Divorce Affects A Child’s Mental Health More At Certain Ages, Study Finds

"With mental ill-health a major concern nationally, there’s a pressing need to understand the causes."

Late childhood and early adolescence are the times when a family break-up is most likely to lead to behavioural and emotional problems in children, a study has found.

Researchers from University College London looked at 6,000-plus children, who are part of the longitudinal Millennium Cohort Study, and their mental health at ages three, five, seven, 11 and 14, including emotional problems (low mood and anxiety) and behavioural problems (‘acting out’ and disobedience). They compared kids whose parents had divorced to those who’d stayed together.

The findings what you might already assume – that a family split when a child is younger has less of an impact on them compared to when they are old enough to understand what’s happening.

“With adolescent mental ill-health a major concern nationally, there’s a pressing need to understand the causes,” said co-author Professor Emla Fitzsimons. “There are undoubtedly many factors at play – one possible reason for this is that children are more sensitive to relationship dynamics at this age. Family break-ups may also be more disruptive to schooling and peer relationships at this stage of childhood.”

KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

The analysis showed one fifth of the 6,000 children experienced a parental split between the ages of three and 14.

The children whose parents split up earlier in that period, between the ages of three and seven, were no more likely to experience mental health problems – either immediate or by the age of 14 – than those who parents remained together.

The children whose parents separated later in that time, between seven and 14, had on average a 16% increase in emotional problems and an 8% increase in conduct issues, at least in the short-term. These emotional problems were similarly common in boys and girls, but behavioural problems were much more prevalent in boys.

The huge amount of data allowed for researchers to look into multiple factors in the study – it determined that children from more privileged backgrounds were just as likely to have mental health problems as their less advantaged peers.

Mothers’ mental health was also considered, both before and after break-ups – in cases where women separated from their partners when their children were older, they reported more mental health problems than those who split when their children were younger. In fact, those who split up earlier on were found to be better off in mental health terms by the end of the study.

“This finding is an important one,” said Dr Aase Villadsen, co-author of the study. “Though, assessing how it changes as time goes on will [also] be important. In devising policies to help reduce the adverse consequences of break-ups on children’s mental health, the study suggests that maternal mental health may be an important target.”

There are myriad factors involved in a child’s mental health, but the scale of this study and the methods used give a clear view on how family break-ups affect a child’s emotional and behavioural wellbeing.

It’s complicated and every family is different, but there’s certainly a suggestion that when it comes to the mental health of the children involved, if separation is on the cards, sooner might be better.