Narrator Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Sophie Guy [00:00:08] You’re with Sophie Guy. And today I’m joined again by Dr. Priscilla Dunk-West, a sociologist and social worker from the Flinders University of South Australia. Priscilla started her social work career in child protection and later went on to specialise in sexual health counselling and has worked in academia in both Australia and England. She’s currently a senior lecturer in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders. Today she joins me to discuss a piece of research she conducted into the positive experiences of parenting after separation and what it looks like when it goes well.
[00:00:44] Hi Priscilla, thank you very much for joining me again for an Emerging Minds podcast episode.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:00:49] No problem, I’m happy to be here.
Sophie Guy [00:00:51] To start with, I wanted to speak a bit about the fact that it seems to be so well-known that separation of whether it’s divorce, separating parents seems to have a negative impact on kids, seems to come up in study after study as a risk factor for kids’ mental health. So I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that and perhaps give some nuance to that.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:01:13] It’s really interesting, isn’t it? There’s a couple of kind of issues that feed into each other that produce the knowledge that we have currently about children’s experiences of parental separation. And I think that they come from different sources. And I can speak both as someone who’s worked in child protection, for example, and have worked with children who have experienced trauma as well as as a researcher. And that’s where things kind of get interesting. Our knowledge is produced in broader social and cultural contexts. So if we think about divorce, for example, over the past few decades, so say in the late seventies when no filed divorce came about, we think of generations of people who perhaps didn’t have, if we’re talking about heterosexual families, didn’t perhaps didn’t have their father around anymore after parental separation, that was quite common. And if we kind of reflect on the social sort of situation-ness of parenting, we’re much more aware of father’s roles now, for example. That’s one example of the, the shifting landscape within which we think about family and we think about parenting. Now, the other thing as a researcher is that we only know the answers to the questions that we ask. So if we’re going in with the understanding that, or the, the underlying belief that divorce equals bad for children, then we’re going to frame research questions that ask that very question in different ways.
So even asking, for example, what are the impacts of divorce on children? What are the negative impacts of divorce on children, even that research question comes from an understanding that this is necessarily going to be a traumatic event for a child. It’s going to be difficult for the child and that there is something wrong with divorce and separation. Now, if we look at that in terms of research, we know that people separate, relationships break down. I think there’s around fifty-thousand people per year who divorce in Australia with children. So relationships break down. It’s happening. But the question is, as researchers, is it always as bad as we think it is? Now, this study came about because we looked at the literature, I was speaking to a colleague and we’re both sociologists and we sort of were thinking about the stories of people we knew who had done kind of slightly creative things with their separation. So they had done a thing called bird nesting, where the child remains in the family home. And it’s the parents who come in and out and parent the children and take it in turns. And we knew of people who did things like that or couples who weren’t couples anymore in an intimate sense but stayed within a family home to raise the children. So different sort of iterations of, or nuances that spoke to a very different understanding that we have of divorce or separation. So what we wanted to do was to find out what are people doing now that we know more about the importance, say, of the role of fathers in children’s development and wellbeing. Now that we know more about being child-centred, we know the importance of parenting much more than we ever have. So in that social kind of context, things have really shifted. So we looked at the literature and guess what? There was nothing there. There was nothing that showcased what people were doing when they did it well. So we designed a study where we said, okay, people in Australia, tell us if you have what you might term a ‘positive post-separation parenting’ relationship. Very wordy. But, you know, things go quite well. You feel like you successfully co-parent. And so we look for those people and we ask them their stories.
