Social justice

Separation and divorce: what effect do they have on the social advancement of children?

Picture by David Pereiras on Adobe Stock

Picture by David Pereiras on Adobe Stock

Can a child’s success as an adult be hampered by witnessing the separation of their parents during childhood? A recent study by the economist Helene Le Forner shows that such an event can influence a child’s future level of education, particularly if it takes place during their early years. Social status appears to be relatively unaffected, except in situations where the parental relationship breakdown occurs at ages considered as ‘pivotal’.

By Hélène Le Forner

Hélène Le Forner

AMSE, Aix-Marseille Université

Nina Le Clerre

Nina Le Clerre

Journaliste Scientifique

The separation of married or cohabiting couples is increasingly commonplace. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of separations amongst couples of 25 - 45 years old numbered more than 155,000 per year, or slightly more than twice the amount between 1993 - 1996. Consequently, the number of children below 18 years old involved in these separations are also more and more numerous. Between these two periods, their number increased from 145,000 to 191,0001 .

Although such arrangements have become common, we may wonder about the lasting consequences of this family breakdown for the future of the child. To date, no consensus has been reached on this issue from the economic literature, although research on the subject has been extensive. Economist Hélène Le Forner wondered if parental breakdown may influence children's success. And more specifically, she sought to establish any potential link between the age of the children at the time of their parents' separation, and their level of academic and professional success.

  • 1« Parcours conjugaux et familiaux des hommes et des femmes selon les générations et les milieux sociaux », Vianney Costemalle, in « Couples et familles », coll.  “The marital and family trajectories of men and women according to their generation and social background”, Vianney Costemalle, in “Couples and families”, coll. References, Insee, December 2015

Fewer resources for children

Living in a couple makes it possible to pool certain expenses, such as payments for housing or household appliances. These are known to economists as economies of scale in consumption.

Because separation signals the end of the pooling of such expenses, it leads to the relative impoverishment of parents, and this loss is also felt regarding time allocated to daily tasks. Before the separation, when one of the two parents did the laundry, the other could cook or take care of the children's homework. After a separation, the custodial parent is obliged to perform all these tasks alone. Another study by Hélène Le Forner shows that time that parents can spend with the child is reduced following a separation2 .

The family economist Gary Becker, however, when he theorised on the concept of human capital, observed that the larger the investment of parents’ time and money in the education of their children, the more their chances of social success were guaranteed3The arrival of a step-parent may help to recoup some of the losses brought about by the separation, yet it is difficult to anticipate the level of investment that any new spouse may make in the child's upbringing. 

  • 2Parents 'separation: What is the effect on parents' and children's time investments? AMSE Working Papers
  • 3In his book Human Capital, Gary Becker defines human capital as “the set of productive capacities that an individual acquires by accumulating general or specific knowledge, know-how, etc. »,
House, car and family cut in half by a hammer symbolizing justice

Picture by Andrey Popov on Adobe Stock

Unpredictable psychological consequences

The psychological consequences of a breakdown in the parental relationship remain uncertain. Family breakdown can lead to psychological shock, particularly in the event of an unexpected separation4 . However, this event can on the other hand put an end to a long period of parental conflict, and this may be of benefit to the child5 .

Reaching a joint custody arrangement, which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, can also serve to minimise the psychological trauma for children. It should be noted that, for the generations studied within the scope of this work, this type of arrangement was not commonplace in France.

  • 4The effects of divorce and marital discord on adult's children's psychological well-being, American Sociological Review
  • 5Effects of Divorce and Non-Divorce on Children, Research and Forecast
enfant pleurant alors que ses parents se déchirent, symbolisés par des ombres

Picture by Romolo Tavani on Adobe Stock

Evaluating success

Three indicators of children's social and economic success were considered:

- The number of years of study.

- Academic performance, or the average income for a given level of study. This last variable aims to account for potential disparities in economic situations with relation to the same number of years of study. For example, a degree from a prestigious university (known in France as a Grande Ecole) will generate more future income, on average, than a standard university diploma.

- Social position, in the form of the average salary for a certain level of education and a given profession. 

