Moving On: The Expansion of the Family Network After Parents Separate




This is the third of three reports commissioned by the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada. These reports use family history data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth[1] (NLSCY) to explore the impact of parents' conjugal behaviour on their children's family environment and economic well-being. The previous report focussed on the first and most common transition experienced by children: their parents' separation. In this report, we move on, looking at the expansion of children's family networks, as separated mothers and fathers continue their conjugal and parental life courses, entering new unions and creating new families.

The report is divided into two main sections. The first section focusses on the arrival of new parents, stepsiblings and half-siblings, showing how complex and diverse the experience of family life has become for Canadian children. In the second section, we explore how children perceive their relationship with parents and parent figures, and we attempt to gain an insight into how these relationships are affected by their family life pathways.

Research Approach

The retrospective "Family and Custody History" section of the NLSCY provides complete conjugal and parental histories of each child's biological parents, whether or not they live in the same household. This makes it possible not only to reconstitute children's family life pathways, but also to extend the study of family networks beyond the residential group. With growing proportions of children spending a decreasing number of years in a family that includes their two biological parents, close family members who play an important role in a child's life do not necessarily live in the same household.

The family life course analyses in Section 1 are based on information collected from the NLSCY longitudinal sample of approximately 15,000 children included in the first two survey cycles, and aged between 2 and 13 years at Cycle 2 (1996–97). The analyses of children's perception of their "parents" draw on data collected at the third cycle in 1998–99 for children aged 10–15 years who completed the child-based questionnaire.



Perhaps the most important policy contribution of the life course analyses is that they promote awareness of the growing fluidity and diversity of family life in Canada. To avoid simplistic solutions to complex situations, it is essential to appreciate the shifting nature of family circumstances after separation. In many cases, for example, arrangements made at separation in terms of custody, visiting and child support will need to be modified in response to changes in mothers' or fathers' conjugal or parental situation.

As more parents become responsible for children from two or more unions, they will increasingly have to address the competing needs of these children. Similarly, issues related to stepparents' rights and responsibilities now apply to an increasing proportion of families. Already, the majority of separated parents face this situation; with rising numbers of adults and children in step-relationships, these relationships are likely to become more rather than less important.