During the past 10 years, the Family Styles Project at the University of Michigan has been studying the impact of divorce, child-rearing in single parent households, and the effects of remarriage on the lives and development of children. Out of the research has grown a model program to help children cope with the stresses of divorce. It has been highly successful in Michigan and holds promise for success in other communities.
Dr. Neil Kalter, associate professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, described the project, its findings and the model intervention program at a recent hearing on the effects of divorce conducted by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Research included more than 500 children referred for psychological services, almost 200 from the general elementary school population, and 400 youngsters who have participated in the model program. The children came from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The initial goal of the project, said Kalter, was "to understand how children perceive, understand, feel about and react to their parents' divorce."
"The results of our research, and a distillation of the work done by others, have led us to conclude that divorce represents a series of life changes which are highly stressful and disruptive for the great majority of children," he testified.
"While we agree that the period surrounding the initial parental separation often is highly stressful for children, we have become increasingly impressed with the post-divorce, long-term stresses which confront a child whose parents divorce. Among the most powerful stresses are downward economic mobility and all too often poverty, frequent shifts in residence, continued hostility between parents, infrequent or near total lack of contact with the nonresident parent, parent dating and remarriage. Those post-divorce stresses, rather than the turmoil at the time of divorce, are likely to be the key factors producing long-term negative reactions for many children of divorce."
Research done in the project, he said, suggests that anywhere from half to two-thirds of the children whose parents divorce continue on a successful academic and social course after the initial jolt of the parents' separation. "The remainder continue to struggle . . . with conflicts engendered and maintained by post-divorce stresses."
To help children manage, the Family Styles Project developed a group preventive intervention program that has been conducted at 10 elementary schools one hour a week for eight weeks, usually during the school day. Each group, said Kalter, consists of five to eight children and one female and one male group leader, most of whom are graduate psychology students. Some children join the groups right after their parents separate, others join years afterwards. The majority lived with their mothers, but a number were living in remarried families.
Of the 400 who have participated over the past few years, said Kalter in an interview, only six have dropped out. "So the kids like it. We've had many more requests to do this than we can do.
"Two things are most striking about the groups. The first is how fresh the divorce events were in a child's mind, even though the divorce may have occurred five and six years ago. Many are still actively wrestling with the memories and feelings. No one talks to children about divorces. Children don't talk to each other, and the parents and children generally don't communicate. The second thing that we've learned is that there is actually more psychological effort needed and more pain around post-divorce issues than there are around the initial breakup."
He said children are grappling with fear and anger over continued hostilities between their parents, questions about which parent to side with, sadness over the loss of a parent, complicated feelings about a parent dating, rage over a parent's live-in partner starting to assign chores or discipline, and competition with step-siblings. For most, he said, the groups provided the very first opportunity the children had to discuss shared concerns "so honestly and poignantly. The relief felt by many has been apparent. Teachers and parents tell us and preliminary testing indicate that our intervention can significantly reduce aggression and depression, enhance self-esteem, and increase understanding of what is normal and all right for children to experience after divorce."
The Family Styles Project has developed a manual to help other communities set up intervention groups. It sounds like a pretty good investment.