Preventive sessions after divorce protect children into teens

Divorcing families who participated in a prevention program markedly reduced the likelihood of their children developing mental disorders as adolescents, say NIMH-funded scientists. Structured group sessions for mothers and children later halved rates of mental disorders in the teen years, among other benefits, in the first study to document long-term effects of such preventive interventions using a randomized experimental trial.

Prevalence of mental disorders rose to 23.5 percent among teens in families that did not receive active interventions, compared to only 11 percent in families who received the most comprehensive intervention. The program also reduced acting out, drug and alcohol use and sexual promiscuity. Drs. Sharlene Wolchik, Iwin Sandler, and colleagues at Arizona State University, Tempe, report on their 6-year follow-up of 218 families in the October 16, 2002 Journal of the American Medical Association.

About 1.5 million children experience the divorce of their parents each year ultimately 40 percent of all children. While most adapt well, 20-25 percent suffer significant adjustment problems as teenagers. The negative impact often persists into adulthood, resulting in nearly twice the normal prevalence of mental health problems and impaired educational attainment, socioeconomic and family well-being.

"The skills training program's breadth of effect cut across multiple mental health, substance use and sexual behavior problems," said Sandler. "It reduced the 1-year prevalence of mental disorder in these teens by 50 percent, boosting their chances of avoiding serious mental health problems by more than four-to-one."

The divorcing families, with children then age 9-12, were randomly assigned to one of three preventive interventions for mothers and their children, conducted in the Phoenix area New Beginnings Program in l992-l993:

Mother Program -- 11 group sessions in which two clinicians focused on improving

Contact: Jules Asher
NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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