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Helping Kids Weather Divorce

Research into helping families cope with divorce is finally bearing fruit, but some governments continue funding unproven programs.

To stave off emotional problems children face stemming from divorce, psychologists have spent the past two decades developing a handful of prevention programs and running them through the experimental wringer. Despite successes in dozens of cities and counties, most have yet to expand on a large scale.

"We have programs that make a difference in the lives of children. The next frontier — which we're not as good at — is moving them out to the public," said Arizona State University professor Irwin Sandler.

There is a large public out there — every year 1.5 million children live through a divorce, which ends about 50 percent of U.S. marriages.

Studies have documented what most Americans know: Parental conflict is rough on kids. It hampers young children's social and emotional growth, and adolescents may engage in negative behaviors, from truancy to alcohol use to suicide. Yet many still aren't aware that children of divorce may carry the burden of stresses that develop into serious psychological scars.

"I worry when I hear, ‘They're little; they're kids; they're resilient; they'll get over it.' Children are not automatically resilient because of their youth. Resilience comes from support," Children's Institute researcher JoAnne Pedro-Carroll told a joint American Bar Association-American Psychological Association panel on the topic in Chicago last week.

Pedro-Carroll is among a handful of psychologists who have worked to transform the literature on coping with divorce into programs that provide such support via schools and courts. Hundreds of thousands of kids worldwide have participated in her Children of Divorce Intervention Program, which uses play activities such as puppetry and role-playing to help children express and manage their feelings. Kids who participate exhibit less anxiety and worries after the program; they also possess a greater ability to solve personal problems.

Other programs focus on teaching divorcing parents to take better care of their kids. One such project at Arizona State, New Beginnings, has shown positive mental health effects for children as many as six years after their parents completed the course.

"The ability to parent well throughout a divorce is a teachable skill," Sandler said. "It's amazing how powerful the effects of parenting are."

Attorneys, judges and court administrators have formed some partnerships with these social scientists: Arizona's Family Court has used New Beginnings within its system; Pedro-Carroll is collaborating with the judicial system in the Rochester, N.Y., area on a parent education program; and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Arnold Stolberg, a pioneer of prevention programs for children, is educating parents referred by courts around Richmond, Va.

Yet among court-mandated education programs for families undergoing a divorce, few have been rigorously tested. Many are held in a group setting, with little done to hold couples accountable for their actions as parents, and last just a few hours, compared to proven courses that last as many as 16 sessions.

The small amount of evidence on the shorter programs is mixed: Though they often lead to positive court outcomes, such as more time with children for noncustodial parents, they don't seem to help kids directly much. And unlike the well-researched, one-on-one, therapy-like sessions, they do little to help high-conflict parents identify what they're doing wrong and change their ways, Stolberg said.

"They have the same impact as driver's education programs for reckless driving," he said. "They're obligated to be there, but they don't really want to be there."

Courts don't seem to value evidence-based research as much as social scientists, but that's partly due to structure. While research psychologists may spend years testing a curriculum to find out if it works, judges and attorneys have a pressing need to deal with real people and problems immediately. Under those constraints, court systems and state legislatures may implement any program offered by the nearest psychologist, whether or not experimental results back him up, Sandler said.

Courts are also limited by money and by how much they can require of litigants. University of Louisville professor Joseph Brown designed his Families In Transition course to last 12 hours, but the courts wanted to keep the length to six hours. Some programs, such as Pedro-Carroll's Children of Divorce Intervention Program, are designed so school guidance counselors can operate them; others, like Stolberg's, rely on highly trained practitioners, and that training costs money.

Nevertheless, argue many researchers, even a program with several therapy sessions at upward of $100 per hour could save money in the long run if it keeps kids mentally healthy and out of trouble.

"I view it as a system that substantially pays for itself," Stolberg said. If he and his colleagues can prove that, they may yet broaden the reach of their programs.