Pennsylvania State University researchers analysed almost 1,000 families and found that children suffer when their parents' marriage ends - no matter how amicable the split is.
The finding contradicts the widely held belief that it is possible to have a 'good divorce' in which the children and adults emerge relatively unscathed, the researchers said.
They called for marriage counsellors to make greater efforts to save marriages in distress and said that divorcing parents need to do more to protect their children from the fall out, the Daily Mail reported.
The research team began by comparing the welfare of children whose parents had divorced with those whose marriages were strong. Those from broken homes scored more poorly.
They then compared children from 944 families from around the US, which had been through a divorce or, the end of a long-term relationship. The families were divided into three groups.
Co-operative parents shared childcare, still got on well with each other and rarely fought - fitting the criteria of a 'good divorce'.
Parallel parents shared childcare but rarely spoke to each other. The third group was described as single parent families because the absent parent had little or no contact with their child.
The parents were interviewed while the children were teenagers and the children interviewed when they became adults.
All three groups gave similar answers, debunking the idea of it being possible to have a good divorce, the journal Family Relations reported.
While in their teens, those with co-operative parents had fewer behaviour problems than other youngsters from broken homes.
However, they did no better than the others in terms of self-esteem, satisfaction with life and school or experimentation with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. And their school marks were worse than those whose parents had no contact with each other.
As young adults, those from a 'good divorce' were just as likely to have under-age sex and be promiscuous as those whose parents led entirely separate lives.
Similar results were obtained for children whose parents had co-habited before splitting up and those who had been married and divorced.
The researchers said that overall the results provide 'only modest support' for the good divorce hypothesis.
"Not all children with divorced parents experience long-term problems. But people's willingness to accept the good divorce hypothesis is reason for concern if some parents are lulled into believing that their children are adequately protected from all the potential risks of union disruption," Researcher Paul Amato, a professor of family sociology, concluded.