Media Briefings

IT’S NOT THE DIVORCE THAT DAMAGES KIDS: New UK evidence that children of disrupted families are harmed more by the environment before their parents split

  • Published Date: April 2017

When children of divorced parents have lower cognitive and non-cognitive skills, the divorce itself might not be to blame. That’s the implication of research by Gloria Moroni, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

Children from divorced families have lower skills on average than children from intact families. But the new study – which analyses data from 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000 – suggests that most of the damage was done before the parents divorced. For example, around 50% of the non-cognitive skills gaps are explained by interparental conflicts and around 35% of the gap by family financial resources.

These findings suggest that interventions aimed at addressing poverty, interparental conflicts and parental education are potential policy instruments to narrow the skills gaps that arise between children of intact and disrupted families.

Moreover, given the crucial role played by parental conflicts in explaining the non-cognitive skills gaps resulting from divorce, these results tell us that any interventions intended at encouraging parental cooperation and making parents aware of the potential negative impact of conflicts, may represent an effective response.

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Explaining divorce gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive skills of children

A substantial literature from multiple disciplines documents a negative relationship between parental divorce and child skills. A common finding is that compared with children of intact families, children of divorce experience several difficulties including conduct disorders, emotional disturbances, problems with peers, school dropout and worse labour market outcomes.

Using a longitudinal cohort member survey from the UK, this study finds a substantial divorce skills gap in children up to 12 years old, with children of divorce having approximately 20% of a standard deviation lower cognitive skills and around 30% of a standard deviation lower non-cognitive skills compared with children of intact families.

But when investigating the factors that drive the children of divorce skills gaps, in most cases, it is entirely explained by pre-divorce characteristics of the family, indicating a marginal role of divorce itself in determining the gap.

The increasing rates of marital instability over the last decades have raised public debate about the relationship between parental divorce and child development. The number of divorces in England and Wales in 2013 was 114,720, involving 94,864 children under 16. Among these children, 21% were under 5 and 64% were under 11 years old. Conventional wisdom and a large literature from multiple disciplines tell us that parental divorce is bad for children.

But the negative relationship between divorce and children’s outcomes may be explained by pre-divorce circumstances and, for example, parents who decide to divorce may also be lower educated or poorer, or they may have a more conflictual relationship. Indeed, interparental conflicts may be even more harmful to child development than parental divorce itself.

In contrast with other studies that aim at establishing the impact of divorce on children’s later outcomes, this study aims at determining the drivers of the divorce skills gaps in the short and medium term up until age 12. The data come from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal survey of 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000.

The study investigates which pre-divorce characteristics among a set of plausible suspects – child characteristics, demographic characteristics, parents’ education and health, family financial resources and interparental conflicts – are relatively more important in accounting for divorce cognitive and non-cognitive skills gaps of children.

The results show that the divorce gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive skills are in most cases explained by the difference in pre-divorce characteristics between children of divorce and children of intact families, leaving little room for divorce itself to have a negative impact on child development.

By comparing different facets of skills, cognitive and non-cognitive, the results indicate that the divorce gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive skills have different mediating factors. Cognitive skills gaps are explained by parental education of approximately 35% and by family financial resources of approximately 50%, but they are almost insensitive to any other family characteristics including interparental conflicts.

Conversely, around 50% of the non-cognitive skills gaps are explained by interparental conflicts and around 35% of the gap by family financial resources. While the interparental conflicts make no differences in explaining the gap in cognitive skills, they strongly explain the non-cognitive gap.

These findings suggest that interventions aimed at addressing poverty, interparental conflicts and parental education are potential policy instruments to narrow the skills gaps arising between children of intact and disrupted families.

Moreover, given the crucial role played by parental conflicts in explaining the divorce non-cognitive skills gaps, results tell us that any interventions intended at encouraging parental cooperation and making parents aware of the potential negative impact of conflicts, may represent an effective response to reduce the divorce gaps in non-cognitive skills of children.

ENDS


Gloria Moroni
University of York
gm889@york.ac.uk