Research roundup: Divorce

This month's roundup presents recent research and practical considerations related to divorce

By Practice Research and Policy staff

July 14, 2011—Divorce is a complex and lengthy process to which psychologists can contribute a great deal of facilitation, support and expertise. From divorce mediation and parenting coordination to managing the emotional trauma surrounding divorce, there are myriad ways in which psychologists can support those going through the divorce process.

See APA Guidelines for Child Custody and Evaluations in Family Law Proceedings (PDF, 55KB) for additional information.

Ballard, R. H., Holtzworth-Munroe, A., Applegate, A. G., & Beck, C. J. (2011). Detecting intimate partner violence in family and divorce mediation: a randomized trial of intimate partner violence screening. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 17(2), 241-263.  

Summary

Research on couples engaged in family or divorce mediation finds intimate partner violence (IPV) rates ranging from 50 percent to 68 percent. When the definition of IPV is expanded to include the occurrence of emotional abuse and coercive control, these rates increase to 77 percent to 85 percent with only 10 percent of couples reporting no abuse. While most mediation programs report screening for IPV, the techniques used to accomplish this goal vary substantially.

A sample of 122 couples seeking family and divorce mediation was split into two randomly assigned conditions. Clients in the control condition received the standard screening only while clients in the experimental condition were assessed using an “enhanced screening,” developed by the authors involving partners reporting together and in separate rooms as well as the completion of the brief version of the 41-item Relationship Behavior Rating Scale (RBRS) to assess severity and frequency of abuse.

Results from the RBRS were kept confidential from the mediators and upon completion of all the screenings, the mediators were asked whether they felt IPV was occurring for each couple. Clients who completed a written questionnaire before speaking with mediators were not more likely to report IPV compared to their peers in the control condition. However, in more than half of the cases where IPV was reported by clients on the RBRS, IPV went undetected by the mediators.

Practical Considerations

Detecting IPV can be very challenging as it is often underreported. Including a standardized questionnaire or additional structured screening methods may increase accuracy in identifying IPV. Clinicians should be mindful of the differences between written and verbal assessments, the decreased likelihood of reporting when other people are in the room, gender differences in reporting and the importance of considering severity, frequency and objective definition of IPV in assessment.

When working with clients in family or divorce mediation, it is crucial to be aware of the possibility of IPV regardless of stereotypes, trends, and appearances. Considering motives and beliefs regarding a client’s decision not to report IPV can be quite useful to the overall assessment as well.

Potter, D. (2010). Psychosocial well-being and the relationship between divorce and children's academic achievement. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(4), 933-946.  

Summary

By analyzing data from children in kindergarten, first, third and fifth grades (N=10,061) from the 1999-2004 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten cohort (ECLS-K), the author investigated whether divorce impacts the psychosocial well-being and academic achievement of children.

Psychosocial well-being was assessed using teacher and parent or child reports of children’s internalizing problems, externalizing problems and social skills. Academic achievement was based on reading and math scores. Additional factors such as family economic resources, parenting practices, parental conflict and the parent-child relationship were included to isolate the specific influence of psychosocial well-being on academic achievement.

While psychosocial well-being decreased as children continued through elementary school regardless of their parents’ marital status, the degree to which well-being diminished was more severe for children of divorced parents. Children of divorce had lower average math and reading scores than children of non-divorced parents. Diminished psychosocial well-being of the children with divorced parents did negatively influence their math and reading scores, even when controlling for the other factors common in divorce.

Practical Considerations

The potential negative impact of divorce on children is well-known. Actively addressing and supporting the psychosocial well-being of these children may serve to ameliorate some of the other negative consequences. Additionally, a psychologist’s awareness of the potential influence of family history and family structure on functioning   is critical for effective assessment and intervention. For example, sometimes direct work on academic problems may be appropriate, while at other times it may be more important to increase psychosocial supports and well-being.

Velez, C. E., Wolchik, S. A., Tein, J.-Y., & Sandler, I. (2011). Protecting children from the consequences of divorce: A longitudinal study of the effects of parenting on children's coping processes. Child Development, 82(1), 244-257.  

Summary

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately one million youth experience the rupture of their parents’ marriage in the United States each year and many experience some degree of psychosocial stress as a result. This stress puts these children at an increased risk for mental health problems. It is well documented that coping processes minimize the negative effects of stress on mental health.

This randomized longitudinal study sought to examine whether intervention-induced changes in mother-child relationship quality and effective discipline led to short-term (six months) and long-term increases (six years) in children’s coping efficacy and active coping, and decreases in avoidant coping.

