecting on relationships of power. There seems to be a real interest in recognising and remedying injustice and changing practices within systems. There has been increasing discussion of children’s rights within ACE Awareness, which is also very welcome and needed in early years.
At the same time, there is a danger that ACE Awareness is reinforcing damage narratives (Tuck 2009) and deficit thinking about young children and families:

        The (poor) child and family as a site of damage to self and society
        Labelling—professionals telling people what they are
        Hero worship--the valiant professional who swoops in to fix the individual
        Oppressive structures and behaviours remain unchanged 
This vision of the heroic professional is not new or revolutionary in early years—it is just more of the same. Early years education is plagued by deterministic and simplistic views of human development—for example, the belief that the pattern for our lives is set by three years old. This belief easily leads to aggressive diagnosing of difference and labelling of young children. Alternative visions for early childhood education include celebration of difference as a source of strength, anti-bias work, political action, and walking alongside children and families to dream equitable worlds into reality (RECE, 2014).

In the CRFR seminar, we heard from audience members who felt curiosity, hesitance, inspiration and anger about ACE Awareness. Calls to dismiss or even condemn those who aren’t sure about ACE Awareness, or to accuse people of not caring about children or even doing more harm to children by questioning ACEs, are profoundly unhelpful and disheartening. In early years, ACE Awareness could potentially help challenge oppressive practices, recognise children and families’ own voices about their lives, disrupt power dynamics in institutional settings, and inform political education and action. However, ACE Awareness also has the potential to reinforce damage-based thinking, paternalistic practices and professional ego. If we choose to accept ACE Awareness, we must see it as only one facet of the intellectual and moral challenges of early childhood work. We must insist on continuing to ask uncomfortable questions about who benefits from this awareness.

To view her presentation from seminar on 6 November 2018, click the link below

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Bringing girls’ gender identities into children’s rights

Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra is the Senior Global Policy Adviser for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International where he leads strategies and programmes to ensure that children and young people's participation are at the centre of the advocacy and policy debate.

Whilst attending the UN Day of General Discussion[1] in Geneva, I was part of a panel discussion of adults and young people sharing the platform equally, which in itself signified much more than dialogue at the UN level; it was a milestone reflecting a substantial change on the way that children and young people can be positioned in public decision-making.

Along with three other young people on the panel was 15 year old Haneen, an outstanding young advocate who is defending and promoting children's rights in her hometown of Palestine.

I was thrilled and honoured to meet and share a panel discussion with her.

To me, the conversation with this child advocate was an enlightening experience that reaffirmed my view and professional work, which falls within the debate on childhood as a social construction and children as competent social actors and active participants in the construction of their lives. This position explores the way we understand children, but also how gender, ethnicity, race, class and other categories are intertwined inseparably, defining how children construct and deconstruct their individualities. Haneen is not just a child; she is a girl, a Muslim, and a Palestinian across many other identities.

Despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Article 2, the principle of non-discrimination, whereby all rights must be respected without discrimination of any kind, girls continue to be treated differently based on social, cultural and legal norms that define their roles and responsibilities in society.

Making assumptions that all children can enjoy their rights and opportunities to participate equally regardless of their gender or other categories fails to recognise that girls can be disadvantaged due the social and cultural contexts in which gender identities are constructed. The denial of gender as a category that determines the chances of girls to engage in social life reinforces and endures legacies of inequality, which continue to be present in most of the countries of the world.

As I was conducting interviews with girls from Uganda, they told me that many girls are marginalised by gender and denied of rights from birth and this continues through their whole lives as daughters, sisters, students, workers, wives and mothers. They also pointed out that gender exclusion is exacerbated by other categories such as race, ethnicity and social status, which shape and restrict their lives and opportunities. This is often attributed to the power dynamics in patriarchal societies, where males are dominant in structures of subordination reinforces gender stigma and stereotyping that confine girls to their homes and degrade their roles in society resulting in an unequal realisation of their rights. By assuming that all children construct their identities and rights equally and their gender does not play a role with the equal opportunity to thrive, increases unbalanced power relations and has a considerable impact on discrimination and disadvantage concerning the deprivation of their rights.

While conducting research in Bangladesh, girls told me that they are often expected to behave according to their gender, that they are socially penalised if they do not follow those traditional or expected patterns and they feel they are less favoured than the boys. In Brazil, girls told me that they are conditioned from birth to be pretty and sweet, but other characteristics like being smart and strong are discouraged. In conversations with girls in Uganda, they told me that the value of a girl is the equivalent of a cow if they are lucky; many others are exchanged or traded for marriage for less than that. In America, I interviewed a group of girls that told me they feel undermined and patronised by their male peers and teachers at school and they are expecting to be sexually harassed if wearing tight clothes or makeup.  

