Six years later, adolescents who attended the interventions had about half the rate of depression, anxiety and other diagnoses than children of divorce who didn't get such counseling, a new study says. Those with emotional problems initially were less likely to act out after the intervention and had fewer mental health problems as they got older. They were also less prone to drug and alcohol abuse.
"You catch problems early, you make early changes in key skills, and you see a reduction in the level of problems," says Irwin Sandler, a psychologist at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study.
The researchers previously had reported that six months after the intervention they saw less acting out in children who experienced divorce. But the latest work indicates the effect of learning these skills grew stronger over the years, Sandler says. He adds there's no reason the same types of counseling wouldn't work for fathers, too.
Sandler and his colleagues report their findings in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Roughly 1.5 million American children each year endure the divorce of their parents. Teens whose parents split up are more prone than those in intact families to suffer emotional distress, to drop out of school, and to become pregnant.
The new study analyzed the effectiveness of two initiatives in which newly divorced Phoenix-area women learned parenting skills -- things such as the importance of one-on-one and family time with their children, and the need for consistent and meaningful discipline. One also provided coping skills for children of the women, all of whom had custody after their divorce.
The research team, led by psychologist Sharlene Wolchik, compared children of women in each program with a third, self-help group who were given reading materials but no face-to-face coaching. The program for women consisted of 11 group and two individual meetings; the combined program added 11 group sessions for children to the initial 11 meetings.
In all, 218 children were in the study six years later, by which time they were between the ages of 15 and 19.
Eleven percent of teens in the mother-child group had a diagnosed mental illness in the last year of the study, compared with 23.5 percent of those in the self-help group. The rate was 15 percent for teens who didn't attend the sessions but whose mothers went.
Teens in the combined program also reported about one fewer sex partners, on average, than those in the self-help group, although the effect was more modest among the children who didn't attend.
Sandler says he and his colleagues were surprised that the impact of the combined intervention wasn't markedly more impressive than that of the mother-only program. What that suggests, he adds, is that "the effect the program is having is primarily mediated through improvement in parenting."
To be sure, Sandler says, attending counseling sessions requires a commitment of time that many newly divorced parents and their children may not be able to make.
"They're juggling a lot of things, which speaks to the heroic nature of what [the volunteers] did," he says. But having that kind of structure is important, he says and, as the study indicates, can have far-reaching benefits for children of divorce.
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