Unhappy parents should not stay together “for the sake of the children”, as divorcing is less harmful if it takes place earlier in childhood, new research shows.
The first major study to assess the emotional impact of splitting up on children has found that the greatest risk of repercussions such bad behaviour and disobedience come in late childhood and early adolescence.
The analysis of 6,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the century found that those whose parents move apart between the age of seven and 14 are significantly more likely – 16 per cent – to suffer emotional and behavioural problems than those whose parents stay together.
However, there was no difference between children aged between three and seven whose parents divorced and those of the same age who did not.
The University College London scientists behind the new research believe divorce is more damaging to adolescents than to younger children because they are more socially sensitive and better able to pick up on negative relationship dynamics.
The team examined reports of children’s mental health at three, five, seven, 11 and 14, including emotional problems such as feelings of low mood and anxiety, and behavioural issues such as disobedience.
They compared information on children who experienced a family split with those who did not a fifth of children in the study saw their parents separate between the ages of 3 and 14.
Among older children, increased emotional problems were noticed for both boys and girls, but more severe behavioural issues were observed only in boys.
The study also shows that, after a family break-up, children from more privileged backgrounds were just as likely to have mental health problems as their less advantaged peers.
Professor Emla Fitzsimons, who co-authored the study, said: “With adolescent mental ill-health a major concern nationally, there’s a pressing need to understand the causes.
She added that, as well as a greater sensitive to relationship dynamics, older children are more likely to be affected by a family breakup than younger children because of disruption to schooling and friendships is often greater.
Published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine, the study also investigated the impact of the break-up on the mothers’ mental health and financial resources.
Across the UK, women accounted for 90 per cent of lone parents, and most children in the study lived with their mothers after a split.
Mothers reported, on average, more mental health problems than those still with their partners if they separated when their children were older.
This is believed to be because the financial impact of divorce was greater the later on in the marriage.
According to the Office For National Statistics, there were 101,669 divorces of heterosexual couples in 2017, representing a 4.9 per cent decrease compared with 2016 but similar to the numbers of 2015.
Just over four in 10 marriages in the UK end in divorce.
Last year David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, announced an intention to allow no-fault divorces.
Under a simplified system, spouses would lose the ability to block a divorce as there would be no need for their husband or wife to prove adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion in a contested divorce.
It followed a high-profile Supreme Court ruling which ordered a wife to stay in her “loveless” marriage after her husband of 40 years denied that he had behaved unreasonably.