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Parent education program helps children adjust to divorce

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December 31, 2012

Remarkable results from 20 years of research on helping parents promote their children’s adjustment after a divorce have led to a partnership between ASU’s Prevention Research Center and family courts and agencies across Arizona.

ASU researchers Irwin Sandler and Sharlene Wolchik developed a parent education program that has been found to substantially reduce behavior problems and mental health and substance abuse disorders among children of divorced parents. Positive effects continued up to 15 years later.

With a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, they are now testing the effectiveness of the experimental program when it is translated into a community-based service.

The New Beginnings Program is now being offered in multiple counties across Arizona, with about 147 parents in Maricopa and Pima counties already participating. Sandler and Wolchik will expand the program to include Yuma and Coconino counties in the spring and hope to enroll about 1,000 parents over the next two years.

Over a million children experience the divorce of their parents each year, says Wolchik, a professor in ASU's Department of Psychology. Almost a third will develop mental health problems, with symptoms ranging from low academic achievement to substance abuse.

Working since 1992, the two developed an intensive program for parents that teaches specific positive parenting skills that help build healthy family relationships following divorce.

They found that divorcing parents who participated in the New Beginnings Program saw significant benefits for their children six years later, including:

• fewer serious behavior and emotional problems

• higher grades

• higher self-esteem

• less drug and alcohol use

• less early sexual activity

“The results were so remarkable that we decided to continue interviewing the children and their parents,” says Wolchik. “We were delighted and excited to find that a program that lasts 20 hours could affect the life of a child years later. The intervention effects were substantial, in multiple aspects of children’s lives. We wanted to see if the program helped the children as they transitioned into adulthood.”

In a 15-year follow-up, completed a couple of years ago, Wolchik and Sandler found that the program actually prevented depression in the children, who now were between the ages of 24 and 28. Fifteen years after the program, they had substantially fewer mental disorders and substance abuse problems and a higher quality of relationships with romantic partners than a control group.

Research showed that the improvements in children’s behaviors were due to the parenting skills taught in the program. After the classes, parents were more warm and affectionate and used more effective discipline. Parents in the program also reported feeling less depressed.

“It shows that the quality of parenting can be taught using relatively a brief skill-focused program,” says Sandler. “Parenting is a teachable skill which can make a substantial difference in the lives of children, and the changes can last over time.

“During a divorce parents are often very stressed and preoccupied, making it more difficult to parent well. Most of them worry about how they might help their children. In the program they learn effective listening, positive discipline methods and the importance of spending fun time with family and focused time with each child. These activities lead to more positive interactions and an increased sense of security for the child.”

Judges in Arizona family relations courts are enthusiastic about collaborating with ASU to make the program available to divorcing parents, Sandler says. Starting this year, they have incorporated information about New Beginnings into a mandatory four-hour parent education class for divorcing parents, offering them the chance to sign up for the program on a voluntary basis.

ASU partners with agencies in each of the counties selected to participate, offering rigorous training to master’s level group leaders. Sandler and Wolchik have developed DVDs and parent workbooks for the classes.

“It’s a huge step to move from an experimental program to a service program that community providers can perform with high quality and fidelity,” says Sandler. “It’s quite a challenge to do well. But our group leaders are very committed to the program.

“We hope parents will think about how they can help their children adjust following a divorce, and call us to learn whether they are eligible for the program.”

The program is free of charge, in return for parents participating in an evaluation of the program. Parents must agree to be randomly assigned to sessions lasting either two weeks or 10 weeks. Both versions of the program cover the same topics, but the longer version provides more opportunities to practice the skills presented in the program. Separate groups are offered for mothers and fathers.

Parents also must agree to participate in three telephone interviews as part of the evaluation.

To be eligible, parents must be divorced or separated from a spouse or domestic partner during the past two years, have children between the ages of 3 and 18, have a minimal level of regular contact with the children and not be remarried.

Parents who are interested in participating can call toll-free 855-531-0851 or visit

The Prevention Research Center is a research unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.