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Divorce

Divorced Parents Can Prevent Kids' Mental Health Problems

A new online program for divorced parents significantly benefits their children.

Key points

  • About 50% of children in the United States experience parental divorce.
  • Most children bounce back quickly as they adjust to changes associated with the divorce but 25-33% experience significant problems.
  • A recent study found that an online program reduced children’s anxiety and depression and interparental conflict and improved parenting.

This post is co-written by Sharlene Wolchik, Professor of Psychology and Director of the REACH (Research and Education Advancing Children’s Health) Institute at Arizona State University.

There are nearly 2,400 divorces every single day in the United States, or approximately 875,000 divorces per year. About 50% of all children in the U.S. will experience the divorce of their parents.

As it is well accepted that children from divorced homes have more psychological problems (1), nearly every divorced parent wants to know how they can help their child cope with the changes that happen after divorce. For most children, the initial stage of this transition is very painful. Although many children bounce back quickly, 25-33% develop significant problems, including academic challenges, mental health problems, risky sexual behavior, and substance use, which can last into adulthood.

Parents are not the only ones who want to know what they can do to prevent these problems. Researchers have developed programs that address children’s coping strategies as well as individual and group programs for parents. Although some effective in-person programs exist, most are not widely available. There are also many online programs, however, almost none have been shown to change children’s behaviors.

Recently, an online program was developed, carefully evaluated, and shown to have positive effects on children’s functioning. This program, titled the eNew Beginnings Program (eNBP), teaches parents powerful skills that have been shown to help children adjust more positively or at least less negatively to divorce. The program is an adaptation of an 11-session in-person group program that was shown to have positive effects on multiple domains of functioning, several of which persisted 15 years after participation (2).

The benefits of the program included decreases in mental disorders, substance use and abuse, risky sexual behavior, use of mental health services, and involvement in the justice system (3, 4). The program also improved adaptive coping, self-esteem, grades, educational attainment, and work competence (5, 6). Despite these remarkable effects, the group program is not offered widely, in large part because of its cost, about $700 per family. Ongoing costs of training group leaders and providing childcare are other barriers to providing the group program.

The program developers adapted the in-person group program into an online program so it could be widely available to divorced parents at a reduced cost. However, the big question was, would the online program be as effective as the in-person program?

To examine whether the program was effective in this format, the eNBP was tested in an experiment that included 131 parents who were randomly given access to the program or assigned to a waitlist. To participate in the study, parents had to be divorced, separated but never married, divorcing, or separating; have at least one child between 6 and 18; be English speaking; spend at least 3 hours/week or at least one overnight every other week with their child(ren), and have access to a computer with high-speed internet or a smartphone. The average time since divorce or separation was 36 months. On average, children were 13 years old.

The eNBP consists of 10 weekly sessions that last between 20 and 30 minutes. Parents learn skills to improve their relationships with their children, use more effective discipline, and protect their children from being caught in the middle of interparental conflict. The program is highly interactive. Sessions begin with a check-in about parents’ use of the program skills that includes tips to reduce any challenges they experienced in using them. Parents then learn a new skill using modeling videos, interactive exercises, and testimonials from prior participants, identify barriers to using the skill and plan ways to reduce these barriers. Parents are provided with tip sheets about the skills and a downloadable handbook that includes the major points of the session.

Parents and children independently completed questionnaires immediately before being assigned to the eNBP or waitlist as well as 12 weeks later. Both parents and children reported that the eNBP reduced interparental conflict, improved parent-child relationships, and increased effective discipline. Importantly, the children whose parents were in the eNBP experienced decreases in anxiety and depression (7).

Somewhat surprisingly, the effects on parenting, interparental conflict, and children’s anxiety and depression were as strong or stronger than those in the in-person, group version. This might be due in part to the convenience of using the program. Parents could complete it whenever they wanted and could return to a session if they did not have time to complete it. It might also be due to the highly interactive nature of the program and how it helped parents identify potential problems in using the skills and ways to overcome them.

The eNew Beginnings Program focuses on four pillars for effective parenting after divorce or separation:

  • Doing positive, fun, family activities.
  • Learning effective listening tools (not just hearing but listening) to get children to share more.
  • Understanding how to establish family rules and use effective tools to decrease children’s misbehavior.
  • Exploring practical tools to protect children from conflict with one’s ex-partner.

Parents had positive things to say about the program. For example, “It got me and my children closer to each other,” “It helped me invest in time with my child and helped me to understand how to communicate with him better," "I like the activities and homework and ideas on how to implement them and explain them to your children," and “There are several tools I used immediately that my kids are big fans of.” Over 80% of the parents said that family courts should recommend divorcing or separating parents complete the eNew Beginnings Program.

References

1. Rhodes, C. A., O’Hara, K. L., Vélez, C. E., & Wolchik, S. A. (2021). Interventions to help parents and children through separation and divorce. In: Tremblay, R.E.., Boivin, M, Peters, R. Dev, Eds. Emery, R.E., Topic Editor. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.

2. Wolchik, S. A., Sandler, I. N., Tein, J. Y., Mahrer, N. E., Millsap, R. E., Winslow, E., ... & Reed, A. (2013). Fifteen-year follow-up of a randomized trial of a preventive intervention for divorced families: effects on mental health and substance use outcomes in young adulthood. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 660.

3. Wolchik, S. A., Sandler, I. N., Millsap, R. E., Plummer, B. A., Greene, S. M., Anderson, E. R., ... & Haine, R. A. (2002). Six-year follow-up of preventive interventions for children of divorce: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 1874-1881.

4. Herman, P. M., Mahrer, N. E., Wolchik, S. A., Porter, M. M., Jones, S., & Sandler, I. N. (2014). Cost-benefit analysis of a preventive intervention for divorced families: Reduction in mental health and justice system service use costs 15 years later, Prevention Science, 16, 586-596.

5. Wolchik, S., Sandler, I, N. Weiss, L, & Winslow, E. (2007). New Beginnings: An empirically based intervention program for divorced mothers to promote resilience in their children. In J. M. Briesmeister & C. E. Schaefer (Eds), Handbook of parent training: Helping parents prevent and solve problem behaviors. (pp. 25-62). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons

6. Wolchik, S. A., Tein, J. Y., Sandler, I. N., & Kim, H. J. (2016). Developmental cascade models of a parenting-focused program for divorced families on mental health problems and substance use in emerging adulthood. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 869-888.

7. Wolchik, S.A., Sandler, I.N., Winslow, E., Porter, M.M. & Tein, J-Y. (2022). Effects of a web-based parenting-after-divorce program to reduce interparental conflict, increase quality of parenting and reduce children’s post-divorce behavior problems. Family Court Review, 60, 474- 491.

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