Solomonic Choices. Parental Separation and Family Policies in Europe*
A poor socioeconomic background and family disruptions, such as parent separation, may have an impact on the life chances of children. But so far, empirical evidence is quite scarce. What are the consequences of parental separation for the future of children? And to what extent can policy interventions prevent adverse consequences associated with it? These were the main questions discussed at the first FamiliesAndSocieties Stakeholder Seminar in Brussels. The event was chaired by Fabrizio Bernardi from the European University Institute.
Trends in parental separation
Fabrizio Bernardi, Professor of Sociology and the Director of Graduate Studies at the European University Institute offered a general overview on parental separation across Europe. The long-term trend has been of increasing divorce (and separation between cohabitants). However, in countries with high levels of divorce, rates seem to have slowly levelled off or even decreased, while in countries with low level of divorce, the upward trend is still on-going.
The impact of divorce: not the same for everyone
According to Juho Härkönen, Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University, parental separation has the potential to create considerable stress and turmoil in children's lives. But this is not always the case. For many, perhaps even most children, any negative effects of parental separation on wellbeing are rather short-lived and they fare just fine later on. Some children may benefit from parental separation, especially if pre-separation family life has been ridden with conflict. Other children, however, can experience longer-term losses in terms of socioeconomic and psychological wellbeing. Supporting families going through dissolution can be an efficient way of minimizing any wellbeing losses associated with it.
The role of parenting
Dimitri Mortelmans, Head of the Centre for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies (CLLS), stressed the importance of children's contact with both of their parents after a relationship breakdown. Whether children spend more time with their mother or with their father, the parenting of the non-residential parent is crucial for the life satisfaction and the wellbeing of the child. Mortelmans emphasised the role of the new partner in this process. New partners have beneficial effects on the health and wellbeing of the former spouses but sometimes hinder the parenting of the non-residential parent (mostly the father). Continued opportunities for both the biological parents and the new partners to support a child are often neglected processes that could increase the life satisfaction in the post-divorce life of children and adolescents.
Childcare and children’s outcomes
Chiara Pronzato, Assistant Professor at the University of Turin, Italy, has highlighted that in the UK, and according to data from the Millennium Cohort Survey in comparison with other types of child care, care provided by parents and grandparents to two-year olds has a positive impact on the child's ability to name objects, but - compared to formal care - a negative impact on the child's ability to construct objects and grasp mathematical concepts. However, the observed associations are only valid for sub-groups of the population: the positive effect of family care is significant only for children whose parents are together, well educated, and with relatively high income; while the positive effect of formal care is stronger for children of separated parents, less educated parents, and with relatively lower income.
Minimising the effects of divorce
Stuart Duffin, Director of Policy and Programmes with One Family, highlighted that partnership separation is a complex process that unfolds over time and requires a series of reorganisations and adjustments. How children cope with parental separation is affected by the child's developmental stage, temperament, cognitive capacities and personal resilience. His experience in working with those parenting alone and those sharing parenting has shown that many children are resilient and can learn to manage the challenges and stress parental separation creates. Therefore, separation-specific interventions that build and restore competence can reduce reliance on social and legal systems. Preventive interventions that educate and support parents are an important component of successful family transition when they are introduced early in the process. Focused intervention plans, with clearly articulated goals reflecting children's and families’ unique qualities, are recommended as a means of fostering resilience.
Family policies in the EU
Evelyn Astor, from the European Commission explained that this institution does not have an explicit family policy, nor does it seek to define what structure a family should take. Their focus is on the reconciliation between private and professional life, as well as to help secure the wellbeing of children. These include the Communication on Early Childhood Education and Care and the Social Investment Package. The Commission also monitors and reports on the social situations of children, and supports research and knowledge sharing activities in the areas of child and family policy.
Heinz K. Becker, member of the European Parliament since 2011 reaffirmed the importance of including all types of families when discussing family policies in Europe: Wherever a child is, there is a family and we must care for all of them equally.
Read the state-of-the-art report "Effects of family forms and dynamics on children’s well-being and life chances: literature review"
*This Event Review has received funding from the European Union´s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties. FamiliesAndSocieties (www.familiesandsocieties.eu) has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.