I personally have a strong commitment to looking at the identities and lived experiences of girls and boys and how I can contribute to closing the gender gap in realising children's rights. This is probably influenced by my own personal experience and standpoints as I am continually constructing and reconstructing how our identities define our lives as children and adults. When I am in the field, I am captivated by the way the relationships between the boys and girls are framed by their particular gender roles and I often relate sympathetically to the girls’ struggle to be recognised as equals in their communities. Once I asked a group of girls in Jordan about their feelings of vulnerability or exclusion in relation to the difference between boys and girls. They said that they do not feel vulnerable at all and do not want to be labelled as such, but agreed that there was an ongoing fight for recognition of their abilities to participate, but this does not undermine their abilities and sense of confidence. They said they found their way to navigate this and to achieve everything they want.

This dialogue was crucial to me in building new understandings by confronting my beliefs and co-constructing shared meaning of what means to be a girl in any given society. Whilst participating in the panel discussion in Geneva, I asked Haneen the same question, and she responded that she feels empowered, confident and valued and, moreover, she does not see differences between boys and girls. One can disagree with her account, but her stand should help us to balance our perspectives to look at different angles and not just focus on the deprived position of the girls as a vulnerable group. Girls are not just defenceless individuals in need of adult protection; while protection is one of their fundamental rights, they also need to be seen as competent social actors who are able to negotiate power relationships, to interact with others and to define and redefine their own lives.

My call today is to refocus our perspectives beyond a vulnerability lens and to embrace girls’ strengths and empowerment in constructing their lives. This lens can help to promote and improve the opportunities of girls to participate equally in society and contribute to removing the traditional social norms that define their position in society in relation to imposed social identities. It is important to note that, although girls experience different challenges across diverse social contexts, the full realisation of their rights, the desire for inclusion and standing up for equality are almost identical demands from girls regardless of their age, heritage, nationality or origin. Our collective commitment should be to make those demands heard and their hopes a reality.

About the author
Dr Patricio Cuevas-Parra is the Senior Global Policy Adviser for Child Participation and Rights with World Vision International where he leads strategies and programmes to ensure that children and young people's participation are at the centre of the advocacy and policy debate. He has a keen interest in looking at cutting-edge child rights advocacy tools and models to enhance children and young people engagement in public decision-making. Patricio has been based in Social Policy at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, supported by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR).


De Graeve, K. (2015) Children’s rights from a gender studies perspective: gender, intersectionality and ethic of care, The Routledge international handbook of children's rights studies, pp147-163.
James, A. and Prout, A. (1997) A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Provenance, Promise and Problems. In: James, A. and Prout A. (Eds.) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood, London: Falmer Press, pp7–34.
Konstantoni, K. and Emejulu, A. (2017) When intersectionality met childhood studies: the dilemmas of a travelling concept, Children's Geographies, 15(1), pp6-22.
O'Neill, C. and Hopkins, P. (2015) Hopkins (2015) Introduction: young people, gender and intersectionality, Gender, Place & Culture, 22(3), pp383-389.
Tisdall, E.K.M. (2017) Conceptualising children and young people’s participation: Examining vulnerability, social accountability and co-production, The International Journal of Human Rights, 21(1), pp59-75.

[1] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child held a Day of General Discussion (DGD) in September 2018 at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva on the theme of “Protecting and Empowering Children as Human Rights Defenders”.  The DGDs are conducted biannually to develop a deeper understanding of the content and implications of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Transferring ECEC to education: does it make a difference?

Two decades ago England, Scotland and Sweden moved responsibility for all early childhood education and care services (ECEC) and school-aged childcare(SACC) into education. These reforms and their consequences were examined in a cross-national study published in 2004: A New Deal for Children? Re-Forming Education and Care in England, Scotland and Sweden (Cohen, Moss, Petrie and Wallace, Policy Press, 2004). Our newly published article for the Routledge journal Early Years examines  developments since then and considers whether our conclusions  still stand.

In 2004, we found that the systems in the three countries were at very different stages when transferred into education.  Sweden already had  well-developed and well-resourced ECEC and SACC services all under the Ministry of Social Affairs, the former fully integrated with no childcare/education split and the latter usually part of whole day schools opening from around 7am  to 6pm. By contrast, in England and Scotland, ECEC and SACC services had long been neglected, poorly resourced and fragmented with responsibilities divided between health and education ministries/departments, although, as in Sweden, with some local authority experiences in developing more integrated ECEC.

