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 study.

Researchers from the UCL 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.”

The researchers investigated the impact of the break-up on the mothers’ mental health and financial resources. Across the UK, women accounted for 90 per cent of lone parents, and most children in the study lived with their mums after a split.

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 such 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.

With the loss of an earner from the family, separation tended to have a negative financial impact on the household income of a lone parent at any time during their children’s upbringing. However, the loss of income was largest if they separated from partners when their children were in late childhood and early adolescence. This larger drop could be because parents tend to earn more by this stage of their lives, reflecting increased work experience.

Dr Aase Villadsen, co-author, said: “The finding that mothers’ mental health worsens after a break-up in late childhood is an important one, though assessing how it changes as time goes on will 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.”

Further information

‘Father departure and children’s mental health: how does timing matter?’ by Professor Emla Fitzsimons and Dr Aase Villadsen is published on the Social Science & Medicine website

For further information please contact:

Ryan Bradshaw – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6516

Meghan Rainsberry – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. The researchers examined whether family break-ups during early and mid-childhood, between ages 3 and 7, increased the mental health problems of children at ages 5 and 7, and later, at ages 11 and 14. They then investigated whether family splits during late childhood and early adolescence, between the ages of 7 and 14 increased children’s mental health issues, in the short-term, at ages 11 and 14.
  2. The social background of children was measured by mother’s level of education. Children with mothers who were educated to at least A level had similar levels of emotional and conduct problems after their parents’ separation as those whose mothers were less educated.
  3. The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is following 19,517 young people born across the UK in 2000-01, building a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The last survey of parents and children took place in 2015-16 when the study members were age 14. The study is currently in the field for the Age 17 Sweep. The MCS is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. Visit https://www.cls.ucl.ac.uk/cls-studies/millennium-cohort-study/
  4. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 QS World University Rankings.  It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016.  In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes.  In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education.  Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff. In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. ucl.ac.uk/ioe
  5. UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion. ucl.ac.uk | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel YouTube.com/UCLTV
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. www.esrc.ac.uk


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