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New study examines the effect of a parental separation on kids. Here's what experts say

A new study shows how a parental separation impacts family time. (Photo: Getty)
A new study shows how a parental separation impacts family time. (Photo: Getty)

Breakups are difficult under any circumstances, but they can be particularly tricky when children are involved. Now, a new study breaks down how children's time is usually spent after their parents split — and it highlights gender inequities in the process.

The study, which was published in the European Journal of Population, analyzed time diary data from six waves of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a study that follows the development of 10,000 children and families across Australia. The researchers discovered that, after parents separate, the time a mother spends with her children doubles. Children also spend three times less time with both parents and the time a father spends with his children remains low.

These splits also lead to a drop in children's time doing educational activities like study and reading, and an increase in unstructured activities like watching TV, playing video games and using smartphones. There is a gender gap with the children's time, too: Boys are twice as likely as girls to have less educational activities and more unstructured time.

The researchers found that mothers end up eventually spending a similar amount of time with their children after they split from their partners as they did pre-breakup — but it takes up to four years for this to happen.

"Overall, this study implies that parental divorce negatively affects children’s developmental time use, especially among boys, and leads lone mothers to experience increasing ‘time penalties’ associated with gender inequalities in society," the authors concluded.

Breakups happen, and experts stress that parents shouldn't interpret these findings as meaning that a separation will ruin the lives of their children. However, they're not shocked by the study results.

"The findings aren’t surprising," Melissa Santos, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. "We know in the long term kids do better when parents divorce or separate than stay in a relationship that is marked by constant conflict and disagreement. But the road to those long-term benefits can be bumpy."

John Mayer, a clinical psychologist and author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that he "regularly" sees similar situations play out in his practice.

Santos notes that the study findings show that "society still places the primary task of caregiving to mothers." She adds, "we saw what happened with closures in the pandemic and this gender effect be very prominent with women leaving the workforce, reducing their roles or taking more time off to parent and care for their children, even when married."

Mayer says that custody agreements between parents also tend to defer more childcare to moms. "Moms typically have more parenting time with the children than dads," he says. "More critically, dads tend to become complacent about their time with the children."

But experts stress that parents can create a more equal scenario in the wake of a breakup. "Research supports that the more equal parenting can be after a separation, for the most part, kids tend to do better emotionally and have less mood, behavior and sleep disruptions," Santos says.

Santos recommends doing the following to make a breakup as minimally disruptive for kids as possible:

  • Have open communication. "Separation is scary for many children and it can often feel very secretive," she says. "Be age-appropriate, but make sure to keep your child informed of what is happening and underscore that you all are working to make sure they are taken care of."

  • Keep their routines. Santos acknowledges that parental breakups can be disruptive for everyone but advises parents to "stick to family routines and structure as much as possible."

  • Create space for your children to express their feelings. "Kids sometimes don’t express things because they often feel they are told, 'Oh you don’t need to worry about that or don’t think about that,'" Santos says. "Well, they are — so we need to create space for them to be able to share what is on their minds without judgment and for them to be provided reassurance, not to have their big feelings dismissed."

  • Make room for fun. Whether it's taking your child to your local bounce house or just goofing off together at home, making sure that fun is still in their life is important, Santos says.

  • Let them make small decisions. "When it seems like a lot of things are out of their control, getting to decide what the family is going to eat for dinner can let them have some control," Santos says.

  • Reach out to your child's pediatrician. Consult your family pediatrician if you're worried about the impact the separation will have on your child. They've likely seen this before and should have advice, along with a referral to a family therapist, if needed.

Mayer says he often gives this advice to parents going through a breakup: "Use this separation to motivate you to be the best parent that you can be. After all, you separated to make your lives better — now do that for your children."

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