Reasons for the reforms also differed markedly. In Sweden the move reflected the importance attached to seeing ECEC as the initial stage of lifelong learning as well as the nature of its social democratic welfare regime. Transferring these services to education brought a preschool curriculum framework and integrated education for preschool teachers, free-time pedagogues and school teachers. For the UK’s new Labour government, maternal employment and tackling child poverty were the drivers, and integration with education was only partial. But we noted that Scotland’s ‘New Community Schools’ pilot and a new school building programme, and  England’s extended schools, offered both countries the potential for reshaping the boundaries between education and care.  And we speculated that a devolved Scotland might move away from England’s liberal welfare orientation towards a more Nordic or ‘social democratic’ regime.

So what did we find in 2017?  We found continuing integration of ECEC and SACC into the education system in Sweden where access is now a universal entitlement for children over 12 months irrespective of parents’ employment and attendance is either free or very low cost. Concerns over protecting specific expertise and falling numbers of preschool teachers led to the integrated initial education system being dropped but substantial gains have been made in terms of improved child/ parental entitlement to early years provision, its affordability and access as well as enhanced status for the professions involved. Preschool heads now have the same status as school heads and whole-day schools have seen the evolution of multi-professional teams of preschool teachers, free time pedagogues and school teachers working together with mixed age groups of younger children.

In contrast, both England and Scotland have seen stalled integration and missed opportunities. Pre-existing structural and conceptual fault lines between ‘early education’ and ‘childcare’ continue. In Scotland, more radical visions and earlier prospects of New Community Schools delivering new relationships have not materialised. The Scottish Government has referred to not having ‘all the levers’: our study confirms the constraints on devolved administrations in developing substantially different policies when funding remains divided and decided at a national /federal level. In the UK, increased reliance on demand subsidies such as tax credits has reinforced the split between early education and childcare, weakened local authority leadership and made it more difficult to reshape the system.  But we conclude here that the continuing divide in Scotland – where local authorities and their schools continue to be the major providers of early education- also reflects the absence in Scotland of any clear strategy to extend schools’ remit to the provision of ECEC and SACC.  Sweden has shown the gains that can come from transferring responsibility for all ECEC into education whilst seeking to preserve its identity.  England and Scotland have so far, after two decades, failed to realise these potential benefits. For both, it has been a case of more of the same, rather than taking a ‘Nordic’ turn.

Further details on the study findings can be found in:
Bronwen Cohen, Peter Moss, Pat Petrie and Jennifer Wallace (2018) ’A New Deal for Children?’ – what happens next: a cross national study of transferring early education services into education. Early Years, To link to this article:

Bronwen Cohen is an Honorary Professor of Social Policy and affiliated with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Jennifer Wallace is Head of Policy at the Carnegie UK Trust

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

How does providing support for young families affect children’s well-being?

Dr Alison Parkes from the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow highlights findings from a recent study exploring the impact of support for parents on children’s well-being. 

Many parents with young children need extra help from time to time, in the form of financial aid, childcare or emotional support. Although it is well known that support can relieve parenting stress, it is less clear whether support for parents has a measurable impact on children’s well-being. Our study[i] of 2600 families living in Scotland found a link between the availability of support for mothers during the early years and children’s later mental wellbeing.

In order to be able to discount other possible explanations for the association found, the study controlled for a range of other factors related to both low levels of family support and poor child outcomes. Even after allowing for other factors such as family poverty and lone parenthood, we found lower levels of behavioural and emotional problems among school-age children whose mothers had been able to access support during their child’s early years.

The study examined mothers’ perceptions of the availability of support via two different channels: informal social support networks from friends and relatives, and support from health and social work professionals. There is universal provision of professional support for parents in the UK (for example, from health visitors and via GPs), as well as a range of support services targeted at vulnerable parents. Nonetheless, families often perceive barriers to service access and engagement. These only partly relate to low awareness or practical problems. Importantly, they also reflect parents’ perceptions that available support is inadequate to meet their needs, and fears about interference and stigma.

In exploring the ways in which support for mothers improved children’s wellbeing, the study found that professional support and social networks acted differently. Greater access to help from health and social work professionals was associated with more positive parenting, which in turn reduced the risk of children developing behavioural and emotional problems. Good social support from friends and relatives did not affect parenting so directly. However, the positive effects of social support on mothers’ greater economic security and mental wellbeing led in turn to more positive parenting, which then benefited children.

The study also looked at whether support helped to protect children’s wellbeing when families were under particular strain. Access to professional support channels had the strongest buffering effect. Among families with good access to professional support, the study found a weaker impact of less positive parenting on children’s emotional difficulties, when compared with families who found it difficult to access such help. A smaller buffering effect was found for social support. Here, the impact of family money problems on children’s emotional difficulties was weaker among families with strong social networks, compared with families who lacked this type of support. Collectively, our findings point to the value of professional services and social networks in strengthening children’s resilience to adversity. 