For this study, the data was sourced in the Training and Professional Qualification cross-sectional database of the INSEE (research waves 2003 and 2014). One of the objectives of the study is to provide a representative sample of the French population aged 18 to 65. In addition, it provides information on the respondent's level of education, occupation, and salary, as well as data on their parents and their possible separation. Finally, information on a respondent's sibling, drawn at random, is collected.

young graduates in front of the door of an academy

Picture by Leon Wu on Unsplash

How can the effects of separation be accurately measured?

It is not sufficient to compare the success of children whose parents are separated with that of children whose parents are not. Indeed, it is possible that this difference is partly because of other variables associated with the separation, and which could have affected the child's success even in the absence of separation. This is known as selection bias.

In the initial modelling, to avoid any bias, individual and familial variables which may have an effect on social success were taken into account. Elements such as the social background of origin or the sex of the child could be considered. In this manner, it is possible to measure the impact of the separation, all other things being equal.

Nonetheless, there are other unobserved variables specific to divorced families which can have negative consequences on the professional and educational success of children, in the absence of separation. In a study dating from 20036 , Thomas Piketty, for example, perceives the effect of separation on the probability of children repeating a year and dropping out of school because of a climate of conflict prevailing in the home before the separation, and not due to the separation per se.

To counter any selection bias linked to the effect of unobserved variables, a second model was employed. This model concerns the relative success between members of the same sibling group with, as a central hypothesis, the fact that the family environment is similar for all brothers and sisters. The results observed in this latter model are close in nature to those found in the first model. Parental separation therefore seems to have a specific effect on the level of academic and professional success of individuals, in an invariable family environment.

  • 6The impact of divorce on school performance: evidence from France, 1968-2002. Discussion paper for Center for Economic Policy Research, 4146

The importance of age

First, for individuals whose parents separated before they reached 18, we observe a negative effect on the subsequent number of years of study. Parental separation, when it occurs during childhood or adolescence, does appear to have a negative impact on the number of years of study. This effect is less pronounced, however, for 7–9-year-olds and 16-18-year-olds.

As for the effect measured on school performance, the influence is less marked but remains negative (this is not the case for 0–3-year-olds and 16–18-year-olds). Finally, when we consider the effect on average future income (for a given level of education and occupation), the effect of separation tends to diminish. It remains pronounced, however, when the separation occurs at pivotal moments, such as the first year of primary school, or during the transition to middle school.

Is everyone equal in the eyes of separation?

Moreover, and this is another major contribution of this study, the observed effects of parental separation differ according to the sex of the children. In terms of academic success, men seem more affected than women by parental separation, and this phenomenon is even more marked regarding academic performance.

Conversely, the difference between men and women is less important for social position, and even seems to work in favour of men, though the difference was not statistically significant.

However, according to a study by Lundberg dated 20177 , boys are less psychologically affected by the separation of their parents than girls, though it may have more of a specific effect on their academic performance or behaviour. Gendered socialisation could be the source of differences in children’s reactions to parental breakdown.

  • 7Father Absence and the Educational Gender Gap. IZA Discussion Papers, 10814
scène de famille dans une prairie, le père tenant deux de ses enfants dans ses bras

Photo par Juliane Liebermann sur Unsplash

Is there sufficient support for single-parent families?

These results highlight the need to review the intervention by public authorities in the lives of the two million single-parent families living in France. Assistance and support measures, such as the payment of alimony or a family support allowance for single parents (around 115 euros per child), have been put in place. However, the struggle remains to lessen the impact of the shock of separation for children. In 2018, 41% of children raised by a single parent were thus considered as poor, compared to 21% for all children, according to INSEE.

The poor implementation of these aid mechanisms could partly explain this finding. A study by Zakia Belmokhtar from 2016 shows that, two years after the divorce, only 80% of divorced parents legally awarded alimony confirmed that they were paid regularly and systematically8 . It is therefore the support provided to these families that should be called into question, beginning with respect for court decisions.

  • 8Contribution to the maintenance and education of the child, two years after the divorce. 7. Minister of Justice. Infostat Justice


Le Forner, Hélène. 2020. “Age at Parents’ Separation and Achievement: Evidence from France Using a Sibling Approach.” Annals of Economics and Statistics, no. 138 (June): 107–63.