Divorced parents can prevent mental health problems in children | Team Cansler

This post was 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.

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

Since it is widely recognized that children from divorced families have more mental health problems (1), almost every divorced parent would like to know how they can help their child cope with the changes after the divorce. For most children, the early stages of this transition are very painful. Although many children bounce back quickly, 25-33% develop significant problems, including academic challenges, mental health issues, risky sexual behaviors, and drug use, which may persist 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 skills, as well as individual and group programs for parents. Although there are some effective personal programs, most are not widely available. There are also many online programs, but almost none have been shown to change children’s behavior.

An online program was recently developed, carefully evaluated and shown to have positive effects on children’s performance. This program, called the eNew Beginnings Program (eNBP), teaches parents powerful skills that have been shown to help children prepare for divorce more positively, or at least less negatively. The program is an adaptation of an 11-session face-to-face group program that has been shown to have positive impacts on multiple areas of functioning, some of which lasted 15 years after participation (2).

Program benefits included a reduction in mental disorders, drug use and abuse, risky sexual behaviors, use of mental health services, and participation in the justice system (3, 4). The program also improved adaptive coping, self-esteem, grades, educational attainment, and work skills (5, 6). Despite these notable effects, the group program is not widely offered, in large part because of its cost of about $700 per family. Ongoing costs of training group leaders and providing childcare are other obstacles to the delivery of the group program.

The program developers converted the in-person group program to an online program so that it would be widely available to divorced parents at a lower cost. The big question, however, 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 involving 131 parents who were randomly assigned access to the program or placed on 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 the ages of 6 and 18; be English speaking; spend at least 3 hours/week or at least one overnight stay every other week with their child/children and have access to a computer with high-speed internet or a smartphone. The median time since divorce or separation was 36 months. On average, the children were 13 years old.

The eNBP consists of 10 weekly sessions lasting between 20 and 30 minutes. Parents learn skills to improve their relationships with their children, apply more effective discipline, and protect their children from being caught in the middle of a parental conflict. The program is very interactive. Sessions begin with a check-in on parents’ use of the program’s capabilities, including tips for reducing difficulties they have experienced using it. The parent then uses modeling videos, interactive exercises and testimonials from previous participants to learn a new skill, identify barriers to using the skill and plan ways to reduce those barriers. Parents are provided with skills tips and a downloadable manual covering the key points of the session.

Parents and children independently completed questionnaires immediately prior to assignment to the eNBP or the waiting list and 12 weeks later. Both parents and children reported that the eNBP reduced parental conflict, improved parent-child relationships, and increased effective discipline. Importantly, the children whose parents were on the eNBP experienced a decrease in anxiety and depression (7).

Somewhat surprisingly, the effects on parenting, parental conflict, and children’s anxiety and depression were as strong or greater than the face-to-face group version. This may be partly due to the program’s ease of use. Parents could always complete it and return to a session if they didn’t have time to complete it. It could also be due to the highly interactive nature of the program and how it has 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:

  • Positive, fun family activities.
  • Learning effective listening tools (not just hearing, but listening) to get kids sharing more.
  • Understand how to set family rules and use effective tools to reduce child misbehavior.
  • Exploring practical tools to protect children from ex-spouse conflicts.

Parents gave positive feedback about the program. For example: “It has brought me and my children closer together”, “It has helped me to spend time with my child and to understand how to communicate better with him”, “I like the activities and homework and ideas about it to implement and explain to your kids,” and “There are several tools that I used right away that my kids are huge fans of.” Over 80% of parents said family courts should recommend divorce or separation for parents to join the eNew Beginnings program.

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