Quarrelling parents who stay together for the sake of the children may make their offspring more unhappy than those who split up, the first comprehensive study of child happiness suggests today.
Children's happiness is far more affected by family conflict than by factors such as living in a single parent household, according to the research by the Children's Society.
Young people who reported that their family "gets along well together" are on average 20 per cent happier than those who do not, regardless of whether they live with a single parent, a step-parent or both their birth parents, the study found.
The impact of family conflict on children's happiness far outstripped family structure, with a child in a lone parent household just 2 per cent unhappier than one living with both birth parents. Children were on average 10 per cent more unhappy in the immediate aftermath of a family break-up or another change in family structure such as gaining a step-parent.
But after a year happiness levels then recovered to almost the same levels as for children who had experienced no family problems.
The findings come as both Labour and the Conservatives have put family policy at the heart of their pre-general election campaign skirmishes. David Cameron has pledged to make tax breaks for married couples an important part of his plans to tackle Britain's "broken society".
Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, has agreed with the Tories that marriage was "the best way to bring up children" but argued the tax break would punish many good parents and stigmatise their children.
The study of nearly 7,000 children, carried out with the University of York, found the vast majority were happy, placing themselves above the mid-point measure on a happiness scale ranked from one to 10. But 7 per cent of children were unhappy – or two in every class, according to interviews with 6,744 children in the final year of primary school and years 8 and 10 of secondary school.
The 7 per cent of "significantly" unhappy children amounted to 140,000 out of the 1.8 million children in the three year groups, or 300,000 if all 10- to 15-year-olds were counted, the charity said.
Appearance was the biggest source of unhappiness for children, with girls twice as likely as boys to worry about their looks.
Overall 17.5 per cent of children said they were unhappy with their appearance. But the research found that 22 per cent – more than one in five – of girls were unhappy with their looks compared to 13 per cent of boys.
Unhappiness with appearance grew as children got older, the survey found, peaking at 28 per cent for 14- and 15-year-old girls – or more than one in four. By contrast, young black African, Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi children were "significantly" happier with their appearance than white children, the research found.
The survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori between April and July 2008, asked children to give a score out of 10 on a happiness scale to a series of aspects of their lives. The highest average marks – of nearly nine out of 10 – were given for happiness with home, friends and family.
Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, said: "It is a major concern that two children in every classroom are unhappy, and that so many are insecure about their appearance and confidence."
Case study: 'I think I'm a lot happier now'
Brittainy Benjamin, 12, from Hackney, east London, agrees that a family break-up can be better in the long run for children. She said: "It did make me feel unhappy when my mum and dad used to argue. Now it's stopped because my dad doesn't live with us anymore. I think I am a lot happier now there isn't any arguing at home. I do miss my dad but I think it is better now that there isn't any arguing. I like being with my mum and brothers and sisters when we're playing games at home and nobody is arguing. Arguing makes children feel unhappy." Brittainy said she was happy with her appearance, but that many of her friends were concerned about not matching up to the glamorous images of celebrities in magazines. "I feel happy about the way I look, but some of my friends do worry about their appearance. Sometimes if they are wearing something, they like it but they worry whether everyone else likes it. I think girls worry a lot about making a good impression."