Globe and Mail

Divorce study finds therapy for parents helps children

By DAWN WALTON, With a report from Colin Freeze
Wednesday, October 16, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A1
The Globe and Mail

CALGARY -- If divorced parents sought counselling soon after their marriage broke up, they could help prevent their children from needing counselling years later, a new study has found.

U.S. researchers report major reductions in drug and alcohol use, behavioural and mental problems and number of sexual partners among adolescents whose custodial mothers went through counselling either alone or with them, compared with divorced families who merely read self-help books at home.

The researchers say the findings are important because studies have shown that the children of divorce are more apt to have problems with mental health, lower academic achievement and increased levels of drug use than kids from nuclear families.

Those problems have been shown to follow children of divorce into adulthood.

The study is further fuel for the debate over whether divorcing couples with children should face mandatory counselling.

"Children are the real victims of divorce," said Liberal MP Paul Szabo, who has tried to pass private member's bills on mandatory divorce-counselling programs.

There is no federal law requiring such counselling, but some jurisdictions have tried to put measures in place.

In Alberta, the Justice Ministry has steered parents involved in custody disputes toward predivorce counselling while similar programs have been tried in provinces such as Manitoba and British Columbia.

The federal Liberals have promised changes to the Divorce Act and Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has suggested that increased counselling for parents could help focus on the best interests of their children.

The study's co-author said there are definite benefits to counselling soon after a marriage breaks up. "The policy bottom line is very important, and that is that courts, schools, social agencies should invest in prevention," said Irwin Sandler, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

"This is pretty strong evidence that prevention is a pretty good investment for society."

The study, which was financed by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, appears in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the United States, an estimated 1.5 million children are affected by divorce each year.

Statistics Canada projects that nearly 40 per cent of marriages entered into today will end in divorce or separation.

Experts figure about 50,000 Canadian children are affected each year by a parental split.

Robert Glossop, executive director of programs at the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, said his group hasn't taken a formal position on whether counselling should be mandatory under the federal Divorce Act.

"However, it would be fair to say that we would be in support of professional efforts to provide that kind of counselling to any family in transition," he said.

"It's not just this study that would seem to indicate that it would have a positive impact on the postdivorce family."

Dr. Sandler, colleague Sharlene Wolchik and others followed 240 divorced families (custodial mothers with children aged between nine and 12 years old) who took part in three kinds of postdivorce programming in 1992 and 1993. One group was given books for self-study, another program was dedicated to custodial mothers and a third program offered parenting and coping skills for mothers and children.

Six months later, the researchers found the children whose mothers attended the class had fewer behavioural problems than those who were self-taught.

However, the results were even more striking when the researchers tracked 218 of those families from 1998 to 2000 to see how they were doing.

Six years later, the researchers found that 11 per cent of adolescents who went through the counselling program with their mothers were diagnosed with a mental disorder.

That compared with 18.4 per cent who were diagnosed after their mother alone took a parenting course and 23.5 per cent who were diagnosed after studying books at home.

The rate of diagnosis of any disorder provided similar results: More than 15 per cent of adolescents who took a course with their mother found themselves with problems later on, compared with 19.7 per cent of those whose mothers took the course and 23.5 per cent who studied at home.

Similarly, the researchers found that, generally, teenagers had fewer sexual partners and were less likely to use drugs or alcohol if their mothers went through counselling with or without them, than those who read self-help books.

Dr. Sandler said he cannot explain why the counselling programs -- mother alone compared with mother and child -- are indistinguishable.

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.