In conclusion, our study findings underline the importance of good social support networks for all families with young children, as well as the need to ensure good access to health and welfare services through building greater parental awareness and trust.

Further details can be found in the following open access publication (forthcoming): Alison Parkes and Helen Sweeting (2018) Indirect, and Buffering Effects of Support for Mothers on Children's Socioemotional Adjustment, Journal of Family Psychology

[i] This study used the Growing Up in Scotland first birth cohort, a nationally representative sample of families with children born between June 2004 and May 2005. For more information, see https://growingupinscotland.org.uk/

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

What does 'home' mean for children whose parents have separated?

Associate Professor Kristin Natalier from Flinders University, Australia, currently visiting CRFR provides a summary of the research she presented at a recent Informal Seminar.
Home is a familiar yet complex idea. Its meaning extends beyond a physical dwelling to include a feeling of comfort, a sense of control over space, connections with family and other important people, and a site in which rituals and routines create feelings of belonging. A sense of home can be important in helping people build their identity, psychological wellbeing and trust in the constancy of people and things. It follows, then, that children will likely suffer when their needs for home are overlooked. Yet so far, very little is known about children’s experiences of home when their parents separate. 
Failing to focus on home is a lost opportunity to address an ongoing challenge in post-separation parenting laws and processes: how to prioritise children’s, not parents’, interests when determining care arrangements. Family law and international law emphasises a child centred approach but post-separation parenting arrangements are still largely determined with reference to parents’ needs, and linked to clock and calendar time. A focus on home shifts the emphasis towards children’s feelings and experiences. It can help us to ‘stand in children’s shoes’, to borrow a phrase from Carol Smart, and see post-separation parenting arrangements from the perspective of children. It draws attention to the matters children consider necessary to create a context that allows them to feel at home, and flourish. 
Our initial analysis of interviews with 22 children suggest that home matters. For example, Zac described what he liked about being at his father’s house: “Just being with my dad and just having fun with him, working on my car and just doing boy things”. His comment highlighted how children can feel at home when:
  • there was an atmosphere of ease and comfort;
  • their relationships with others signalled they belonged in that space;
  • they spent time with parents and other meaningful people in ways that reflected shared interests and experiences; and
  • they could do and have things that mattered to them.
When children felt at home, their experiences might seem unremarkable. However, they are a reminder of the importance of relationships and often mundane family practices in children’s post-separation lives. The times and dates children stay with a parent were not as important as what my colleague Bruce Smyth has called ‘being in the moment time’ – those unstructured and intimate experiences that build connection with others.
Some children described feeling not at home at a parent’s house. An equal shared care arrangement did not allow Benjamin to build two homes; rather, it removed him from his home (his mother’s house). He said of his father’s house, “I feel like I’m on an involuntary holiday, like I’ve been taken away from my home and I don’t want to be there”. Benjamin dreaded going to his father’s house, which he found oppressive and which brought him face to face with large and unwelcome changes in how his father lived his life. His mental health and relationship with his father eroded as a result.
Benjamin’s parents were responsive when he talked to them about his feelings, and changed the care arrangements so that Benjamin no longer had to stay at his father’s house. His family’s emphasis moved from nights spent at each parent’s home to Benjamin connecting with his father in different ways – away from the place where he did not feel at home. Importantly for Benjamin, they developed routines and a meaningful connection that were not rooted in a place, but in an activity: football. Benjamin’s father attended every practice session and game and in doing so, rebuilt a meaningful relationship.
The idea of home can sensitise parents to the importance of attending to children’s lived experience of time– how they feel on a Thursday night, not whose house are they sleeping at on a Thursday night. In emphasising children’s experiences, home might decouple relationships from parental residence, and instead highlight the alternative ways and places in which meaningful relationships can be built – a sense of home, away from home.
Professor Belinda Fehlberg (The University of Melbourne), Associate Professor Bruce Smyth (Australian National University), and I have received funding from the Australian Research Council to explore these ideas further. We have undertaken some initial analysis (here is a summary: https://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/children-s-experiences-of-home-after-parental-separation#.Ww6GM2eWyUk) and are about to talk to a much larger group of children and their parents about what home means when parents separate. We are aiming to understand children’s experiences of home after separation as a means of promoting new ways of attending to children’s voices when their living arrangements are decided post-parental separation.
Associate Professor Kristin Natalier
College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (Sociology), Flinders University, Australia.