When Parents Separate: Further Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth




This report was commissioned by the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada as part of a project using data from the "Family History and Custody" section of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) to explore the impact of parents' family transitions on children's family environment and economic well-being. This is the first of two reports exploring the way in which parents' conjugal behaviour shapes the family life course of their children. In this report, we focus on the beginning of the child's life course, situating the birth within the family life course of the parents, and looking at the first and most common transition experienced by children: their parents' separation.

The report is divided into four sections. The first two set the scene, updating and expanding earlier analyses of changes in the context at birth for children born during the last two decades of the 20th century, comparing the different regions of Canada, and exploring how this evolution influences the likelihood that parents separate. The other two sections focus on the way separated parents share responsibility for their children's physical and economic support, with particular reference to shared "physical" custody,[1] and to the new information on custody and child support collected for the first time at Cycle 3.

Research Approach

With information about the same children collected at intervals of every two years, the NLSCY is a unique data source for studying Canadian children and families at the turn of the 21st century. The present research is based on data from the first three survey cycles, conducted during the winters of 1994-95, 1996-97 and 1998-99. By Cycle 3, the original longitudinal cohort numbered approximately 15,000 children aged 4-15 years; additional samples of young children were added at Cycles 2 and 3, bringing the total number of children participating in the survey at Cycle 3 to approximately 32,000. The analyses in this report draw on different samples of these children—the complete population, particular birth cohorts, or children with separated parents—depending on the topic being explored.


  • The context at birth changed dramatically during the last two decades, with almost one-third of Canadian children born outside marriage by the turn of the century. Comparing the oldest and youngest NLSCY children, born in 1983-84 and 1997-98 respectively, shows:
    • The proportion of Canadian children born within marriage dropped from 85% to 69%.
    • More Canadians are choosing to establish their family within a common-law union; the proportion of children born to cohabiting couples rose from 9% to 22%. Although largely the result of births in Quebec, there has also been a significant increase elsewhere in Canada, with proportions doubling in Ontario and the Prairies, and almost tripling in Eastern Canada.
    • Births to single mothers increased from 6% to 10%. In the Atlantic provinces, where proportions are highest, one in six (16%) babies were born outside a union by 1997-98.
    • The proportion of children born within the second family established by their mother or father rose from 11% among the oldest cohorts to 18% among the youngest.
  • The probability of parental separation rose throughout Canada during the 1980s,but leveled off by the early 1990s.
    • The rise was not uniform and created greater variation between the regions.
    • Ontario and British Columbia registered the steepest increases during the 1980s.
    • Among children born in the late 1980s, the highest proportions with parents separating before their tenth birthday were found in Quebec (32%) and British Columbia (29%).
  • Rising rates of separation and out-of-union births mean more children are experiencing life in a lone parent family: one-third of the oldest cohorts (1983-84) had lived in a one-parent family by the age of 15 years, whereas children born just five years (1988-89) later reached this level by their tenth birthday.
  • The 1990s saw a rapid rise in joint custody orders;[2] the proportion of children in shared physicalcustody also rose. Although shared physical custody often transforms into sole custody over time (only 40% of children in shared living arrangements at separation were still alternating between their parents' homes in 1998-99), the fact of the change does not hinder continued long-term involvement of both parents after separation.
  • Although children's participation in the decisions about custody increases with age, many parents decide not to involve their children in decisions about custody. However, when they do, their children's opinion counts.
  • More couples separating in the late 1990s appear to reach a child support agreement within a relatively short period after they separate. However, child support payments were expected for under two-thirds (63%) of child support agreements reached for children (aged 4-15 years in 1998-99) whose parents separated in that period at the end of the 1990s.
  • When payments are part of the support agreement, they are mostly regular and for the full amount, at least within a relatively short period (up to two years) after the separation: regular payments were made for 84% of children, and more than 90% of regular payments were paid in full.
  • Private formal child support agreements are associated with more reliable support payments than private informal agreements or agreements contained in a court order.
  • Shared living arrangements and sole father custody are more common in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. Shared custody is also more durable, agreements made about custody and access are more strictly adhered to, and children are more often consulted about these arrangements in Quebec.


Taking a life course perspective on children's family experience provides new insights with important policy implications. The pathway into a lone-parent family, for example, is linked to the type of lifestyle a child is likely to have during the episode, with separated or divorced lone-mother families having a higher standard of living on average than those established by young single mothers. With separation rates stabilizing in the early 1990s and out-of-union birth rates rising, this second entry into single-parent family life is likely to assume a greater relative importance in the next decade. Important regional differences in out-of-union birth rates means that a higher proportion of lone-parent families may be in need of financial assistance in some provinces than in others.

Sharing physical custody, even for a limited period, is associated with continued long-term involvement with both parents. However, the costs and complexity of shared living arrangements make it unworkable at times. Qualitative research into the advantages and problems with shared physical custody is needed, to give parents, mediators and others a better basis from which to judge whether shared custody is appropriate in any given case.

With the vast majority of child support payments being made regularly and on time, the problem appears to be in negotiating an agreement rather than its implementation. While the 1997 Child Support Guidelines have had some success in helping separating couples share financial responsibilities for their children, the high proportion of couples with no support agreement shows there is still some way to go. Some parents do not have the means to pay; for others, the prohibitive financial costs involved when parents fail to agree may mean no child support agreement is reached. Only qualitative research can throw more light on this question.

Finally, this report has highlighted the distinctive nature of Quebec, not only with regard to common-law unions but also in relation to the way parental responsibilities are shared at separation. Is it a result of the different approach to separation and divorce in Quebec law or is it a social rather than a legal phenomenon? This is an interesting avenue for further research, not least to discover whether the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada extend to the impact of separation on children.

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