Monday, 7 October 2019

Understanding children's 'accommodation' of parental separation and divorce

Dr Sue Kay-Flowers is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University. Building on her earlier professional career in probation and the family courts, and longstanding interest in researching children and young people’s relationships, Sue’s recent book, 'Childhood Experiences of Separation and Divorce; Reflections from Young Adults' (Policy Press) gives ‘voice’ to children’s experiences of parental separation.

You can hear Sue talk about her book and new tool to support professionals at her forthcoming seminar, 'Understanding children's 'accommodation' of parental separation and divorce' on 5th November at 12 noon. Details, including sign up, is on eventbrite.  



The opportunity for young people to speak for themselves about their experiences of parental separation is often missing from the research literature. Their participation tends to be based on their parent(s) participation in previous studies, requires parental consent, or their accounts are seen through a professional lens.  

What I wanted to do through my research was to understand young people’s childhood experience of parental separation; what they thought, and felt, about the separation at the time, what they considered important then, and how they view their experiences as they looked back now. Analysis of their accounts led to:
  • understanding of how they felt about the changes that took place as a result of the separation
  • the opportunity to assess ‘accommodation’ of the separation over time.
  • the opportunity to identify aspects of their experience that helped to support, or created challenges, in accommodating the separation.
  • the knowledge being used to create a framework to support those working and living with children experiencing separation, in helping them to adjust to the changes it brings.
Working with young people, a 'bricolage' of innovative research methods were created to access the ‘voices’ of young people about their childhood experiences of parental separation. The challenge was to create a space where they felt able to talk openly and honestly about their personal experiences. The young people involved in the research felt that participants would most likely engage online, however, it was also agreed that an online survey would not be enough to engage their interest. The young people decided that a short video clip at the start would help as the ‘hook’ needed. 

Adopting this approach, I used my professional experience of working in the Family Courts to write a case study. This was then acted out by young people, filmed by a young film maker and uploaded onto YouTube. The result was 'Prompt Simulation Video' and it was viewed by all participants who completed the questionnaire. 

The accounts of young people were analysed to assess the extent to which they ‘accommodated’ their parents’ separation over time. First, we analysed accounts according to the level of satisfaction shown - did they feel their expectations or needs had been met? Second, we analysed accounts according to acceptance - did they see post-separation arrangements as adequate or suitable?

Our analysis allowed us to identify the things that helped support a child in accommodating parental separation and those that created challenges. This led to the creation of the 'Framework for understanding children's accommodation of parental separation', a tool designed to deepen understanding of how children experience parental separation over time. This can be used by practitioners and parents to support children and young people in adjusting to the changes parental separation brings. Subsequently it has been used to inform a short article on 'what young people say helped them get through their parents' divorce' in The Conversation.

The framework is now being tested by practitioners in different roles in schools (Deputy Headteachers, SENCos, Social Workers), in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) and psychologists working in a Centre for Mental Health and Counselling in Nepal. Assessing its usefulness in practice is the next stage of the research process. It is also being used to inform a pack designed to promote children and young people’s resilience for use in schools.

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