The findings come in a study published in January by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, "The Effects of Divorce on Children," by Patrick F. Fagan and Aaron Churchill.
Drawing on a large amount of published research on the effects of divorce, their paper goes through a series of areas where divorce harms children. The first one regards parent-child relationships. As would be expected, divorce affects the ability of parents to relate to their children.
One study found that the stress caused by divorce damages the relationship between children and their mothers for as many as 40% of divorced mothers. This insufficiency is more marked by the time children are in high school and college.
In practical terms this means that after divorce, children receive less emotional support, financial assistance, and help from their parents. There is also a decrease in academic stimulation, pride, affection, and encouragement of social maturity. Fewer toys and more corporal punishment is another consequence for children of divorced parents.
Most, around 90%, of children remain with their mother following a divorce. It then becomes difficult for the father to maintain close ties, the study reported. In one study nearly half of the children said they had not seen their father in the past year.
Another aspect covered in the study by Fagan and Churchill is the effect of divorce on religious practice among children. They found that following divorce, children are more likely to cease practicing their faith.
This lessening of religious practice means that children suffer from a lack of the beneficial effects of religion, in areas as diverse as marital stability, education, income, and physical and mental health.
A section of the study looked at what happens to children's educational results following the divorce of their parents. At the level of elementary school there is an immediate decline in academic performance.
At high school level children from intact families have significantly better test scores compared to children of divorced parents. One example in the study was that by the age of 13 there is an average difference of half a year in the reading ability between children of divorced parents and children from intact families.
Other research cited included a study that found children from divorced families were 26% more likely to drop out of secondary school compared to children brought up in intact families. Moreover, even if a divorced parent re-married this did not remove the negative impact of the initial divorce on children's academic results.
The divorce penalty extends up to college. Fagan and Churchill reported one study that found only 33% of students from divorced families graduate from college, compared to 40% of those from intact families.
Given the impact on education, not unexpectedly those affected by the divorce of their parents also have a lower income and assets and a greater probability of experiencing economic hardship.
The social impact of divorce was another aspect discussed by Fagan and Churchill. Divorce not only imposes costs on families but also on government and society. Children of divorced families are considerably more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, to be involved in fighting, robberies, and substance abuse.
"Divorce wreaks havoc on the psychological stability of many children," the study found. It referred to research carried out on seventh and eighth grade students that showed parental divorce was the third most stressful life event of a list of 125 life events. It was only surpassed by the death of a parent or close family member.
As well, this psychological impact is not passing. Even as adults, those who experienced divorce as children experience more emotional and psychological problems compared to those from intact families.
Higher levels of child abuse and neglect are further consequences of divorce. One study carried out in Brazil found that children in step-families with stepfathers were 2.7 times more likely to be abused than children in biologically intact households.
The concluding section of the study commented that unlike the divorced parents, who can often find relief following separation, children's suffering continues long after divorce. In fact, its effects continue for decades, as long as three decades.
"Divorce has pervasive weakening effects on children and on all of the five major institutions of society -- the family, the church, the school, the marketplace, and government itself," Fagan and Churchill concluded.
With the high level of divorce in recent times these debilitating consequences will continue to be played out in the years to come. Not a comforting thought as Western society continues to witness continued attacks on family life and attempts to re-define marriage.