A major study of more than 20,000 children disputes the long-held belief that divorce -- and the resulting absence of a parent -- triggers long-term behavioral and psychological problems in many children.
The study suggests that many of the problems arise during the period before the divorce occurs, when the children are growing up in a sharply dysfunctional family.
The study of children in England and the United States, published today in the journal Science, is significant because an estimated 40 percent of U.S. children will witness the breakup of their parents' marriage before they reach the age of 18.
The international research team, headed by sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University, concludes that parents should not stay together for the sake of the children when severe problems exist within the marriage. They also recommend that new efforts be made to provide emotional support for children in such dysfunctional families.
"Our study suggest that divorce isn't an event that occurs one day when a judge raps a gavel," Cherlin said, "but a process that begins long before then and extends long afterward."
"This is going to prove to be a major study," said clinical psychologist Robert Emery of the University of Virginia. "After 20 to 30 years of research on the effects of divorce, this is the first large-scale study to look at children's adjustment prior to rather than after their parents' separation and divorce." Virtually all previous studies have looked at children only after a divorce has occurred, he said.
Emery cautioned that the new study "does not mean that there are no ill effects of divorce, does not mean that divorce isn't difficult. It does mean that we have to be careful about attributing behavioral difficulties in children to the event of a divorce rather that to other aspects of family relations."
The new study is based largely on what Cherlin called a "remarkable" British study whose results have become available to researchers only recently. The National Child Development Study, originally a study of childhood mortality, began with interviews of 17,414 women who gave birth in England, Wales and Scotland during the week of March 3 to March 9, 1958 -- nearly 98 percent of all women giving birth during that period.
The mothers were interviewed again when the children were age 7 and 11, as were the children's teachers. The interviews provided information about the children's behavioral and emotional problems, if any, and performance in school.
The results of the interviews remained locked in the vaults of the British Health Ministry for many years and was only recently made available to other investigators. Cherlin and his colleagues identified 239 children whose parents obtained a divorce in the period between the second and third interviews.
"Children in intact marriages that have long-standing intense conflict are worse off than other kids," Cherlin said. "At the extreme, among families wracked by intense conflict, violence and substance abuse, many children would be better off if their parents split up. But in the average divorce, where one parent is merely bored or unfulfilled, I'm not at all convinced that children are better off if parents divorce."