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Children of wealthier parents are more affected by divorce: Study

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New research reveals that divorce impacts the behavior of richer children more than poor children.

Published in the journal Child Development researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Chicago found that children that come from wealthy families benefit more from being part of stepfamilies than poorer children, but when it comes to their behavior, wealthy kids have more problems.

"Our findings suggest that family changes affect children's behavior in higher-income families more than children's behavior in lower-income families -- for better and for worse," says lead study author Rebecca M. Ryan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Georgetown University.

Researchers analyzed information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1986 to 2008 about the health, development and well-being of 4,000 children. The data includes interviews with the children's mothers that questioned the child's socio-emotional state. The researchers used the data to gain insight into the children's behavior.

The researchers divided the children into three groups by family income. "We divided the sample into high, medium and low-income families and we found, in fact, that parental separation or divorce really only impacted the children in the top income group," says Ryan. "But we did a better job of demonstrating that that's true and a less of a good job explaining why that might be true."

The researchers hypothesize that divorce affects the behavior of a wealthy child more because their family sees a change in income. Sixty percent of wealthy families credit the father for being the primary or sole breadwinner. After the parent's divorce, the father is typically the one to leave and the family is left with less income. The child may now have to change schools, move to a new house or location, causing stress and anxiety on the child.

"Parental separation is more common among lower-income families," Ryan says. Since the change in family life is less common for rich kids, divorce could cause more changes to the child's behavior as they learn to cope. "Parents and children may perceive family changes as more normative, more predictable, and, thus, less stressful," she says.

When a stepparent enters the picture, children in families of all incomes see improved behavioral outcomes, the study finds.

Previous research has found that children in divorced families behave poorly due to certain social and emotional struggles, compared with those who live with their original families, but these studies fail to consider the negative impact of the divorce itself. Living with a stepparent family can improve children's behavior, adds Ryan.

The researchers found that children in wealthier families over the age of six saw improvements in their behavior when blended in with a stepfamily. The research suggests that children from high-income families benefit from having a stepparent because they may feel like "relative normalcy" has been restored in the family.

The rates of divorce have been on the rise since the 1960s, with half of marriages ending up in divorce.

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