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Preventive Interventions for Children of Divorce

Preventive Interventions for Children of Divorce

Over 1 million children in the United States experience parental divorce annually (Clarke, 1995). Although most children adapt well to this transition, approximately 20% to 25% develop mental health or adjustment problems twice the rate experienced by children from continuously married families (Hetherington et al., 1998). Meta-analyses of studies conducted between 1950 and 1999 indicated that children from divorced homes function more poorly than children from continuously married parents across a variety of domains, including academic achievement, social relations and conduct problems (Amato, 2001). They continue to be at risk for clinically significant mental health difficulties into adulthood (Chase-Lansdale et al., 1995; Zill et al., 1993), are more likely to receive mental health services (Zill et al., 1993), and have a shorter life expectancy (Tucker et al., 1997) than those who grew up in two-parent families.

Risk for mental health problems appears to result from disruptions in the family's social and physical environment that often precede, coincide with or follow divorce. Such disruptions may include interparental conflict, parental maladjustment, reduced contact with the noncustodial parent, decreases in parent-child relationship quality, school and housing changes, and declines in economic resources (Amato, 2000). Conversely, warm parent-child relationships, effective parental discipline and high child-coping efficacy are associated with positive postdivorce functioning (Sandler et al., 2000; Wolchik et al., 2000b).

Given the high prevalence of divorce and the concomitant risks for children's adjustment, a variety of preventive interventions have been developed to improve children's adaptation (e.g., court-mandated parent education, divorce mediation) (Dawson-McClure et al., 2003). The present review focuses on preventive interventions with evidence from experimental or quasi-experimental studies demonstrating improvements in child adjustment following program participation: multi-session child coping and parenting skills interventions.

School-Based Child Interventions

Beneficial effects have been reported for two preventive interventions provided directly to children of divorce: Stolberg and colleagues' Children's Support Group and Pedro-Carroll and colleagues' Children of Divorce Intervention Project.

Children's Support Group. The Children's Support Group is a 14-session, school-based group program designed to give children emotional support, encourage parent-child communication and teach cognitive-behavioral skills, including anger management; self-control; problem-solving; and identification of divorce-related thoughts, feelings and behaviors (Stolberg and Mahler, 1994). In an experimental trial with children ages 8 to 12, Stolberg and Mahler (1994) demonstrated reductions in internalizing and externalizing behaviors, total pathology, and clinical symptomatology at posttest and one-year follow-up, compared to randomized, no-treatment controls.

Children of Divorce Intervention Project. The Children of Divorce Intervention Project is a 12-session, school-based group intervention designed to give school-age children emotional support, help them identify and appropriately express feelings, correct divorce-related misconceptions, improve coping, and promote positive perceptions of themselves and their families (Pedro-Carroll, 1997; Pedro-Carroll and Cowen, 1985). It has been adapted for kindergarten to 8th grade children from diverse sociocultural backgrounds. Through a series of evaluations, Pedro-Carroll and colleagues (1997) have found short-term reductions in internalizing and externalizing behaviors, increases in competence, and improvements in coping and problem-solving abilities, compared to no-treatment controls. In one quasi-experimental trial, intervention gains were maintained at two-year follow-up for both internalizing and externalizing problems (Pedro-Carroll et al., 1999).

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