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Divorce: Mental health problems more likely in children who witness their split parents arguing

Children who witness their divorced parents arguing are more likely to suffer from mental health problems due to ‘fear of abandonment’

  • Researchers from the US surveyed 559 9–18 year olds about parental conflict
  • They found that the more parents argued, the more anxious kids became
  • Moreover, the team said that these fears endured for at least three months 
  • Children with stronger relationships with their fathers were at greater risk

Mental health problems are more likely in children who see their recently divorced parents fighting because they have a ‘fear of abandonment’, a study has warned.

Researchers from the US surveyed 559 kids — each aged between nine and 18 years — about their exposure to, and feelings towards, parental conflict.

The team found that children caught in the crossfire of a failed marriage are more mentally vulnerable — especially if they have a close relationship with their father.

According the Office for National Statistics, 108,421 couples got divorced in the UK in 2019 — around a 19 per cent increase on the previous year.

Mental health problems are more likely in children who see their recently divorced parents fighting because they have a ‘fear of abandonment’, a study has warned (stock image) 

‘Conflict is a salient stressor for kids,’ said paper author and psychologist Karey O’Hara of the Arizona State University.

‘The link between exposure to inter-parental conflict and mental health problems in children is well established across all family types, married, cohabitating, separated and divorced,’ she continued.

‘Conflict between divorced or separated parents predicted children experiencing fear that they would be abandoned by one or both parents.’

‘This feeling was associated with future mental health problems, especially for those who had strong relationships with their fathers.’

Previous studies have found that kids see their parents fighting as a threat — often causing them to wonder if their family is going to split up.

In their study, Professor O’Hara and colleagues surveyed 559 kids aged 9–18 about their exposure to marital conflict — specifically whether their parents fought in front of them, spoke poorly of the other parent or asked them to relay messages.

The researchers found that kids who witnessed their parents fighting expressed more anxieties about being abandoned by one or both caregivers.

These concerns appear long-lasting — persisted for three months after the children were first surveyed.

Children who witnessed parental conflict were also more likely to develop mental health problems after 10 months, the team found.

‘When parents who are married or cohabitating engage in conflict, the child might worry about their parents separating,’ said Professor O’Hara.

‘But children whose parents are divorced or separated have already seen the dissolution of their family.’

‘The idea that they might be abandoned might be unlikely, but it is not illogical from their perspective.’

Previous studies have found that having a strong relationship with a parent can help to buffer a child from stress.

Given this, the researchers expected that kids who were close to their mother or father would fare better than others — but this was not the case.

‘A strong father-child relationship came at a cost when interparental conflict was high,’ explained Dr O’Hara.

‘Having a high quality parenting relationship is protective, but it is possible that quality parenting alone is not enough in the context of high levels of inter-parental conflict between divorced parents.’

Parents who get divorced may therefore want to think twice before having ‘a domestic’ in front of their children, the team suggested.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Child Development.