Separation with children: How does it affect mother-child interaction?


It has long been documented that divorce can have negative effects on the well-being of children (Amato, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991), but what about the separation itself between parents with children?  There are several studies to date that have focused on the effects of the dissolution of marriage on the well being of children, however, there was a lack of observational data assessing the effects of separation with children. Researchers Wolfgang Beelmann and Ulrich Schmidt-Denter sought to make up for this lack with a study published in the European Psychologist in 2009.

Beelmann and Schmidt-Denter researched mother-child interactions in 120 families that decided to separate.  They compared 60 separated mother and child pairs to 60 intact family pairs.  The average age of the children for both groups was approximately seven years.  Raters who were unaware of the family type (i.e., separated vs. intact) rated the videotaped interactions on a scale assessing twelve observation categories.

The results of the study suggest that behavior of both adults and children may be affected by consequences of separation.  The diminished capacity to parent that has been described as common among parents immediately following divorce, also appears to occur with mothers who are separated but not yet divorced.  Mothers in this group appeared to be more distant and less attending of the emotional needs of their children.   The interaction behavior between mothers and daughters appeared to be better than interaction between mothers and sons.  Of particular interest in this study was the finding that the behavior of the children in the two groups did not significantly differ in independent ratings of behavior with their mothers.  That is, children appeared to interact the same with their mothers whether or not their mother’s were separated from their fathers at the point in time the study was conducted.

What are the implications of these findings?

The Beelmann and Schmidt study yields some interesting findings.  Like the results of previous self-report research, this study revealed behavioral indicators of parent distress, and a diminished capacity to parent effectively.  However, the most interesting finding is no significant difference in child behavior across both groups (i.e., separated versus not separated).  Both groups of children did not appear to show signs of distress. The authors suggest that maybe children are initially trying not to upset their parents following the initial split in living arrangements.  Literature shows that child behavior tends to worsen overall when parents move forward with divorce.

Although child behavior in this study didn’t appear to indicate distress, mothers going through separation in this study appeared more distant in their interactions with their children. Interventions for children that have focused on increasing positive parent-child interaction during and after the divorce process have yielded positive results for improving child functioning (Wolchik, Sandler, Weiss, & Winslow, 2007).  The most important element in these interventions appears to be  short periods of positive attention during child play where the adult is simply following the child’s lead and positively commenting on their play.  This can be especially difficult when a mother is emotionally exhausted when going through a separation with children.  However, even brief periods of parent-child play (e.g., fifteen minutes a day) may have beneficial effects for a child during the separation and divorce process.



Amato, P.R. (2001). Children of divorce in the 1990’s: An update of the Amato and

Keith (1991) meta-analysis.  Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 355-370.


Amato, P.R. & Keith, B. (1991). Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A

meta-analysis.  Psychological Bulletin, 110, 24-46.


Beelman, W. & Schmidt-Denter, U. (2009).  Mother-child interaction following

marital separation.  European Psychologist, 14, 307-319.


Wolchik, S., Sandler, I., Weiss, L., & Winslow, E. (2007). New beginnings: An

empirically-based program to help divorced mothers promote resilience in

their children.  In Briesmeister, J.M. & Schaefer, C.E. (Eds.).  Handbook of

parent training (pp.25-62). New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.

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