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Parental rows ‘more damaging to children than divorce’

Children of divorce are more likely to be harmed by living with rowing parents than they are by the divorce, research suggests


A new study has found that it is not necessarily parents splitting up that has an impact on a child’s development, but what happens at home beforehand.

It suggests that youngsters with divorced parents are almost a third more likely to have behaviour or emotional issues than those whose mums and dads remain married.

A large proportion of this gap is down to “inter-parental conflicts”, the study, by Gloria Moroni of York University, found.

The study used official data on divorces involving children in England and Wales in 2013, and UK statistics on children’s cognitive abilities, such as reading and maths skills, and non-cognitive abilities, such as behaviour, emotional issues and peer problems.

It concluded that children of divorce have non-cognitive skills that are around 30% worse than those of youngsters from families where parents are together.

The study also found that children of divorce perform about 20% lower for cognitive skills. This gap is largely down to parents’ education and finances, the study suggested.

Ms Moroni said that conventional wisdom suggests that divorce is bad for children, but her research indicates that the situation before parents separate has a significant impact.

“The main result of my research is that the fact that children of divorced parents have on average lower cognitive and non-cognitive skills compared with children of intact families is not necessarily due to divorce itself,” she said.

“Most of the damage is given by pre-divorce circumstances and characteristics of the family. For example, parents who decide to divorce may also be lower-educated, may also be poorer, or they may have more conflictual relationships.

“And indeed, inter-parental conflict may be even more harmful to a child’s development than parental dissolution itself.”

She added: “The most interesting thing is that when comparing cognitive and non-cognitive skills, what we find is that cognitive gaps are mainly driven by the fact that parents who decide to divorce are also for example, less educated and have lower financial resources.

“But on the other hand, the non-cognitive gaps are mostly driven by the fact that parents who divorce have more conflictual relationships.”

Dr Moroni said that the results suggest that interventions that encourage parents to co-operate, or that make them aware of the negative impact of conflicts on children, could help to close these non-cognitive gaps.

The findings will be presented at the Royal Economics Society’s annual conference.

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