'Nasty' divorces expose children to toxic stress

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Children at the centre of mismanaged divorces are twice as likely to develop health problems than children from united families, according to new research.

Study author Maria Dolores Seijo Martinez, from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said when parents handle their separation in a nasty way children are exposed to "toxic stress".

"It is not the break up itself that has negative effects on the children's health, but improper handling of the situation by the parents," she said.

"Poor handling involves very high levels of interparental conflict, which makes it very difficult to maintain a good relationship.

"If children are exposed to these family situations for prolonged periods, they often experience toxic stress."

For kids embroiled in a bitter split, the study found that they are twice as likely to develop issues with their gut, skin, nervous system, urinary organs and their genitals.

According to the research, published in the European Journal of Education and Psychology, prolonged periods of stress impact on the children of divorced parents' health.

Researchers from the universities of Santiago de Compostela and Vigo in Spain studied 467 children aged between two and 18, with either divorced or partnered parents.

What they discovered were children from divorced parents had double the rate of health issues related to their gut, skin, nervous system, genital and urinary organs.


They also found that divorce did not increase the risk of breathing, heart, hearing, sight or muscles problems. Nor did it lead to more allergies.

While the researchers did not blame the act of divorce for causing increased health issues, they said it was more so a result of mishandling the separation and exposing children to prolonged levels of stress that did the most damage.

And they recommended more support be made available to parents and children navigating this tricky time.

"Professionals in direct contact with children, such as primary care workers or school staff, have an important role in reducing toxic stress, as they are in a position to design and implement new intervention orientated towards protection and prevention," Ms Seijo Martinez said.

"We need to support families in order to reduce these consequences."