Warring parents may inflict as much emotional damage on their children while they are living together as they do when they split up, conclude sociologists who examined data on more than 18,000 British and American children.
Far from establishing divorce as the cause of many youngsters' troubles, the study urges mental health professionals to give equal weight to the suffering of children whose parents argue and fight while living under one roof.
"There are some families that aren't doing well but aren't visible until they get divorced," said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who directed a study that appears in today's Science magazine. "Health professionals who are concerned about the well-being of children perhaps aren't themselves aware that conflict can hurt children whether or not parents are living with their spouse."
The study comes in the midst of a widely publicized shift in the way many family therapists regard divorce and its impact on children. In recent years, a spate of studies has chronicled the shattered lives of children whose parents have separated -- upsetting popular views of the 1960s and 1970s that saw divorce as a remedy for many ailing families.
Dr. Cherlin and his colleagues used existing data collected on more than 17,000 British children from 1965 to 1969 and more than 1,700 U.S. children from 1976 to 1981.
In the British study, boys and girls whose parents separated when the children were between 7 and 11 showed academic and behavioral problems -- temper tantrums, bad dreams, trouble sleeping, depression, fighting and getting bullied by others. For example, boys of broken homes showed 19 percent more behavioral problems than did boys whose parents remained together. Girls showed substantial but less dramatic problems.
In the United States, boys in broken homes showed similar difficulties -- but not the girls. Dr. Cherlin said the surveys may have failed to pick up difficulties experienced by girls because girls tend to hide their emotions. Girls, he said, may suffer from family upheaval as much as boys do.
At the heart of the study is its finding that nearly half of the children who showed emotional scars after their parents divorced showed the same scars while their parents were living together.
"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," the scientists wrote.
"I think that 95 percent of the discussion of the effect on children [is on] what happens after the breakup," Dr. Cherlin said in an interview. "That's important, but our study suggests we ought to focus on what happens beforehand also."
The study doesn't advocate that parents separate to spare their children further emotional wounds.
"At the extreme, in families wracked . . . by violence or abuse, the children may be better off if their parents divorced," Dr. Cherlin said. "But in the average divorce, where one parent feels bored or unfulfilled, I'm not sure at all if children are better off if their parents get divorced."
He said no one prescription fits parents of either group. But family therapy might heal the rift between parents and spare children the damaging effects of argument and violence. Parents who fight should also shield their children from their disputes, he said.
Dr. Cherlin's article takes issue with the popular writings of Judith Wallerstein, whose 1989 study of 60 middle-class families in Marin County, Calif., found that that 50 percent of the children suffered form long-term problems. The study focuses too simplistically on divorce, he said.
But Dr. Wallerstein said that "it comes as no surprise" that children suffer in the midst of family discord just as they do when their parents split up. She said she focused on divorce as a turning point simply because the act of divorce brings children into therapy. "That's when you have access.
"But from the point of view of the children, the marital rupture is a time of great suffering," she said yesterday. "That has nothing to do with the fact that the child may have been suffering for years."