And children whose families undergo a series of disruptions and changes are more likely to have health, educational and social difficulties than families that remain intact, according to the study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The findings contradict the common view that children are better off out of relationships in which the parents are in conflict. 'It may be true for the parents that they are better off out of it,' Dr John Tripp of the Department of Child Health at Exeter University said. 'But if you measure the outcome for the children, and if you listen to what the children say, it does not appear to be true for the children.'
In the Exeter study, 152 children aged 9 to 10 and 13 to 14 and their families were interviewed. Half were from families that were still intact, half from families that had broken up. Within the latter were children living with a lone parent, those in stepfamilies and a group who had seen three or more transitions.
Children whose families had broken up were more likely to suffer from low self- esteem, difficulties with friends or at school, and a range of psychosomatic health problems that included stomach aches, feeling sick, headaches and bed- wetting. For children where a stepfamily had broken down, the outcome was worse again. Similar health and social problems were seen more often among children living in intact families but where the parents were in conflict. But the level and number of problems was closer to that of the 'happy' families than to those found in families that had broken up. 'On average, poorer outcomes were reported by children whose parents had divorced than by those whose parents had remained married to each other,' Dr Tripp and his co- author Monica Cockett say.
The study may overturn conventional wisdom because it looks at the issue from the child's point of view, Dr Tripp said.
'Children are usually aware of the conflict between their parents, and many parents think that the children will be just as relieved as they are to get out of it. What parents don't realise is that while they may have problems with each other, the children often have good relationships with both parents - and they lose that when the family splits up. In addition, separation often did not end the conflict.'
In some cases it became worse when children were directly embroiled in conflict for the first time.
Children living in re-ordered families, Social Policy findings No 45; JRF, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO3 6Lp; free.