Can Parents Prevent their Children from Having Problems Following Divorce?

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Many children experience problems following the divorce of their parents. Numerous research studies have shown that parental divorce increases children's risk of mental health problems, school difficulties and problems getting along with peers.

Although children whose parents divorce are more at risk of problems, most do not experience problems. In fact, it is estimated that between 70-75% of children do not experience significant problems.

This leads to the question, "why not?" Given that there is a strong relationship between parental divorce and increased risk, what is preventing most children from experiencing problems?

A recent study reported in Development and Psychopathology by scientists at the Prevention Research Center at Arizona State suggests that there may be two critical pathways that prevent children from having difficulties. The scientists at Arizona State followed a group of 240 mothers and their 10-year-old children over a six-year period to examine the effectiveness a divorce intervention program. The scientists wanted to find out if the program prevented children from having difficulties in adolescence. The intervention program was 2 hours long over 11 weeks and focused on helping mothers improve their relationship with their children and learning skills in discipline. The short-term results immediately after the program seemed promising. Those children whose parents participated in the program showed positive gains in self-esteem and fewer problems with peers and teachers.

After six years, the scientists asked whether those children who parents participated in the program were still doing better. And, if so, were their specific parenting strategies that seemed to be helpful. The good news is that children whose parents participated in the program were still doing better than children whose parents did not participate in the program. More importantly, the scientists identified the particular pathways or strategies that were related to these children's better adjustment.

First, the children of mothers who developed a warm, nurturing relationship were more likely to have high self-esteem and experience of fewer symptoms of depression. Second, children whose mothers who took a firm, consistent approach to discipline, including monitoring of the whereabouts of their adolescents were less likely to have difficulties in school, experiment with alcohol or drugs and engage in delinquent behaviors. In short, mothers who were both warm and firm disciplinarians tended to have the most well adjusted children.

Thinking back to the fact that most children whose parents divorce do not have significant adjustment problems, we can begin to understand why. Parents who work at forming close relationships with their children and learn when to give the guidance about bad behavior help their children become better adjusted.

Good parenting doesn't just happen. Developing positive relationships with children means finding activities to do together that are positive and involve the parent and child together. Some of these activities may be fun such as games, sports, and watching TV together, but it can include cleaning the house or making a meal together. Also, making sure that each child gets some special time one-on-one with the parent is important. Children also need discipline. It helps them learn how to control their own behavior. Providing clear expectations and rules that are enforced by fair consequences is important. Routines and consistency provide children with comfort and assurance. No one is a perfect parent, but it is possible to improve our parenting with practice.

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