Divorce 'helps children deal with new real world'

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The Independent Online

Divorce can benefit children, because it makes them more mature and independent and gives them a broader and more realistic view of life, researchers say.

The study, in a forthcoming book, Changing Childhood, Changing Families, is part of growing evidence that challenges the conventional wisdom of divorce always harming children. It shows that for many children divorce can be a positive experience, giving them a greater chance to make their own relationships work.

Research issued last year showed children of divorced parents were 50 per cent less likely to see their own marriage end in divorce than they were 25 years previously.

Experts believe increasing tolerance of divorce, and parents spending more time talking to their children, are responsible for reducing the bad effects of divorce on children. In Britain 150,000 children under 16 have experience of marital break-up each year; 41 per cent of marriages now end in divorce.

Bren Neale, a sociologist from the Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood at the University of Leeds, and co-author of the study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said: "Twenty years ago we would have said divorce was destructive and was always bad for children; this research shows this is no longer the case. Some children have a beneficial experience and enjoy a 'normal' life.

"When children talked about what families meant to them, they saw it in terms of relationships rather than the legal ties of marriage."

Dr Neale and her colleagues interviewed 117 individuals aged five to 22, although most were under 17, whose parents had been divorced for about three years. Dr Neale said: "For some, their parents are so concerned about the break-up that they talked and listened to their children more after the divorce than before, so the children benefited and felt they were very well off." Difficulties arose for children if parents remained hostile to each other, as they felt they were moving between "war zones".

The research showed the most important thing for children was that their parents respected each other. Dr Neale said: "Many children understood divorce as a way of ending arguments and benefited if their parents respected each other rather than continued the conflict. The children displayed a great deal of realism about divorce and saw it as part of life; they did not dwell on the good and the bad but adapted. If their parents had moved on, they felt able to as well."

The researchers found the children still hoped to have long and happy marriages themselves. Dr Neale said: "The children still had a 'fairy tale' image of meeting someone for life but said they realised it does not often happen."

Family researchers challenged the findings and said most studies showed divorce was not "good" for children. Ceridwen Roberts, director of the Family Policy Studies Centre, said: "All the previous research has shown that divorce is not generally good for children but that doesn't mean it is bad for all children. Some parents, who are sensitive to their children's needs, and overcome personal animosity, can successfully compensate them."