Unhappy parents should not stay together “for the sake of the children”, as divorcing is less harmful if it takes place earlier in childhood, new research shows.

The first major study to assess the emotional impact of splitting up on children has found that the greatest risk of repercussions such as bad behaviour and disobedience come in late childhood and early adolescence.

The analysis of 6,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the century found that those whose parents move apart between the age of seven and 14 are significantly more likely - 16 per cent - to suffer emotional and behavioural problems than those whose parents stay together.

However, there was no difference between children aged between three and seven whose parents divorced and those of the same age who did not.