Sophie Guy [00:05:26] Okay. Can I just stop you there? And I want to take you back first. I’m just curious, you said you did look into the literature and it has a lot to do with the questions that asked. Who are the kids that divorces is having a, I know it’s not just divorce, is separation of, you know, the main caregivers in the child’s life. When does it impact a child in a negative way?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:05:47] In some ways, that’s a difficult question to answer, because there’s so much going on in children’s lives, but what we do know is that high-conflict families, obviously families where there’s violence, inherently is going to affect a child’s sense of wellbeing, you know, their emotional wellbeing, their feelings of safety. What we know about child development is that children need clear boundaries. They need consistency, some children need more consistency than others. And we know that throughout a child’s life, these needs changes shift according to their cognitive and social development. [Mm hmm]. And so things like for one child, changing schools, for example, might be a really significant event in their life, but that might depend on how that’s discussed, talked about, how that’s planned for, at what age that takes place, and so all of those factors are going to have an impact on that experience for that child, in the same way that parental separation, depending on how it happens, will have particular impact on it on a child. Now, this includes communicating with children about what’s happening. It includes consistent practises, which is, again, one of the findings of the study that I can talk about a bit later. And so it depends. I guess the point I’m making is that divorce and separation is not inherently going to negatively impact children. Now, this is quite a radical idea, and I think it speaks to the amount of stigma we have that sits around divorce and separation, when children are involved.
Sophie Guy [00:07:28] Yes. And is it also to do with, I suppose, our own experiences with relationship breakdown? I mean, it can be an incredibly stressful and difficult time.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:07:41] Absolutely. Absolutely. And it is, it can be an absolutely heartbreaking time. And we know that parents who have children when they’re going through their own issues are going to, it may impact on their parenting. We also know that children are highly intuitive, can pick up the vibe of the household, can see that mummy or daddy or other mummy is upset, beside themselves, inconsistent. We know that those things can occur. I guess it’s not to say that divorce and separation are, “well, it’s happening and everything’s fine.” It’s a really tricky time in people’s lives. But I think the hopeful thing about this study is that it shows that there can be a way through.
Sophie Guy [00:08:25] So you started to talk a little bit about the motivation, how you came to be looking at this research question, and who participated in the study and how did you find people to participate?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:08:36] So it was a qualitative study. So we were interested in a small amount of people. And usually studies like that are around, you know, about twenty-five to thirty people, so it’s research that really looks at the nuances and has deep conversations with people. What do you think about this? What was this like for you? Can you tell me more about that? And so really looking at people’s stories. In terms of recruitment and this, again, speaks to the lack of research in this area, we had a lot of media coverage. So we contacted media who said, “oh, this is a fair. Oh this is interesting. You’re looking at this.” And so we had a lot of coverage in print, radio, media. And then we invited people to contact us to talk to us about their experiences. We wanted kind of roughly, you know, men and women. We included any kind of relationship in terms of whether it was heterosexual or same sex relationships were included.
Sophie Guy [00:09:41] What were the questions you were asking in the project?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:09:44] So we had open-ended conversations. And so beginning off saying, you know, “tell us how your relationship ended?” And then going into a kind of process of a very dynamic exchange with somebody where we pick up on particular things that people might say, a bit like what you’re doing with me in the conversation, but it has some depth. And so if you’re unsure, you go back and you check for meaning and, and find out more about that. So we had key things that we wanted to know. [Mm hmm]. We wanted to know the age of the children, we wanted to know how long people have been separated, we wanted to know whether, you know, whether things were always like that. And we found lots of very interesting things.
Sophie Guy [00:10:28] Yeah. [Yeah]. Great. [Yeah]. So in a nutshell, what were some of your key, key findings?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:10:33] Well, this may not surprise you, but the absolute key finding the sat across every story was a parent’s capacity to see the world from their child’s perspective. [Okay]. So being child-centred was absolutely at the core of things. It was around considering what life must be like for their child or children and how that might change across their life course, how that might change in terms of the process of separation. And so it was this absolute ability to, a, use their imagination and b, understand the environmental factors and other sources of information like say, you know, their child’s engagement at the school or some other relationship that they have with another adult to really understand, to put these pieces of skills together, not unlike what we do in social work when we become child-centred. But to put these together, to really see the world from their child’s perspective and to understand their emotional, social, environmental, educational needs.
