The consequences of divorce

Maori boyAbout half of children in the U.S. experience parental divorce and between one-quarter and one-half of these children experience significant problems after divorce. The first randomized, controlled study documenting the long-term effects of preventive intervention programs for adolescents whose parents have divorced was carried out by Sharlene A. Wolchik and colleagues. The New Beginnings program was conducted both with mothers alone and with mothers and children between March 1992 and December 1993. Children were evaluated six years after the intervention.

Mothers and children in these programs spoke English and had no diagnosed mental health problems, mothers had not remarried, had no plans to remarry and did not have live-in boyfriends. Any children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder were taking medication. Two hundred and forty families participated in the programs.

The mothers-only program focused on teaching mothers healthy parenting under difficult circumstances. Skills taught included effective listening, maintaining positive routines–such as eating together and doing fun activities as a family–and being clear and consistent in discipline. While these mothers had custody of their children, the program also sought to increase fathers’ access to their children and to decrease tensions between parents. The groups met for 11 sessions, and mothers also attended two structured programs designed to fit their individual needs.

Teaching coping skills to children

The mother-plus-child program included, in addition to the training for mothers, a separate, concurrent group program for children. The children’s component focused heavily on coping skills, including ways to understand the difference between events that children could control and those they could not. Children were also taught communication skills. Participants in the mother-plus-child program met 11 times and were encouraged to label their feelings, attempt to solve problems, and challenge negative perspectives regarding divorce.

Intervention programs can help

Wolchik and colleagues tracked the effects these programs had on the participants’ school dropout rate, substance abuse, high-risk sexual conduct, depression, and conduct disorder, and compared them to a control group of mothers and children who received no training, but were sent three books on coping with divorce. Treatment in either the mothers group or the mother-and-child groups led to positive outcomes. The adolescent children of the mothers who received treatment and those who participated in the mother-plus-child group all showed fewer problem behaviors. There were lower rates of mental illness, fewer sexual partners, and less alcohol and drug use at the six-year follow-up. Neither program, however, reduced depression. The mothers-only treatment and the mother-and-child program showed no significant differences on any outcome. However, researchers report that the cost of the mother-and-child program was significantly higher than the mothers-only program and, therefore, they recommend further research in the comparative outcomes and cost of each program.

Wolchik and colleagues note some limitations of their study. The sample was middle-class, relatively small, and white. These researchers believe the results may be biased because better educated, more affluent mothers with fewer children, like the women in this study, may be more likely to use the program effectively. They point out that there were exceptional levels of compliance with program requirements. Wolchik concludes that this study indicates that treatment of divorced custodial mothers produces positive outcomes for their children and she therefore recommends that more research focusing on parenting skills be carried out. Most of the previous research designed to reduce the adverse effect of divorce on children has focused exclusively on working with the children themselves.


“Unique Prevention Intervention Targets Consequences of Divorce” The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter Volume 18, Number 12, December 2002.

Published in ERN February 2003 Volume 16 Number 2

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