Divorced parents can prevent children's mental health problems

Divorced parents can prevent children’s mental health problems

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

There are nearly 2,400 divorces every day in the United States, or about 875,000 divorces a year. About 50% of all children in the United States will experience their parents’ divorce.

Since it is well accepted that children from divorced homes have more psychological problems (1), almost all divorced parents want to know how they can help their child cope with the changes that occur after divorce. For most children, the initial phase of this transition is very painful. Although many children recover quickly, 25-33% develop significant problems, including academic difficulties, mental health problems, risky sexual behaviors and substance use, which can last into adulthood. .

Parents aren’t 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 programs online, but almost none have been shown to change children’s behaviors.

Recently, an online program has been developed, carefully evaluated and shown to have positive effects on children’s functioning. This program, called 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 has been shown to have positive effects on multiple domains of functioning, many of which have persisted 15 years after participation (2).

Benefits of the program included reductions in mental disorders, substance use and abuse, sexual risk behaviors, use of mental health services, and involvement in the justice system (3, 4 ). The program also improved adaptive adjustment, self-esteem, grades, educational level and job competence (5, 6). Despite these remarkable effects, the group program is not widely available, largely because of its cost, approximately $700 per family. The ongoing costs of training group leaders and childcare are other barriers to group program delivery.

The program developers adapted the in-person group program into an online program so that it could be widely available to divorced parents at a reduced cost. However, the big question was whether the online program would 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 entered the program randomly or assigned to a waiting list. To participate in the study, parents had to be divorced, separated but never married, divorced or separated; have at least one child between 6 and 18 years old; be English-speaking; spend at least 3 hours/week or at least one night every two weeks 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, the 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 relationship 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. The sessions begin with a verification of the parents’ use of the skills of the programme, which includes tips for reducing the difficulties encountered when using them. Parents then learn a new skill using modeling videos, interactive exercises, and testimonials from past participants, identify barriers to using the skill, and plan ways to reduce those barriers. Parents receive skill tip sheets and a downloadable manual that includes the main points of the session.

Parents and children independently completed the questionnaires immediately before being assigned to the eNBP or waiting list as well as 12 weeks later. Parents and children reported that eNBP reduced interparental conflict, improved parent-child relationships, and increased the effectiveness of discipline. Importantly, children whose parents were in eNBP experienced a decrease 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 of the in-person and group version. This may be partly due to the convenience of using the program. Parents could complete it whenever they wanted and could come back to a session if they didn’t have time to do so. It could also be due to the highly interactive nature of the program and the way it helped parents identify potential problems in skill use and ways to overcome them.

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

  • Do positive, fun and family activities.
  • Learn effective listening tools (not just hearing but listening) to get children to share more.
  • Understand how to establish family rules and use effective tools to reduce bad behavior in children.
  • Explore practical tools to protect children from conflict with their ex-partner.

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

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