Children whose parents divorce can suffer behavioural problems and achieve less at school than they should, warned Dr Martin Richards of Cambridge University Centre for Family Research, speaking at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society at Warwick University this week.
In the longer term, he said, the children of broken marriages leave home earlier, are less likely to go to university and tend to marry young, writes Maureen O'Connor.
Dr Richards' research is based on long-term studies of children from divorced families in the USA, New Zealand and the UK, including the British Child Development Study which has followed the lives of 17,000 children born in 1958. He studied 800 of these children, selected on the basis that by the time they were 16 their parents had divorced. The damaging effects of divorce were particularly great for the daughters of middle-class families, Dr Richards said. They are only half as likely to go to university as the daughters of stable families. An astonishing 45 per cent of them were likely to be married themselves by the age of 20, three times the rate of girls from unbroken homes.
Only 5 per cent of boys from stable families marry before 20, compared to 16 per cent from divorced parents.
Dr Richards suggested divorce had such traumatic effects because it often impoverished the family or because abandonment by a parent leads to a loss of confidence and self-esteem. "It seems to be the upheaval of divorce and the associated loss of income which causes problems," he said.