Separation can be harder for older children

Many families experience separation or divorce. In your generation, around one in five children went through a family break-up by the age of 14.

Findings from Child of the New Century have shown that children whose parents split up when they are aged between 7 and 14 are more likely to experience emotional and behavioural issues than those living with both parents.

What we asked you and your parents

Since you were 3 years old, we’ve asked your parents to complete a questionnaire on your emotions, and on your behaviour at home and with friends. We have also asked your parents about who lives with you at home, and about their own relationship status. We’ve asked your primary caregiver – your mothers in most cases –about their own mental health and wellbeing.

This data has been used in important research to understand the links between parents’ separation and your emotional wellbeing and behaviour. The research also considered whether there were any differences between boys and girls, or between children from different social backgrounds.

What the research found

Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies found that 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.

However, children whose parents split up when they were aged between 7 and 14 were – on average –  more likely to experience emotional issues, such as feelings of low mood and anxiety, or behavioural problems, such as acting out and disobedience.

Among these older children, increased emotional problems were observed in both boys and girls, but the rise in behavioural issues was only seen in boys. Children from more privileged backgrounds were just as likely to struggle with these issues as their less well-off peers.

The researchers have suggested some reasons for why these emotional and behavioural changes were observed after later but not earlier parental break-ups. Professor Emla Fitzsimons, co-author of the study and Director of Child of the New Century, said: “One possible reason 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.”

The study also looked at how the break-up affected mothers’ mental health. Mothers reported, on average, more mental health problems than those still with their partners if they separated when their children were older. However, mothers who split from partners when their children were younger didn’t tend to report any increases in mental health problems, and indeed some beneficial effects on their mental health were observed later on, by the time their children had reached early adolescence.

Why this research is important

Children and young people’s mental health is a growing concern in the UK. There are many factors that affect mental health, and family break-ups are only one consideration. While each child’s experience will be different, it is important to understand when children might need more support, so that we can identify ways to better help young people and their parents.

This research only looks at your experiences up to age 14, and your responses to the Age 17 Survey will be really important for understanding how things change over time.

For more information and support

You can contact the charity The Mix, who offer a free service for under 25s providing online advice, a phone line, web chat and text support services for a range of issues, including dealing with parents’ divorce, family life more generally, and mental health issues. Call them for free at 0808 808 4994.

Find out more about this research

The full scientific paper was published in Social Science & Medicine in January 2019.

The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and Huffington Post also covered the research.