Sophie Guy [00:11:42] So this came through as a common theme as what parents were doing or what caregivers were doing in context with separating, and it was going quite well.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:11:52] Absolutely. Absolutely. So a parent might say, “you know, things were, things were really hard at the beginning, they were awful. But I knew that my son, you know, needed me to be the best me I could be.” Now, that’s an example of the ability to, for a parent to kind of go, “yep, things aren’t necessarily great, but that’s going to sit over there for a bit, and I’m going to focus on what my child needs from me as a parent.” It just sat across, it sat across everything. And in terms of the kind of the littler themes and that they weren’t little in the sense that they weren’t significant, but they were all connected to this sense of child-centredness. So, for example, people talked about communication. So communication was a key theme that came through know as in communication with both their child or children, but also with their ex-partner. Now, for some people, there were at least a couple of people in the study who came from very high conflict in terms of having arguments, lots of tension, family court, you know, tensions, battles over where the child would stay, what, what, what co-parenting would look like. But we were able to, across time, navigate that terrain to develop a positive post-separation parenting relationship. And that’s really interesting because I think a lot of people think, “this is awful now, it’s always going to be like this. This is always going to be a struggle.” But if there’s goodwill from both parties to be good parents and to do, you know, positive co-parenting, that really helps that process.
Sophie Guy [00:13:41] And from what you’re saying, maybe goodwill can develop over time.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:13:43] Absolutely. Absolutely. Was reflected upon as being something that developed over time. So communication was really an interesting one. So often we think of communication in terms of written communication or verbal communication. And those things were certainly there. So for some people, when they first separated, everything was very formal, everything was written down, or it was through text messages or emails. And there were, there was that method of communication chosen because it’s the least emotive. Right, it’s very factual. “I will pick up the child from, you know, on Tuesday.” Very kind of factual. And people talked about that, having sometimes to revert to that, just to get back on track. And then other times, people who were co-parents had a family meal once a month. And so communicated verbally through food practises and consumption of nice food together as a, as a family.
The most interesting thing, I think, for me as a sociologist and social researcher was the absence of communication. So people talked about letting go, letting go of the little niggles that they might have. So if you imagine people who have been in an intimate relationship for a long time, have had children together, they kind of get each other and sometimes they know how to push each other’s buttons. And so what people talked about was, was not sweating the small stuff. So whereas somebody might say something that would have irritated them in the past as a, as a partner and intimate partner. People said, “once we separated, I would just bite my tongue. I would just let that go.” And that was one of our key themes in terms of communication. So it wasn’t about what was said, it was about holding back, which is a particularly interesting communicative technique that helped develop that goodwill across the co-parenting relationship.
Sophie Guy [00:15:52] So you talked about parents being very child-centred and being very helpful and different ways of communicating. What else came out of the study? Were there some other key findings?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:16:04] Home. Where does a child live? Where the children live. I talked about the bird nesting example before.
Sophie Guy [00:16:11] Did you say before what it is? Could you just say again what [sure] bird nesting is?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:16:15] So bird nesting is when the children remain in the family home and the parents separate. And one of the parents is present at the home looking after the children in the family home when it’s their turn to parent. And then they leave, and the other co-parent comes in. Now, where they leave too varied. So obviously, this depends on people’s financial resources, right, because if you’ve got three houses, potentially, so you’ve got one for the children that the parents come in and out of and then each parent has their own space. It’s going to cost a bit of money. [Yes]. So some people share shared spaces. [Wow]. So, yeah.
Sophie Guy [00:16:57] So this wasn’t like one or two stories. Like people are doing it?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:17:01] Honestly, people listening to this podcast, you know, once you start talking to people, people go, “oh yeah I know of some people who did that.” [Right]. You know, they did it for six months or they are still doing it. People are doing it, it’s just that we’re just not massively aware of it. And I think that’s the other thing, that one of the reasons I wanted to do the study, because at the end we asked, what advice would you give to other people who are in this situation? And I think until we start showcasing what, how people made it work, we don’t know what possibilities there might be to do this thing called divorce and separation with children differently. You know what I mean? [Yeah]. But also, people are doing it differently. They’re doing it creatively because some, and this is, you know, this isn’t in a finding from the study, but I do think that there is a generation of people who grew up with having experienced or being children of high conflict divorces, and divorces and separations, perhaps where one parent was absent. And this kind of desire, “I don’t want to do that to my child, that was that was bad for me”, you know? So in terms of homes, homes are places of their sites where children have to feel safe. They’ve got to feel able to be nurtured, and they need routines. So the other thing, I suppose, about this co-parenting is that as children grow, their needs change. So you imagine a three-year-old who needs their favourite teddy, how is that going to go across households? So co-parents had to talk about that. Are they going to have two of those teddies? What’s that going to mean for the child? If it’s across to households? How are things going to be transported and how can you ensure that a child doesn’t feel like they’re living out of a suitcase all the time?
