Do Mandated Divorce Education Programs Make a Difference?

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In the past two decades, most states in the US have required divorcing couples with children to attend a parent education program. Despite this mandate, there is only limited evidence that these programs are effective or that they make any difference in the lives of divorcing families.

Jeffrey Cookston and Wenson Fung report on a program called "Kids' Turn" that has been operating in the San Francisco area since 1988. The program has six sessions for the parents in which they learn strategies for managing co-parenting relationships, the effects of divorce on children, and helpful methods for managing children. The program also includes a concurrent session for the children in which they learn coping strategies and other skills to help them navigate the divorce transition.

To examine the impact of the program Cookston and Fung asked parents to complete a series of measures to assess coparenting issues with the former partner, parent-child relationships and children and parents' mental health. Parents completed the surveys both before the program and after the program in order to test whether the program made a difference in these measures.

The results look promising, especially in regards to co-parenting issues. Following the program, parents reported less conflict with their former spouse, less parental alienation and a reduced range of issues that were in conflict between the parents. Many studies have demonstrated that continued parental conflict following divorce is detrimental to children so this is an important finding. Programs that can reduce parental conflict are likely to have a positive long-term effect on children.

But the program found no differences before and after the program in terms of changes in the parent-child relationship. Other programs that have demonstrated effectiveness in improving parenting have included specific practice or homework activities using parenting strategies to help parents learn these strategies. Changing the structure of the program delivery model may improve this program.

The report also notes that some anxiety and depression among the parent participants was reduced over the course of the program, as was children's depression. These findings also are notable. Again there is considerable evidence that parental depression tends to undermine effective parenting. Therefore, by improving the well-being of parents, they are more likely to engage in warm interactions with children and provide appropriate limits. Lastly, the program also had some modest immediate effects on children's emotional health. This too is positive.

This evaluation is somewhat limited by the fact that the participants were likely to have been somewhat more motivated and committed by participating in this research and there was no comparison group to assess that did not get the program, but this is modest evidence that this program and other programs like it are useful to parents.

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