By The Times - London

How Children are damaged by divorce

Author Ian Robertson (Ian is a senior scientist at the MRC Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge).

When parents split up, they leave lasting emotional scars on their children.

What happens to your children if you or your partner dies? It’s the kind of thought which goes through the minds of most parents now and again. As a parent you have probably taken out life insurance with such a possibility in mind, From time to time you have worried about the effect on your child – emotionally, socially and financially – of losing you or your spouse. You know that children above a certain age, never forget the death of a mother or father and you appreciate that this may affect them for the rest of their lives.

But have you thought what will happen to your children if you divorce or separate? You won’t have taken out any insurance against this and probably haven’t thought much about it as much as you have about the possibility of dying. This is a pity, because children are damaged much more by divorce than they are by parental death.

As many as one in three children in Britain will endure the consequences of parental divorce or separation; you can’t get precise figures because almost a third of children are now born outside marriage and split-ups in these families are not officially recorded.. If it is indeed true that boys and girls whose parents split up on average suffer more permanent damage than those whose mother or father dies, then this makes family breakdown one of the great unrecognised social health problems of our time. What is the evidence?

Dr Martin Richards, who runs the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, is an expert on divorce. He and his colleagues have studied 17,000 children from the National Child Development Survey who were born in Britain during one week in 1958 and were followed up at the ages of 7, 11, 16 and 23.

Dr Richards and his team looked at what happened to these children as they matured into adolescence and adult-hood, comparing the ones whose mother or father had died with those whose parents had split up, in terms of education, career, health and wealth.

Although the harmful effects of divorce are apparent across all social classes, the effects on middle-class children are striking: middle-class girls were the group most damaged by divorce by the time they reached adulthood.

While the death of a mother or father before a child is 16 does have some effect on the child’s life, divorce does far more damage. And if we examine, on average, the fortunes of young adults whose middle- class parents have divorced, compared with those whose parents have stayed together, the conclusions are stark. Children born of middle-class parents in 1958, who were not 16 before their parents divorced……

% Parents Together Parent died Parents divorced Parents together Parent died Parents divorcied
Left School at 16 48 52 75 47 55 77
Not in full-time work 18 18 24 32 32 55
Living in council house 4 8 18 4 11 18
Regular smokers 36 29 58 32 36 42

……AND HOW FURTHER EDUCATION SUFFERS

% Parents Together Parent died Parents divorced
Go to University 31 27 19
Age 23 no qualifications 11 14 19
  • had twice the chance of leaving school without any qualifications (boys and girls)
  • had two thirds the chance of going to university (boys and girls)
  • were a third more likely not to have a full-time job at age 23 (boys)
  • were two-thirds more likely not to have a full-time job at age 23 (girls)
  • were four times more likely to be living in a council house at age 23 (boys and girls)
  • were two-thirds more likely to be a regular smoker age 23 (boys)
  • were a third more likely to be a regular smoker age 23 (girls)

Taking children of middle and working-class parents together, children of divorced parents were:

  • twice as likely to have a child before age 20
  • twice as likely to be married or living with someone before age 20

Dr Richard’s research also found that children whose parents had divorced were on average less emotionally stable, left home earlier and divorced or separated more frequently. They showed more behavioral problems in school, were more likely to be unhappy and worried and were poorer at reading and arithmetic.

At the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where Rutherford once split the atom, Dr Richards and his colleagues now study the splitting of families. “Low self-esteem may underlie a lot of these effects,” he says.

“Death of a parent doesn’t produce the same problems. The critical thing seems to be children’s awareness that parents have, through choice, separated, and for many this means a parent choosing to leave them.”

The resulting sense of abandonment, Dr Richards says, can haunt children into adulthood, leading them to undervalue their own worth, lack self-confidence and hence enter too rapidly into serious yet potentially vulnerable relationships at an early age.

“As a university teacher I see that even when children have left home and are in their early twenties, their parent’s separation or divorce can be very disturbing for them. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable, probably for similar reasons: at a point when they are learning about relationships, they see the most important relationship in their lives fall apart.”

The differences between those whose parents have and have not divorced are most striking in young adult women from middle-class families. One reason for this may be that these women tend to embark on serious partnerships at an early age – perhaps seeking emotional security and stability which their parents’ divorce had denied them. As a result of having children so early, these middle-class young women miss the chance of going to university, and with that the career, income and fulfillment which they might have expected.

But the negative effects of divorce are not confined to young middle-class women – no class or gender is spared. Children whose parents have divorced are more likely to show symptoms of being unhappy and worried than children from intact families: for instance, divorced mothers more often report that their child worries about many things; is upset by new situations; is bullied by other children; is miserable or tearful; prefers to do things alone. This is true both at age seven and at age 16.

Children of divorced parents also tend to misbehave more than those from intact families, again at both ages. they are more likely to be rated by their mothers as: being disobedient at home; fighting with other children; being irritable and quick to fly off the handle; destroying others belongings’ being squirmy or fidgety; having difficulty settling to anything.

The majority of children of divorced parents end up living with their mothers, but if their mothers remarry the children tend to show more problems than those who stay single. “Particularly for adolescents, it is very difficult to come to terms with a parent dating again,” Dr Richards says. He argues that good and regular contact with the absent father can reduce some of the ill-effects of separation, even though this may be at the expense of increased conflict between the parents: the sad fact however, is that a half of all divorced fathers lose contact with their children within two years.

Dr Richards, 55, is himself a divorcee. “I was 21 when I married, but we were too young and it didn’t last. We had no children.” And now? “I have grown-up children, but have never remarried.” Divorce and family conflict can blight the lives of children – though it is important to remember that all the statistics available are average effects and clearly there are many children who fare well when their parents separate. Furthermore, until the present generation of children have grown up, we will not know whether the effects of divorce will be as bad as they were for the children of 1958.

Children survive best where good contact is maintained with both parents. “Many children learn that their parents are separating from a third party. Parents often do not talk to them and ask them what they want.”

And what do they want? Dr Richards pauses for a second. “They almost always say they only want one thing,” he replies. “That their parents should stay together.

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