So those kinds of considerations really came through. And again, was something that had to be communicated between the co-parents. There was one person that was thinking about just then, we were talking about houses when they said, “well, they eat healthier food at my house.” So even food practises across households kind of differed. You know, maybe one family’s vegetarian and the other eats meat. How important is that? How big is that? And so participants talked about kind of going, “on the scheme of things, not massively a biggie, but maybe bedtime should be consistent, or maybe, you know, it’s really important that this three-year-old has that teddy everywhere they go and let’s work to make that happen.” So, again, that goes back to being child-centred, really understanding what that means for the child, what home means for the child. Home is a site of family practise. It’s practises that engage children in their development, whether it’s social engagement that helps their social development through visiting friends. And so geographical distance can be an issue as well, if there’s a distance between across two households, if there’s educational involvement, how are co-parents going to facilitate those things?
Sophie Guy [00:20:16] And are you saying that not all parents sort of started out this way? That [absolutely, yes, yes]. That you noticed through what they were telling you that it’s something that they developed over time. [Yes]. And was part of what made it work well?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:20:32] Yes. [Yeah]. So when we recruited people, we only wanted to hear from people who felt like they had a positive post-separation parenting relationship. That they would describe it as being pretty good, pretty successful. We wanted to specifically hear about those stories, but that didn’t mean it was perfect. There were some kind of bumps along the road sometimes that people talked about, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t overall feel that they were able to successfully co-parent. Does that make sense? [Yeah]. It was really two people muddling through and doing the best they could for their child and making it work. And the interesting thing about participants is that they talked about the importance of family and friends for them in terms of supporting that. [Mm hmm]. But they also a lot of people, I heard this so much, a lot of people said, “all our friends think we are just weird. [Right]. They think we’re so weird because we don’t hate each other, because we communicate, because we see each other.” And that’s interesting because, again, that’s the overlooked norm in terms of the research question, right? It’s not that weird, people are doing these things. And we think it’s weird because there’s such a stigma and a stereotype around divorce and separation that things have to be always angry, conflictual that the relationship is over when actually it just takes a different form. If there’s a commitment to the child, to being a parent.
Sophie Guy [00:22:08] Yes. Yeah. And a divorce or separation could also be one of these big events that trigger sort of opportunities for growth, isn’t it as well, you know?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:22:18] Absolutely. Yes. And divorce and separation are so common now that in terms of if we think about human development or lifespan development, it’s actually normative for sort of talking, you know, in terms of developmental theory. Think about, you know, being a teenager and adolescent and you’re working out who you are. You’re working out your identity. You think about people entering the workforce or education. We think about people partner up. Most people in Australia, the majority of people at some point in their lives will be in an intimate relationship. And it’s so common now that it’s become normative that there will likely be a relationship breakdown at some point. [Yes]. So this is a normative, life event. And people have various ways of making sense of that. And obviously, it depends on the kind of context, but it’s the ability to shift from seeing that person as I guess both an ex-partner but seeing them as the co-parent of your child.
Sophie Guy [00:23:20] Okay. Yeah. And I’m wondering, did you hear anything about the child’s perspective in these families and what it was like for them or what they thought was helpful in making this a positive post-separation environment?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:23:41] I’d love to do a study on this, I probably will down the track. Whenever I spoke to people about this and I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, this is sort of more anecdotal, but a lot of older people, as in adults, spoke about having experienced exactly this, a positive post-separation parenting arrangement when they were growing up. And again, they said, “everyone thought we were weird because our parents didn’t hate each other.” There were people who had those stories as well, but I think there’s more research now, we need to know more about this in particular, about younger children’s needs and perhaps adolescent needs, and, you know, middle school age, would be really interesting studies I think to better understand the meanings and the way that they, I suppose the sense-making that they make out of it. The only kind of data we have about this is the reflections of the parents involved in the study. You know, engaging in conversations about, “when you’re with me, let’s do the same thing that we do when you’re with your dad.” So there was that sort of communication with the child.
