Researchers have looked to a range of social, financial and psychological factors to account for differences in outcomes where they exist. These factors may have preceded the disruption, occurred afterwards or both. They illuminate the reality and variation in the lives of children caught up in family change and disruption.

On the psychological dimension, family disruption, with or without conflict, is likely to be stressful and upsetting. Children are frequently reported to suffer from a loss of self-esteem. They may, although not inevitably, experience reduced or ‘diminished’ parenting and perhaps limited or lost contact with a parent. Domestic life may be more chaotic and less certain and secure. Supportive, attentive and authoritative parenting, which increases children’s welfare, may be limited, in the short term at least, by parents’ own distress.

Children may have experienced intense psychological stress and distress where family life has been characterized by disharmony, conflict or violence, particularly where they have witnessed or been embroiled in it. The more intense and long-lasting are the stress and distress, the greater are the behaviour and psychological consequences likely to be (Chase-Lansdale and Hetherington 1990). For these children their parents’ parting may provide relief and allow them to establish or improve and enjoy relationships with each separately. On the other hand, some marriages and cohabiting relationships end without conflict. Moreover, disharmony between separating parents may increase as, for example, financial arrangements have to be made and visits between children and their now non-resident parent agreed (Cockett and Tripp 1994).

It is unlikely that all parental relationships are characterized by conflict before they break down, nor that the conflict is always witnessed by their children. The discovery by researchers, therefore, that children’s outcomes may be affected even before their parents part suggests the possibility of more subtle links between the quality of family relationships and children’s well-being and development.

Disrupted and lone-parent families frequently have diminished, inadequate and insecure incomes. Indeed recent research by Martin Richards and Jane Elliott (n. d.) has found that, on the point of separation, these families in all social groups were much more likely to be experiencing financial hardship than were those who remained together. Research has rarely been able to assess how much of any difference in outcome between children from lone and intact families might be accounted for by low family income per se.9 Limited financial resources, and the extent to which family income is suddenly reduced, creates practical difficulties in caring adequately for children and adds stress. Impoverished living standards may well have adverse consequences for children, limiting, for example, their ability to achieve in school (Ferri 1976; McLanahan 1988). Some young people may leave school and/or home earlier than they would otherwise have done because of financial hardship.

Family disruption may mean having to move home and school; neither may be welcome or easy for children and both may entail the loss of supportive school, family and social networks and the security, familiarity and continuity that these provide in children’s everyday lives.