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Timing of parents’ split matters for children’s mental health, new research reveals

17 January 2019

Children who experience a family break-up in late childhood and early adolescence are more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems than those living with both parents, according to a new UCL Institute of Education (IOE) study.

Child sat on sofa looking upset while parents argue in the background

Researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies analysed data on more than 6,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the century, who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study.

The researchers examined reports of children’s mental health at ages 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14, including emotional problems, such as feelings of low mood and anxiety, and behavioural problems, such as acting out and disobedience. They compared information on children who experienced a family split with those who didn’t.

A fifth of children in the study saw their parents separate between the ages of 3 and 14. Children whose parents broke up in late childhood and early adolescence, between the ages of 7 and 14 had, on average, a 16 per cent increase in emotional problems and an 8 per cent rise in conduct issues in the short-term. Children whose parents separated earlier, between ages 3 and 7, were no more likely to experience mental health problems either in the short-term or later on, by age 14, than those living with both parents.

Among older children, increased emotional problems were apparent for both boys and girls, but heightened behavioural issues were observed in boys only. The researchers also found that after a family break-up, children from more privileged backgrounds were just as likely to have mental health problems as their less advantaged peers. 

The research is thought to be the first in the UK to investigate the links between the timing of family break-ups and children’s mental health. It also comes much closer than previous studies to unpicking the role of parents’ separation from the wide range of other factors that can increase children’s emotional and behavioural problems.

Using sophisticated statistical methods, the researchers were able to account not only for characteristics like family social background, and the children’s and mothers’ mental health prior to a split, but also experiences that are difficult to assess, such as the level of conflict in the home.

Professor Emla Fitzsimons, co-author of the study, said: “With adolescent mental ill-health a major concern nationally, there’s a pressing need to understand the causes. There are undoubtedly many factors at play, and our study focuses on the role of family break-up. It finds that family splits occurring in late, but not early, childhood are detrimental to adolescent mental health. 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.”

Media contact

Ryan Bradshaw – UCL Institute of Education
r.bradshaw@ucl.ac.uk
020 7612 6516

Meghan Rainsberry – UCL Institute of Education
m.rainsberry@ucl.ac.uk
020 7612 6530

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