Breaking up is hard to do – separation can harm mother’s self-confidence as a parent

29 June 2015

The mental trauma of separation can damage a mother’s belief in her parenting ability, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Kent and London School of Economics analysed data from almost 13,000 mothers caring for children born across the UK in 2000-01 who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). They found that mothers who separate from their partners were more likely to suffer from depression, and to have children with behavioural problems.

The study’s authors were also surprised to find that mums who shared parenting responsibilities with an ex-partner did not experience improved confidence in their ability as a mother.

The researchers focused on more than 2,000 mothers, caring for children taking part in the MCS, who had experienced separation during the course of the study. They were asked about their parenting when their child was aged nine months, three, five and seven years old.

Lead author, Dr Tina Haux, University of Kent, suggests that the impact of separation can affect the mental wellbeing of both mother and child.

“The fact that the parenting competence of separated mothers is not influenced by levels of contact with the absent father, suggests that it may be the separation itself, rather than the post-separation arrangements, that undermine confidence in parenting.

“Although a child’s behavioural problems may impact a mother’s assessment of her competence, the shock of separation can affect a mother’s parenting ability, which in turn can increase problems with a child’s behaviour,” she explains.

The study, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, also reveals that although mothers’ mental health tended to recover over time, confidence in their parenting ability did not.

“Our findings on mothers’ parenting confidence suggests that a focus solely on a recovery in her mental health after a separation may not be enough to help get her back on her feet.

“Child’s behaviour also affects perceived competence, and the impact of separation appears to persist over time. Approaches that focus on psychological and practical support around parenting are, therefore, likely to have positive knock-on effects.” Dr Haux concludes.

Further information

Parenting and contact before and after separation by Tina Haux and Lucinda Platt

Back to news listing

Media enquiries

Ryan Bradshaw
Senior Communications Officer

Phone: 020 7612 6516

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL


Follow us