With fighting between parents, rather than separation itself, providing most of the problems, the report says society should concentrate on support for the family rather than the institution of marriage itself as divorce rates continue to rise inexorably.
But charities and campaigning groups attacked the controversial study, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, saying previous studies had shown that parents' separation can scar children for years and that the full problems caused by divorce might not yet be known.
The major review of more than 200 British research studies, spanning more than 30 years, has concluded that while for a couple of years children may have difficulties such as bed-wetting, bad behaviour and low self- esteem, most children grow out of this and develop normally.
It also challenges some widely-held views on divorce, saying that the age at which children experience separation is not important, there is no consistent evidence to show boys are more badly affected than girls, and absence of a parent figure is not the most influential feature of separation on a child's development.
More than half of couples who divorce have children under 16 and if recent trends continue, one in five children born to married couples will experience parental divorce by the age of 16. However, these figures may underestimate the true rate of family dissolution as they do not include the separation of cohabiting couples.
As the immediate distress starts to fade, most children settle down and develop normally. "Most children are fine after a short period," said Dr Jan Pryor, from the University of Auckland and one of the authors of the report. In a small minority, however, there is a greater probability of poor outcomes which reach into adult life - and these are often twice as common as they are among children whose parents have stayed together.
Factors which put children of separated families at increased risk include those who live in poor households, leave school without qualifications, leave home while young and have children as a teenager.
Family conflict, whether before, during or after separation, is particularly stressful for children who may respond by becoming anxious, aggressive or withdrawn. "Children find conflict difficult and distressing," said Dr Prior. "Our message to parents is to keep children away from it. Children can observe conflict and be drawn down into it. One of the most damaging things is when parents use children as go-betweens. We would say avoid that kind of conflict."
Julia Cole of Relate said that children could recover from divorce if it was settled amicably and if parents continued to act with sympathy and understanding. "But that's an awful lot of ifs," she added.
"Conflictual divorce or separation can cause tremendous damage where parents argue or use children as pawns in their games. There is considerable evidence to show children of divorced parents do less well at school and are more likely to get into trouble with the police or grow up and become divorcees themselves," Ms Cole added.
Jonathan Bartley, general secretary for the Movement for Christian Democracy, said: "The report underlines that marriage is the key to family life and divorce is a far bigger problem than was previously thought. More liberal attitudes have said that divorce is benign, but that is clearly not the case. And we still don't know the long term implications of divorce."
The report concludes that children and parents should have access to professional support at the time of separation. Help in parents coping with distress will make it easier for them to help their children. GPs, teachers and solicitors should be offered information and training to make it easier for them to advise families or guide them towards more specialist help.
Dr Bryan Rodgers of the Australian National University, Canberra, said: "One of the messages is that if children are to be protected against the kind of disadvantages identified by research, then they and their parents will need better information and support before, during and after separation."
the cost of a broken home
Studies on divorce and children over the past three decades have seen a range of differing views
t In 1993, the National Child Development Study of 11,000 children born in 1958 concluded that children who lost a parent through death did not under-perform in the same way as the children of divorce.
t In 1994 a Exeter University study of 152 children found children from broken families had worse health, suffered psychological problems, were more likely to need extra school help at school, had more trouble socialising and suffered low self-esteem.
t In April 1997 a Queen's University of Belfast study of 37 children said marriage breakdown took a heavy toll on the physical and emotional well-being of teenagers because of the stresses of changing house, school and domestic arrangements.
t In October 1997, a British Psychological Society study of 400 children in South Wales said family break-up turns teenage boys towards aggression, delinquency and crime. The report said teenage boys had more trouble coming to terms with divorce or separation.
t Later in 1998, a combined study of more than 15,000 children born between 1945-70 whose parents separated found that they suffered an educational disadvantage, were more likely to attend special schools and had problems with schoolwork.Reuse content