Public Release: 

Study shows promising long-term results for children of divorce

Arizona State University

TEMPE, Ariz. - An Arizona State University research team is showing that a short intervention program for children of divorced parents can significantly reduce long-term diagnosis of mental disorder in the children. The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and is to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Oct. 16, (embargoed until 3 p.m. (CT), Oct. 15,) showed a 36 percent reduction in serious emotional disorders in the adolescents whose families had participated in an 11-week program, over the number in a self-study group. The study, by ASU psychology professors Sharlene Wolchik and Irwin Sandler and colleagues, showed significant reductions in a wide range of problems in adolescents six years after the classes including, drug, marijuana and alcohol use; behavioral problems; and the number of sexual partners.

The National Institute of Mental Health funds the study.

The findings are important because nearly 50 percent of children experience the divorce of their parents. This is the first scientific demonstration of such long-term positive effects of programs for children of divorce.

The findings also point to the importance of parenting after divorce as a factor that impacts children's long-term adjustment.

"This study sends an important message," Sandler says. "What we did was teach healthy parenting under difficult circumstances."

"That the program had lasting effects on a wide variety of outcomes is remarkable and speaks to the importance of effective parenting in promoting positive developmental outcomes," adds Wolchik The JAMA study is a 6-year follow-up of previous research done by the same team. For the original study the researchers worked with 240 divorced families (children and custodial mothers), with children ages 9 - 12.

The researchers divided the families into three programs, a self-study literature program, where participants were given books and a self-study program; a program for custodial mothers, where the mother attended an 11-week parenting skills class which focused on listening and communication skills, consistent discipline and other key parenting skills; and a combined program for mothers and children, which included the parenting class and a coping skills class for the children.

Six months after the study the researchers found the children whose mothers attended the class had fewer behavioral problems than those in the self-study program.

For the newly published JAMA study, the researchers contacted the same families (90 percent of the original families participated in the follow-up) after six years to assess how the adolescents were adjusting. Six years after participating in the programs, the majority of the adolescents were still functioning well. The classes were most beneficial for those adolescents who had high levels of behavior problems in childhood and who were most likely to develop more serious problems later on.

The adolescents in the combined program were 36 percent less likely to have diagnosed mental disorder and reported fewer sexual partners than those who had been in the self-study program. The adolescents whose mothers had attended the class had fewer mental health problems and fewer instances of drug, marijuana and alcohol use than teens that had been in the self-study program. The results for the mother program and the combined mother and child program were not significantly different.

The researchers are now planning a larger project in collaboration with Family Courts in Phoenix, Ariz., to examine if the class can be effectively delivered to families through community agencies. If successful, this project will raise public policy issues of how society can deliver such effective prevention programs in the community.

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The research was done as part of ASU's Prevention Intervention Research Center which has been in continual operation since 1984, the second longest running center of its kind in the U. S. It has earned a stalwart reputation for its collaborative research on understanding how children adapt to stress. Clinicians are currently using its original research methods and prevention models across the country, earning the center recognition as a National Institute of Mental Health National Center of Excellence in Prevention Research.

For more information about the center, visit the Web at (www.asu.edu/asunews/research/pirc_090902.htm).

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