Two hundred and forty families in the midst of divorce were randomly assigned to one of three groups: 1) a mother program (MP) group addressing the correlates of post-divorce mental health problems; 2) MP supplemented with a separate child program (MPCP); or 3) control group. The mother program resulted in improvements in mother-child relationship quality that led to significantly higher levels of coping efficacy at the short and long-term follow-ups, and significantly higher levels of active coping at long-term follow-up. There was no support for a relationship between mother’s effective discipline and children’s coping efficacy or active coping.

Practical Considerations

Parents are the first teachers of children and naturally are influential in the development of coping processes in children. While many approaches to strengthening coping skills center on intervention with the child, this study found that incorporating parent training and psychoeducation in a preventive intervention for divorced families could greatly improve a child’s coping.

Psychologists are encouraged to consider a range of interventions to enhance the coping and well-being of children experiencing difficulties as a result of parental divorce. However, it is important to keep in mind that the parental intervention effect on active coping often lags behind the effect on coping efficacy.

Stringfellow, E. L., & McAndrew, F. T. (2010). Parents' divorce is more strongly related to the self-perceived promiscuity and drinking behavior of male than of female college students. Journal of College Student Development, 51(5), 599-600.  

Summary

Heightened sexual activity and alcohol consumption are common practices among college students. However, how the experience of parental divorce differentially influences men’s and women’s perceived and actual drinking behaviors and promiscuity is less understood. Survey responses from 357 Midwestern college students regarding self-perceived and actual drinking and sexual behaviors, as well as their gender and parents’ marital status, were analyzed. Over one quarter of the respondents (24 males and 72 females) had divorced parents; their responses were compared to those of students from intact families.

Males with divorced parents drank significantly more than any of the other groups on all perceived and actual measures of drinking. Additionally, males with divorced parents also rated themselves as significantly more promiscuous but did not report a higher frequency of sexual activity compared to the other groups. Further study is needed to understand why divorce might influence these behaviors.

Practical Implications

The impact of parental divorce on college student behavior is less studied than other phases of development. However, this brief study suggests that divorce may be related to greater prevalence of risky behavior, particularly among males. If so, programming on college campuses targeted to specific populations may be more successful in reducing problematic behavior than generic campus-wide programming. Additionally, clinicians may find it useful to be especially attuned to the potential for increased occurrence of risky drinking and sexual behavior among male college students with divorced parents and target interventions accordingly.  

Kirkland, K. (2010). Positive coping among experienced parenting coordinators: A recipe for success. Journal of Child Custody: Research, Issues, and Practices, 7(1), 61-77.

Summary

Parenting coordination (PC) has become a popular intervention in many post-divorce cases. Separate from mediation and child custody evaluations, parenting coordination is an alternative dispute resolution process that attempts to teach divorced parents how to function independently of the court to resolve conflicts and implement parenting plans. Parenting Coordinators (PCs) encounter many professional challenges and must utilize effective coping strategies in order to provide the best services. Data on effective PC practices and positive coping strategies were gathered from 1) direct inquires on a national PC listserv over a period of 12 months; 2) eight well-known national PC practitioners identified by the author; 3) a survey of 54 experienced North American PCs; and 4) all published journal articles on PC in two of the most frequently cited journals on the topic.

Using this qualitative data, the authors categorized the responses into the following nine positive coping strategies/best practices: firm philosophical base, proper training and preparation, standardized office protocol and file management, initial screening and education, use of concrete PC agreements and standardized forms, use of specific techniques such as email documentation and conference calls, peer consultation groups, boundary management, and quasi-judicial immunity and term limits. The authors emphasized that thorough training and adherence to guidelines, as well as a solid PC agreement with clear role definitions and boundaries, consistently lead to more positive outcomes for all parties involved.

Practical Considerations

Effective coping and self-care strategies are a necessity in all professions to ensure optimal performance. In addition, following best practices allows providers to be confident that their work is consistent with the field. The recommendations in this article apply to many practices within psychology. Being mindful of guidelines, staying organized and accountable, and setting clear expectations from the beginning of any interaction serve to establish appropriate professional roles and boundaries and reduce the likelihood of role conflicts and mismanagement of professional challenges, thereby enhancing professional functioning. Psychologists have much to offer to divorced couples in need of services and these and other strategies are central to maintaining effective practices and low stress levels.

 

See the APA Guidelines for the Practice of Parenting Coordination (PDF, 210KB) for additional information.