Where do I belong? Children in multi-resident families

What happens to a child’s sense of belonging when growing up in a family of divorce?

Our sense of belonging develops during the early relationship with our primary caretakers, and is of great influence on children's wellbeing and cognitive functioning. Today, more and more children grow up in a family of divorce, or in blended families. Knowledge about how this sense of belonging works, is becoming more important because of this. Because if you feel like you belong, you will feel better and have a better chance of developing optimally. 


Kind op de bank

In The Netherlands, around 70.000 children go through a divorce every year. In a growing number of cases, they grow up in a co-parenting situation (as of now, this goes for 27% of divorced families). This means children live in two separate houses, and grow up with family members who do not (always) live in the same residence. How does this affect children and their families, psychologically as well as ethically? 

A child's sense of belonging can be threatened after a divorce. After all, children have to divide their time and energy between two seperate houses, two neighbourhoods and sometimes new family members; their parents' new partners and sometimes stepbrothers and -sisters

Within this theme, we will follow 250 families of divorce from Utrecht and surroundings, with children between 12 and 18 years of age. Central to our research will be the children's perspective: what is their experience? We will study the quality of communication and interaction after the divorce, and examine how this influences the sense of belonging for children and parents, as well as for the family as a whole. Furthermore, we will investigate the children's adjustment to the new situation.

Autonomy and identity are threatened when children lack a strong sense of connection with parents and friends

What are key factors in a child's sense of belonging? What are the short and long term consequences of divorce, and which aspects do we need to take into consideration (for example, parents, neighbourhood, school, friends, media and legislation, such as contact rights)? We want to find out how we can make sure that children will be all right after a divorce, even if the circumstances are difficult.

Our team combines and integrates knowledge from different disciplines, including geography, linguistics, family law, pedagogical sciences and computer science. Combining our expertise will result in new insights which will not only provide scientifically interesting knowledge, but also give direction to legislators, policy makers at state level, municipalities at a local level, schools and the judiciary.

We are interested in legislation, for example. What is the impact of legal recognition, and parents' contact rights on the family processes, and the children's sense of belonging? We would also like to measure the effects of contact rights on children's daily lives, geographically and timewise.

Another example is research into serious gaming, asking the question if this may be able to help the development of a sense of belonging. One of the possibilities is creating a (partly) virtual environment for children to feel safe in, and staying in touch with their parents without being in the same house. A game may also help children and parents to discuss difficult subjects together.  

Facts and figures

  • Each year, approximately 35,000 Dutch marriages end, not counting the 60,000 informal separations by unmarried couples. 
  • 15 to 20% of children involved develop problems after the divorce. These vary from relatively small issues that will diminish over time, from more serious problems for a smaller group, that worsen as they grow older.
  • After a divorce, most children live with their mother, spending less time (every other weekend, for example) with their father. 
  • Children are naturally loyal to both parents, and need to be able to love both equally. 
  • Pedagogic research shows that the development of autonomy and identity are threatened when children experience no strong sense of connection with parents and friends. 

Symposium 'Belonging in twenty-first century families'

Our team will host a symposium on 3 July, 2018. Join us in exploring how new family forms and growing up in more than one home affect children’s and parents’ sense of belonging and identity. Which factors are important to consider, to prevent these children's sense of belonging from being threatened? 

We need you

Interested in this theme? Please contact Zoë Rejaän MSc, z.rejaan@uu.nl


The following organisations are participating in this theme