Many of the problems children exhibit after their parents divorce are apparent even before the marriage ends, the first large before-and-after study of the effects of divorce has shown. The findings, reported in today's issue of the journal Science, suggest that staying together for the sake of the children is not necessarily helpful if the marriage is marred by conflict.
The findings call into question the blame that has been attributed to divorce itself as the cause for the behavioral, emotional and academic problems commonly noted in other studies among the children of divorced parents.
The study was unusual in that it involved 17,000 British families, studied over a period of years. As a result, children whose parents ultimately divorced had been evaluated before the marriage began breaking up.
Fully half the disturbances among boys whose parents divorced and a smaller proportion of problems apparent among girls were noted by parents or teachers before the divorce. Similar effects were noted among boys in a study of 1,700 American families, the journal reported.
One of the study's authors, Dr. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, said the findings suggest that "if a marriage is in trouble, there are effects on the children whether or not the parents divorce."
The researchers said children need to be sheltered from conflict, not caught in the middle between warring parents.
Nearly all previous studies of the effects of divorce on children focused on the period after the parents separated, and only a few compared children of divorce with those from intact families.
The studies typically showed that many, if not most, children display behavioral and academic problems in the aftermath of divorce. Boys, for example, often become aggressive and disobedient and girls become anxious and depressed. And in both boys and girls, schoolwork often suffers.
The new report does not challenge these findings. Rather, it questions how much of the observed effects should be attributed to the divorce. Indeed, problems similar to those noted in the earlier studies were found among the children of divorce in the new report.
Those whose parents had divorced were more likely than those from intact families to be rated by parents and teachers as having behavioral problems and to score lower on reading and mathematical achievement tests.
But since the children in the new study were rated before as well as after parental separation, the researchers could show that behavioral and academic difficulties were often apparent before the marriages dissolved.
Thus, many problems in the children could be attributed more to marital discord than to the divorce itself.
Andrew Cherlin, one of the researchers, also said that some of the children might have had problems unrelated to parental conflict and, in fact, their problems could have contributed to marital discord.
"Divorce is a process that starts well before parents split and continues long afterward," Cherlin said. "Kids caught in the middle of marital conflict don't do well."
Of their findings, the researchers said: "Overall, the evidence suggests that much of the effect of divorce on children can be predicted by conditions that existed well before the separation occurred. At least as much attention needs to be paid to the processes that occur in troubled, intact families as to the trauma that children suffer after their parents separate."
Cherlin acknowledged that in "families wracked by conflict or abuse, the children are probably better off if the parents divorce." But he cautioned against treating divorce too casually.
"In the majority of cases, you can't say the children would do better if the parents split," he said. "In families where one spouse is bored and just wants out and where there is a low level of conflict, it's not necessarily in the children's best interest to divorce."
The study said that the effects on girls also begin before the divorce but not to the same degree as for boys.
Cherlin said that the data on girls may not be as reliable as for boys because boys' problems are easier to see.
"When girls are upset, they tend to internalize it," Cherlin said. "Maybe the girls are as upset as the boys are, but our measures didn't pick that up."
The study was based on a group of children born to 17,414 women in Britain during one week in March 1958. Within the next four years, divorce occurred in 239 families. When the children were 7, their parents were quizzed about the children's behavior.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.