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Impacts of parental separation on school children

Children whose parents have separated may be more likely to have low social wellbeing at school, particularly if they experienced separation between ages two to five years, research published in the open access journal BMC Pediatrics suggests.

A team of researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, found that compared with children from intact families, children whose parents had separated had significantly higher odds of being bullied, feeling lonely and unhappy at school (low social wellbeing).

To examine family structure and social wellbeing at school the authors compared data from the first annual Danish National Well-being Questionnaire in 2015 with data on family structure from a national register. Out of the 219,226 children and adolescents in Denmark included in the study, 68,793 (31%) came from “dissolved” families, meaning that they did not live continuously with both parents.

Among children whose parents had separated, those aged nine to 12 were more likely to have low social wellbeing at school than those aged 13 to 16, regardless of their age at the time of separation. Children aged two to five at the time of separation had consistently higher odds of low social wellbeing at school than those aged six to ten.

Lena Hohwü, the corresponding author said: “We expected that children would have a higher level of social wellbeing at school if parental separation occurs when they are older rather than younger because a considerable part of the socialization process has already taken place. Our findings seem to confirm that expectation. By contrast, children who are younger at the time of family dissolution may be expected to have lower social wellbeing at school as they may have experienced more changes in family structure, for example having stepparents”.

51% of children aged two to five at the time of separation had experienced two changes in family structure during their lives, in comparison to 38% of children age six to ten and 15% of children aged 11 to 16. Children aged 11 to 16 at the time of separation who had experienced more than two changes in family structure (such as gaining a step parent) had the greatest odds of low social wellbeing at school.

Lena Hohwü said: “Our findings suggest that the school may be an important setting where children at risk of poor well-being, as a result of parental separation, can be identified and receive help and support”.

The authors caution that as data was taken from the first Danish National Wellbeing Questionnaire, data on children’s social wellbeing at school prior to parental separation was not available. Previous research has found that children can be affected by parental separation at least two to four years before the separation is finalised, possibly due to parental conflict.


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Notes to editors:
1.    Research article:
Family dissolution and children’s social well-being at school: A historic cohort study
Hohmann et al. BMC Pediatrics 2019
DOI: 10.1186/s12887-019-1821-z

The article is available at the journal website.  

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BMC's open access policy.

2.    BMC Pediatrics is an open access journal publishing peer-reviewed research articles in all aspects of health care in neonates, children and adolescents, as well as related molecular genetics, pathophysiology, and epidemiology.

3.    A pioneer of open access publishing, BMC has an evolving portfolio of high quality peer-reviewed journals including broad interest titles such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, specialist journals such as Malaria Journal and Microbiome, and the BMC series. At BMC, research is always in progress. We are committed to continual innovation to better support the needs of our communities, ensuring the integrity of the research we publish, and championing the benefits of open research. BMC is part of Springer Nature, giving us greater opportunities to help authors connect and advance discoveries across the world.