Children's Stories of Parental Relationship Breakdown and of their Relationship with their Non-resident Parent

Chapman, Susie V. (1999). Children's Stories of Parental Relationship Breakdown and of their Relationship with their Non-resident Parent. The Open University.



Britain has seen dramatic social changes to family life due to the growth of divorce and separation, producing burgeoning divorce literature. Surprisingly, relatively few studies have taken into account children’s views of their experiences.

The present study investigated children’s stories of ‘parental relationship breakdown’ (PRB) and of their relationships with their non-resident parent. Twenty-seven children and their resident parent, were interviewed. Detailed qualitative analysis was conducted on the interviews of 18 children. The parent interview was structured to obtain background details of PRB, after which the parent completed a standardised measure of their child’s behaviour. The child interview was child-led. After the interview the children completed a standardised self-esteem measure. Narrative analysis provided a precis of the children’s stories in order to examine the main events they incorporated, and grounded theory was used to analyse the detail of the child’s experience.

The majority of the children old enough to recall pre-PRB family life seemed to have an assumption about its permanency, the separation of the parents promoting doubts about their continued loveability and sense of being held in mind by the non-resident parent. Although children employed various strategies hypothesised as addressing these doubts, parents’ handling of the situation also appeared to play a major part in how the children made sense of their experiences and contained their anxieties.

Tentative recommendations are that personal meanings of PRB for children (particularly regarding their perceived relationships with their parents) needs to be understood by both parents and clinicians in order to help children better contain feelings arising from the PRB. Families could benefit from more access to advice, support and information about the impending separation and events thereafter.

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