Young People's Perceptions of Families and Experiences of Family Structure Change
An increasing number of young people are faced with familial transformations. It is important to understand how young people conceptualise families before investigating their experiences of family transitions. Two mixed method studies were carried out in order to investigate young people's perceptions of families and experiences of family structure change. In Study One the perceptions of 111 children from different family structures and cultures were examined. Lone-parent families, stepfamilies, extended family, non-residential parents, and couples with children were highly endorsed. No great distinctions were made between married and cohabiting couples when the relationship included children. Definitions of 'family' frequently mentioned affective factors. In comparing ethnic groups and family structures some differences were noted, but in general children have many similarities in their family concepts. Comparisons with a recent study of adolescents did not reveal clear-cut developmental sequences in young people's perceptions. Overall, an inclusive and realistic view of families was expressed. Most research regarding children and separation has focused solely on the impact of family change on young people. Furthermore, children's perspectives have frequently come from an adult perspective. Consequently, Study Two was a longitudinal investigation of young people's accounts of their own experiences of family transitions, in addition to their adjustment. Two interviews were conducted with 52 young people that formed either the early-stage separation group (ESG, 1-10 months since separation) or the later-stage separation group (LSG, 14-24 months). Approximately 18 months following the first interview (Time 1) a second interview (Time 2) was carried out. The interviews explored their experiences of separation, while eight instruments measured their adjustment in the domains of individual wellbeing and family dynamics. The participants expressed a wide array of experiences. Some of these were shared experiences irrespective of the stage of separation. Both negative and positive experiences were reported. The majority of participants mentioned the reduction in parental conflict as a positive experience and missing their nonresident parent as a negative factor. Fewer negative experiences and more positive experiences were reported at Time 2 compared to Time 1. Similarly, at Time 2 the young people expressed fewer negative feelings about the separation and more positive feelings. The multivariate analysis of variance technique was used to analyse participants' adjustment to parental separation. From Time 1 to Time 2 the young people's individual wellbeing and family dynamics significantly improved. For those in the later stages of separation, family dynamics and individual wellbeing remained relatively stable over time. For those in the early stages of separation, time resulted in improved family dynamics and individual wellbeing levels that were comparable with those in the later stages of separation. This exemplifies their resiliency and is consistent with Amato's (2000) 'divorce-stress-adjustment' perspective. In summary, in Study One the children were remarkably pragmatic in their acceptance of family diversity. In Study Two the young people voiced an array of individual and collective opinions and experiences of parental separation. For these young people parental separation was a process of negative and positive experiences and influences that over time resulted in improved adjustment.