Sophie Guy [00:24:50] Yeah. And so what has come out of that research? I know you’ve put together a guide, but is it sort of informing any other work or teaching that you’re doing?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:25:00] My research always informs my teaching because I’m always talking about my research in my teaching. [Yeah]. I’ve put out a guide and it’s not a big, long research paper. It’s written with lots of quotes from participants in their own words. And so there’s that. And then, of course, you know, being an academic, we have published a couple of papers on this. And again, media has reported on this. So the findings and dissemination, I suppose, of the research has been quite highly taken up. So, yeah, I think, I think there is interest in it. And I think it is because it’s something that we often overlook. We often overlook researching things that we know kind of anecdotally, but they don’t fit with the stereotype or the set ideas we have about particular things like divorce, which has, you know, single parenting, for example, still has such a high stigma attached to it. And so does divorce, with children.
Sophie Guy [00:26:10] Maybe not so much after today.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:26:12] Well let’s hope not.
Sophie Guy [00:26:15] Do you know of any resources that can support parents to support children through separation in particular?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:26:21] Relationships Australia do a bit of work in this area. They have a practical toolkit where they’ll ask questions like, what happens at birthdays? What happens on Father’s Day? What happens on Mother’s Day? What’s what’s going to happen at Christmas? Those kinds of practical things are good places to start because they make people start to reflect that, okay, a, life’s changed, and b, we need to kind of think these things through together and come to some sort of agreement. So starting with those practical challenges, I think are really useful. And so, yes, Relationships Australia do have a template. I think they use a resource, yeah.
Sophie Guy [00:27:03] If you were to give some key messages, perhaps for practitioners who are faced with a family that are going through separation, is there anything you could suggest and some advice, I guess, from the things that came out of your study?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:27:17] Yeah. I mean, obviously, this would be for people where there isn’t domestic and family violence because that would be a whole different set of practises that workers would engage in. [Mm hmm]. Trying to encourage people to see each other as co-parents and to engage in practises where they do that role-shifting. So, yes, as a partner, they used to do that thing that used to annoy you. However, as a co-parent, what’s important? So to get people to really shift their focus from seeing that person as their intimate partner to seeing them as someone who is absolutely important in their child’s life and who they want in their child’s life, they want their child to have this other person in their life and they honour and value that the other parent is a good parent. That, that seems to be something that I think is important for people. Also being able to engage in imaginative practises, you know, imagine what it might be like for your child to spend three days at one household and then three days at the other household. What might that be like at your child’s age? You know, tell me about your child. Does your child need consistent bedtimes? Does your child need stories at night? Is your child entering into adolescence? Do they need ways to contact you when they’re at the other house? [Mm hmm]. Those sorts of things help parents, I think, to engage in those imaginative practises. And as social workers or people working with parents in that context, having people to kind of try to imagine life through the lens of their child, I think can be really useful. And I think that’s one of the things that emerges through that is an understanding of just how exhausting it can be to live out of a suitcase or to be on the move all the time and not have a consistent space to be in. And how discombobulating that can be, particularly in the transition day, for example, the day from going somewhere to somewhere else. So to really understand the impact that that might have for their child or children.
Sophie Guy [00:29:43] Is there anything else you want to say?
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West [00:29:45] I guess the only thing that I would finish with is that when we asked people, tell us what, what advice would you give to, you know, what advice would you give? It was things like, “don’t sweat the small stuff, just stay focussed on your parenting, on being a parent.” And the other key thing, people really wanted others to know that it gets better. So one participant just said, “I just want people to know it gets better and better and better and better. Once you put in place these practises of co-parenting that are child-centred across time, they get stronger and stronger and stronger.”
Sophie Guy [00:30:25] Excellent. Alright, let’s leave it there, then. Thank you so much, Priscilla, I really appreciate your time.
Dr Priscilla Dunk-West No problem, pleasure.
Narrator Visit our website www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.