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Divorce in childhood linked to trouble in adulthood

Children who experience the divorce of their parents in childhood are more likely to struggle  when they grow up, according to new research.

In a joint venture between the NHS and Liverpool John Moores University, researchers examined a diverse selection of 1,500 people living in a relatively deprived area. They asked them whether they had experience a range of negative experiences during their childhoods.

These included being the child of divorced or separated parents – other factors including abuse, domestic violence, or living with depressives or drug addicts. These were termed ‘adverse childhood experiences’ (ACEs).

The greater the number of ACEs experienced in childhood, the more likely people were experience further social and personal problems when they grew up. People who had lived through four or more ACEs were twice as likely to have no qualifications or eat a poor diet; three times more likely to have mental health issues or be unemployed; four times more likely to smoke or drink heavily; and and five times more likely to feel unhappy with their lives.

They are nine times more likely to have been in prison; and ten times more likely to use hard drugs. Two thirds of such people had seen their parents divorce or separate, compared to an average of only 24 per cent.

Lead researcher Professor Mark Bellis said: “We were surprised at just how pervasive the effects of early years experiences really are. These results underline the critical importance of a person’s start in life. If we, as a society, can get the early years right for children then we can have a positive effect on practically every aspect of their later lives.

If we can understand why problems occur, we stand a better chance of preventing them happening in the first place.”

That all seems very sensible, and of course divorce is only factor amongst several being examined here.  As loathe as some people may be admit it, divorce is not a happy event in any child’s life no matter how well handled, and for many, it is a period of real turbulence and uncertainty. But when it comes to divorce, what is the alternative? Staying together for the sake of the children? How is living in a house with a palpably miserable Mum and Dad better for children, the air thick with tension and imminent argument? Are such children going to grow into happier adults simply because their parents remained under the same roof? I have my doubts.

So what is the alternative? Pundits keen to cast divorce in a bad light never seem to have an answer to that question. I would certainly agree with those who suggest that divorce should never  be undertaken lightly once children enter the picture, but over the years, I have heard far too many tear-stained tales of woe from Mums and Dads to believe that many parents ever divorce for casual reasons.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. jane stevens says:

    Bellis’ research is based on the U.S. CDC’s ACE Study, done on 17,000 people; 21 U.S. states have done their own surveys with similar results. Yes, divorce is one of the 10 ACEs, but the points of the study are that childhood trauma is very common; if there’s one ACE, there are likely to be two or more; the more you have, the higher risk for long-term physical and mental health consequences, violence and being a victim of violence, and, yes, more divorces. So, doing away with divorce per se won’t solve this; but preventing childhood trauma and changing our systems so that they don’t further traumatize already traumatized people will.

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