Should you stay together for your children’s health?

Most parents who split up do so for one of two reasons. Either too little love or too much conflict. The grass – at least for one parent – becomes greener on the other side.

Even if some later regret their decision and even if it’s hard to manage on your own, it’s not surprising that parents often view their split as a positive or necessary experience where they are now free to find new love or free from conflict and stress.

Children’s perspective on divorce, however, can be very different. Arguably the biggest factor here is a lack of understanding. If the parents were at each other’s throats, children get it. Life is very obviously more peaceful away from high levels of domestic conflict. But if the parents weren’t, and that’s the case for the vast majority, then children don’t get it. ‘Mummy and daddy don’t love each other any more’ just doesn’t wash. This has a huge knock-on effect on the way children then see their own relationships and commitment when they become adults.

The different ways parents and children view family breakdown is why it’s such a contentious subject, so often framed by personal experience.

A major review of children’s well-being by OECD in 2009 found that the overall effect of family breakdown on children was ‘small’. But they also found that across 367 different findings in 122 studies, the effects were negative in 94% of cases. Depending on your perspective, family breakdown is therefore either not that big a deal or overwhelmingly negative.

So how to interpret a brand new Norwegian finding reported in the Telegraph, amongst others, that kids from divorced parents were 60% more likely to be obese and 90% more likely to be ‘fat around the middle’?

Like all such studies, this study looks at averages. Divorce isn’t negative for all children, and it certainly doesn’t make all children fat. What the researchers found was that 18% of the children of married parents were obese compared to 28% of the children with divorced parents.

Why might this be the case? It helps to think about the two key factors of pre-divorce conflict and post-divorce resources.

A child with divorced parents might take comfort in food to keep the pain and confusion of family life at bay. If home life makes no sense, then food could be an outlet. It could just as well be drugs or crime.

The divorced parent themselves might deal with the combination of reduced resources and the odd regret by adopting a more relaxed laisser-faire style of parenting. It can of course go the other way. Lone parents can also become more authoritarian. But laisser-faire is more common, perhaps as a bit of understandable compensation creeps in. The result is too much cheap, sweet and fatty food for the children.

Either of these explanations are plausible.

Remember that all of this involves averages. So if you are a lone parent, you are in no way condemned to a life of negative outcomes. Personally I think lone parents do a heroic job. It’s hard enough bringing up children with two pairs of hands, let alone one. The biggest difference you can make is by accepting that your children may perceive the split very differently to you and by applying a healthy mix of love and boundaries as a parent. Then you can say yes or no more freely to their endless demands for McDonalds.

If you’re thinking about divorce, well, maybe you will be better off out. But will your children be better off out as well? That’s especially relevant if you’re drifting apart or out of love, ‘consciously uncoupling’ in today’s parlance. I’m not saying you have to put up with staying together unhappily for the sake of the kids. But there is a far better option if you can put your marriage back together and make it work.

How could I say such a thing when I don’t know your circumstances? Because I’ve done it. Click on my letter for a bit of hope.

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