Protecting the Children of Divorce

By Mahoney, Diana | Clinical Psychiatry News, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Protecting the Children of Divorce


Mahoney, Diana, Clinical Psychiatry News


No divorce is a good divorce, but when it comes to the kids, some divorces are clearly better than others.

Research has shown that children of divorce are at high risk for depression and anxiety, behavior problems, and substance abuse. But studies have also shown that effective interventions can mitigate those outcomes.

Whether and to what degree a child of divorce struggles with any of those or other mental health issues depends on the environment created by the divorce itself and the support structure available to the child to cushion the blow.

At its "best," a divorce will involve little interparental conflict, minimal routine changes for the child, maintenance of warm, secure parent-child relationships, and an environment in which the child feels comfortable discussing his or her emotions, fears, and frustrations. Conversely, interparental tension, reduced or inconsistent contact with one or the other parent, changes to school, housing, and/or financial resources, and a lack of opportunity to explore feelings as they relate to the divorce increase the risk of a poor outcome.

Community-based efforts to protect children from some of the devastation imposed by divorce are particularly critical, given that separation and divorce have become normative life events for so many families in the United States. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 1 million children experience parental divorce each year and that nearly 40 percent of the current generation of children will experience the divorce of their parents before they are 18 years old. Of those children, it is thought that more than 25% experience mental health and/or adjustment problems at twice the rate of their peers with intact families and that increased risk often persists into adulthood (Am. Psychol. 1998;53:167-84).

Preventing such outcomes requires interventions that foster the development of specific coping skills in children and behavioral modifications among parents, according to Sharlene A. Wolchik, Ph.D.

Dr. Wolchik and her colleagues in the Prevention Research Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, conducted the first randomized control trial documenting the long-term effects of a preventive intervention for adolescents whose parents had divorced, called the New Beginnings Program (JAMA 2002;288:1874-81).

The 240 divorced moms with children between the ages of 9 and 12 included in the study were divided into two treatment groups and one control group. The first treatment group received 11 group counseling sessions that included both the mother and the child and targeted improving coping skills, reducing negative thoughts about divorce, and improving parent-child relations. The second treatment group also received 11 group counseling sessions but included only the mother. In addition to the goals mentioned for the first treatment group, this group also received instruction on effective discipline methods.

Parents in the control group were given books to read about adjusting to divorce. Six years after the intervention, children from both treatment groups showed lower levels of externalizing problems, reduced prevalence of diagnosed mental disorders, less high-risk sexual behavior, and lower rates of substance use, compared with the control group.

"These results provide evidence that relatively brief prevention programs for children of divorce have lasting effects on a wide array of developmentally meaningful outcomes," Dr. Wolchik said.

Future research is planned to evaluate the New Beginnings Program when delivered on a large-scale basis in family court settings. The next phase of the original study will be a 13-year follow-up with the participating families to determine how the "kids" fare in young adulthood and with their own parenting.

Ultimately, prevention investigators hope that interventions such as the New Beginnings Program will become a standard component of the divorce process nationwide. …

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