Supporting parent-child relationships during divorce benefits the children 15 years later

Photo: Michele Lamberti. Creative Commons.

Fifteen years after the program ended, young adults whose mothers participated in the New Beginnings Program (NBP), a parenting program in the US for divorcing mothers, were significantly less likely to have mental health problems, be in jail or be involved in substance abuse.

However, only a minority of children from divorced families experience such severe problems in any case. The study also looked at a much more common experience: “painful feelings” about the divorce—for example, how often young adults think about the divorce and how it has negatively affected their lives. Mothers’ participation in the preventive intervention 15 years earlier reduced these negative feelings, too. In the study, involving 240 families, the children were about 25 years old, having experienced their parents’ divorce when they were about 10.

For young adults who experienced higher-risk divorces (defined as divorces that involved worse behavior problems, more conflict, and/or lower family income), participation in the NBP was more strongly linked to a reduction of maternal blame and to increased acceptance of the divorce 15 years later, suggesting that the program works effectively in high-risk situations. These young adults benefitted even more from their mother’s participation in the intervention than those who had experienced lower-risk divorces.

Participation in the NBP may have produced these benefits through increases in parenting practices that help children cope with divorce and maintain relationships with both parents. The NBP focused on practices such as effective listening skills and reinforcing children’s positive behaviors to promote a positive mother-child relationship.  Mothers were also encouraged to promote children’s continued contact with their noncustodial parent. The NBP involved both group and individual sessions.

Among the young adults, there was a link between blaming the mother and/or father for the divorce and greater social and mental health problems. Though participation in NBP was related to less maternal blame, it showed no link to the extent of paternal blame in the young people 15 years later. This may have been due to the fact that 15 years ago, only the mothers participated in the program and thus learned the parenting skills that helped their children cope with divorce. Today, the program also includes fathers.

This study has important implications for how to support separating and divorcing families. It highlights the importance of addressing mother-child and father-child relationships for the sake of the child’s long-term well-being.

Christopher C, Wolchik S, Tein JY, Carr C, Mahrer NE & Sandler I (2017), Long-Term Effects of a Parenting Preventive Intervention on Young Adults’ Painful Feelings About Divorce, Journal of Family Psychology