Divorce 'Coping Skills' Long-Lasting

6-Year Study Shows Preventative Intervention Programs Are Effective in Children

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 15, 2002 -- There used to be a name for the households of divorce: "broken homes." Maybe that's because statistics show that children of divorced parents are up to three times more likely than other kids to have mental health problems, use drugs, get arrested, drop out of school, and have unwanted pregnancies. And these patterns often persist into adulthood.

"Difficult times like divorce are certainly stressful, and they do increase the risk of bad outcomes -- for both parents and children," says Irwin Sandler, PhD, professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a director of its Prevention Research Center. "The good news is, preventative intervention programs that teach effective coping skills can be effective and make a big difference in their lives."

Until now, however, the long-term effects of such programs were unknown. But the first study to measure long-term consequences, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by Sandler and his colleagues, shows that lessons learned in such programs aren't easily forgotten. Their study appears in the Oct. 16 issue of TheJournal of the American Medication Association.

"What we did was enroll 218 divorced mothers and 218 of their children into two preventative interventions program we developed," he tells WebMD. The groups consisted of a mother program and a mother plus child program. "We saw them for 11 weeks six years ago. ... Then, six years later, we did a follow-up evaluation."

The researchers included a third group for comparison -- mothers with their children, who received books on adjustments during divorce.

The study shows that at one year of intervention, there were almost 50% fewer mental disorders than in the comparison group. Adolescents in this group also had fewer sexual partners. The study also shows that the most aggressive and hostile children benefited the most.

In the second group, adolescents developed fewer problems with marijuana, other drugs, and alcohol. These children also exhibited fewer mental health problems.

"Not only did we find the [coping] skills they learned lasted, but they actually got stronger," Sandler says.

The results are no surprise to JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and director of program development at its Children's Institute research center, which also conducts such intervention programs.

"There are skills we know from research that are protective factors related to children's resilience and healthy adjustment following divorce," she tells WebMD. "I think this study shows what a powerful role a well-designed preventative intervention can have on reducing the negative effects of divorce -- both in the short and long term. It provides really compelling evidence that those negative outcomes of divorce that we hear about so not inevitable. They can be reduced, or even prevented." -->