Children of broken homes 'rely on friends'

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The Independent Online

Only five per cent of children from broken homes believe their parents' separation was properly explained to them, research suggests .

Instead it was their grandparents and schoolfriends – even for children as young as five – who turned out to be their greatest source of comfort. Researchers from King's College London, working on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, discovered that a quarter of children felt that no one talked to them at all about the reasons for their parents' split, while only 5 per cent said they had been encouraged to ask questions.

Professor Judy Dunn, author of the report, said: "It doesn't mean that parents never said a word. It may mean parents said something, felt the message had got through and then didn't return to that difficult topic because they themselves are extremely confused. This is not a parent-blaming exercise, it just makes the point that you may need to return to the issues several times and talk about it in different ways."

She said the two surprise factors that emerged from the study of children – who were predominantly aged five to ten – were their reliance on grandparents and their own friends in the weeks after the split.

"Children do feel close to their maternal grandparents in particular and they talk to them in the first weeks after the split. Grandparents have not been considered as part of the story at all until now," Professor Dunn said.

Children are less likely to suffer from behavioural problems such as anxiety and aggression, depression or difficulties at school if they have a close relationship with their grandparents, the research showed.

"The second surprise which came out when we asked children who they talked to about their concerns was that they said their friends. Friends are enormously important and psychologists are only just waking up to that fact," the author said. Few of the children in the study felt they could confide in teachers or counsellors.

"Although policy-makers have become increasingly aware over the past five years of the need to consider the child's perspective, very little has been done about actually asking children their views. It may sound like a cliché but we have an awful lot to learn from them."

The study, which interviewed 460 youngsters aged five to 16, found that children were more likely to report negative family relationships if they were the product of teenage parents or had seen their parents have several live-in partners.

Those who lived with single mothers enjoyed just as warm a relationship with them as those in two-parent families and had more shared activities.

And more than half the children who spent time in two different households because their parents had separated took a surprisingly positive view of their situation. However, they expressed a desire to see the non-resident parent more often, even making practical suggestions such as visiting times at weekends rather than weekdays so more time could be spent together.

She explained that children as young as five displayed largely the same views as older children. "The children and young people who took part in this study have identified a number of important issues which parents and those who advise and support families will find helpful," Professor Dunn said.