Divorced parents can prevent mental health problems in children

This post was co-authored by Charlene Walczyk, professor of psychology and director of the REACH (Research and Education to Improve Children’s Health) Institute at Arizona State University.

There are nearly 2,400 divorces in the United States each day, or approximately 875,000 divorces per year. About 50% of all children in the US will live through their parents’ divorce.

Since it is well accepted that children of divorced families have more psychological problems (1), almost every divorced parent wants to know how they can help their child cope with the changes that have occurred after the divorce. For most children, the initial stage of this transition is very painful. Although many children recover quickly, 25-33% develop significant problems, including academic challenges, mental health problems, risky sexual behavior, and substance use that 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 targeting children’s coping strategies as well as individual and group programs for parents. Although some effective personal programs exist, most are not widely available. There are also many online programs, but almost none have been proven to change children’s behavior.

An online program has recently been developed, carefully evaluated and shown to have a positive effect 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 group program that has been shown to have positive effects on multiple domains of functioning, some lasting 15 years after participation (2).

Program benefits include reductions 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 achievement, and work competence (5, 6). Despite these remarkable effects, the group program is not widely available, largely because of its cost, about $700 per family. The ongoing costs of training group leaders and providing childcare are other barriers to delivering the group programme.

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 lower cost. However, the big question was, would the online program be as effective as the live program?

To test whether the program was effective in this format, the eNBP was tested in an experiment involving 131 parents who were randomly assigned to the program or placed on a waiting list. To participate in the study, parents had to be divorced, separated, but never married, divorcing, or separating; have at least one child between the ages of 6 and 18; to speak English; spend at least 3 hours a week or at least one overnight stay 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 is 36 months. The average age of the children is 13 years.

eNBP consists of 10 weekly sessions lasting 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 parental conflict. The program is highly interactive. Sessions begin with a check on parents’ use of the program’s skills, which includes advice on reducing the challenges they experienced using them. Parents then learn a new skill using modeling videos, interactive exercises, and feedback from previous participants, identify barriers to using the skill, and plan ways to reduce those barriers. Parents are provided with skill tip sheets and a downloadable handbook that includes the main points of the session.

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

Somewhat surprisingly, the effects on parenting, interparental conflict, and children’s anxiety and depression were as strong as or stronger than those in the private, group version. This may be due in part to the ease of use of the program. Parents could complete it whenever they wished and could return to a session if they did not have time to complete it. This may 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 of effective parenting after divorce or separation:

  • Do positive, fun family activities.
  • Learning effective listening tools (not just listening, but listening) to get kids to share more.
  • Understanding how to establish family rules and use effective tools to reduce children’s misbehavior.
  • Study of practical tools to protect children from conflict with the ex-partner.

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

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