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Parenting and contact before and after separation

Author: Tina Haux
Institution: University of Kent
Type of case study: Research

About the research

The affect that relationship breakdown and separation has on children is widely discussed and there is a well-established view that maintaining contact with the non-resident parent plays a key role in children’s well-being following parental separation. There is still a significant minority of around 20% of fathers that are not are continuing to have contact with their children post-separation – a situation that policy-makers are keen to address. This research, by Tina Haux and Lucinda Platt and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, as part of their Family Justice Projects, investigated the links between fathers’ parenting before separation and reported contact after separating. Their research also looked at whether mothers’ reported parenting competence was affected by separation, in particular whether maternal mental health, child behaviour and the level of contact the child had with their father impacted on the mothers’ reported competence as a parent. This research drew on data from the Millennium Cohort Study and was the first time that such robust, and non-retrospective, data had been used to investigate this issue. 

In the area of non-resident parental contact, the research found that overall levels of contact were high, with 80% of separated fathers reported as being in contact with their children. 60% of fathers saw their child at least once or twice a week and 40% had them often stay overnight. The amount of contact a father had with his child post-separation was found to be affected by the level of involvement pre-separation, with those fathers who were involved in parenting and had looked after the child on their own tending to be reported as having more frequent contact after separation. The research found that the socio-economic characteristics of the parents also had a bearing on contact after separation, particularly for overnight stays, suggesting that resources, such as being able to provide a bedroom for the child, have an impact on contact. The project also found that fathers tended to have more frequent reported contact if their child was a boy, particularly if the child was older at the point of separation.   

For the measure of mother’s reported parenting competence, the project found no significant differences between the initial parenting confidence in those mothers who went on to separate and those that did not. This suggests that lower parenting confidence is not a contributing factor to parental separation. For those mothers whose relationship did breakdown, there was a significant drop in belief of parenting competence, but this difference from non-separated mothers disappeared when maternal depression rates and children’s behaviour was factored in. The researchers concluded that higher rates of maternal depression and child behaviour problems came out of parental separation, and either situation led to mothers reporting reduced parenting competence. When looking at the time span for separations, the project found that there was no improvement in perceived parenting competence in mothers over time – mothers who had been separated for longer did not report higher competence than those who had recently separated. There was also no correlation between the amount of reported contact separated fathers had with their children and mothers’ perception of the parenting competence. 


This research used the Millennium Cohort Study, a UK-wide study of around 19,000 children who were born between September 2000 and January 2002. The study surveys children and their families when the child is aged around 9 months and when they are 3, 5, 7 and 11 years old. The study includes detailed questions about parenting activities and has information on family context and parental characteristics. 

In investigating the aspects of post-separation reported contact that father’s had with their children, the child’s mother was asked at each survey whether there was contact with the non-resident father, and if there was, how often this was. Once the child was aged five years, mothers were also asked whether the child stayed overnight with their non-resident father. To compare this reported contact with the father’s reported parenting before separation, the researchers constructed an index of parenting activities which summarised the father’s involvement with their child, which included nappy changing. feeding, reading to the child, playing games and putting them to bed. The researchers also noted whether the father looked after the child on their own. The study was also used to determine how close a father felt to his child and how competent he felt as a parent.

In the second part of the study, investigating maternal reported parenting competence, mothers completed a questionnaire when their child was aged 3, aged 5 and again at age 7. The researchers compared the reported competence of mothers who remained in intact relationships with those who had experienced relationship breakdown. They also considered whether the results differed if information about the mother’s mental health or information about behavioural difficulties in the child were included. Having compared separated and non-separated mothers, the researchers also looked at reported parenting competencies among separated mothers and examined whether the length of separation or the amount of time the child had with the father had an impact on perceived maternal competence.  

Findings for policy

The researchers demonstrated that looking at pre-separation parenting is important when trying to understand patterns of post-separation contact. The reearchers recommend that policymakers would do well to consider how to support fathers’ participation in child care in the family home, e.g. through extended paternal leave and increased financial compensation, in order to facilitate more collaborative parenting after separation.

This research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, as part of their Family Justice Projects, a stream of work which investigates the way children and their families come into contact with the legal system. 

The project was reported on in the press, with The Guardian picking up on the notion that men are likely to have more contact with sons, than daughters:

The report was also featured in Society Central and Discover Society



To read the report in full, plus the working papers produced by the project, please go to the Nuffield Foundation project page