Divorced Families and the Programs That Work for Them

Written by Pam MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

divorcefamilyIn 2004, most people in the United States had married only once, with 58 percent of women and 54 percent of men (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004) still betrothed to their first spouses.  Still, the ratio of divorcees to non-divorcees has more than tripled since the 1950s, and the lifetime probability of a first marriage ending in divorce is close to 50 percent (Teachman, Tedrow & Crowder, 2000).  To make matters worse, about half of all dissolving marital unions consist of families with children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).  As if divorce is not hard enough, about one-third of American children go through another transition and eventually become a member of a stepfamily or gain a stepparent (Greene et al., 2003).  These events have important potential implications for adjustment in children (Capaldi & Patterson, 1991).  This paper will provide an overview of transitions, stresses, and adaptive challenges that children face when becoming a part of a single-parent or blended family, or gain a stepparent.  Though there are many different types of single-parent or stepfamilies, this paper will focus on situations, which have resulted from divorce of two heterosexual ex-spouses only.  Then this paper will explore three evidence-based programs that have demonstrated effectiveness in counseling families of divorce, and will specify which, if any, programs work best with which populations of children encountering these drastic life changes.

Over the past 20 years, empirical research concerned with single-parent families and stepfamilies has flourished because of their increasing prevalence.  In 2001, single-parent households mad up over a quarter of all American families with children under the age of 18, and it was estimated that over have of the children born during the 1990s would spend at least some time of their childhood in a single-parent family household.  Stepfamilies are facing similar growth rate, with many scholars agreeing that between 40 and 52 percent of all first marriages will end in divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001) and about half of all marriages will be a remarriage for at least one adult (Norton & Miller, 1993).  Given the prevalence of these nontraditional types of families, an understanding of their needs, strengths and challenges is crucial.  Though each family situation is different, it is important to first look at some generalities that may sensitize mental health professionals to potential tribulations facing these nontraditional families.

Children in Volatile Households

Divorce is not a discrete event in the life of a child.  It is the culmination of a long process.  The majority of divorced couples report years of marital acrimony leading up to the decision to divorce.  The children, thus, are exposed to significant levels of interparental conflict.  Children are affected by quarreling between parents even in the absence of divorce (Davies et al, 2003).  It is this conflict rather than the act of divorce that accounts for the deleterious effects on children (Buchanan & Heiges, 2001).  Unfortunately, divorce does not necessarily end interparental conflict and may even increase it.  The separation process itself brings up many heated issues that spark parental hostilities (Wenar & Kerig, 2006).

Issues of Single-Parent Families

The transition to single parenthood post divorce is a stressful time that necessitates dealing with issues of loss of a partner, decreased finances, and altered connections with friends and family (Anderson, 2003).  Mental health providers should understand that these adults and children have suffered a loss and are in bereavement.  It is also a safe assumption to think the single parent is dealing with additional issues like an elevated level of anxiety and/or depression resulting from increasing financial responsibilities, loss of income, and loss of personal time and rest.  Since there is a natural tendency for depressed or overwhelmed parents to neglect routine household maintenance, single parents may struggle to keep alive family rituals, such as holidays or birthday celebrations.  They may not feel able to discipline their children when they do not follow directions, or alternatively, respond in an over exaggerated manner.  These spikes and lows in parental reaction affect a child’s sense of boundaries and consistency, which is psychologically damaging for the child.  All of these factors contribute to a level of life dissatisfaction in single parents, which in turn, influence the psychological health and development of their children (Anderson, 2003).

One of the reasons single-parent families may be at risk for developmental difficulties is that these families are disproportionately poor compared with other families.  Data from the 2000    U. S. census indicated that 34 percent of single parent homes headed by a woman and 16 percent of single-parent families headed by a man live in poverty (Weinraub et al., 2000).  Poverty is arguably the most overwhelming influence on single parents and their children and is crucial in understanding the issues and needs of these families.  Poverty is so influencing, in fact, some researchers attribute it to having more variance in both child outcomes and parental functioning than single parenthood itself (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997).  The reason it is so poisonous to this situation is that poverty is correlated depressive symptoms in parents, and lower school achievement and behavior problems in children (Eamon & Zuehl, 2001).  Parents with less education are typically those living in poverty.  These parents tend to live in more troubled communities, with fewer helpful support networks and fewer resources (Simons, 1996).  For women in particular, poverty may impact self-esteem, independence, and the decision to stay in an abusive or neglectful relationship, all of which make her psychologically vulnerable and can have an impact on child development.  Thus, poverty in conjunction with single-parenting, has an exponential negative effect on parental stress, disempowerment, dissatisfaction with life, and maladjustment in children (Furstenberg, 1993).

One option for many adult single parents is to move in with the grandparents or extended relatives of the custodial parent.  Financial support and child care can be provided by extended kin, offering single parents occasional opportunities for self-care and relaxation, as well as a feeling of tranquility knowing their children have a variety of dependable caretakers. The downfall to this, however, is that the single parent often has to sacrifice a feeling of independence, and may argue with the extended caregivers on issues of child-rearing and discipline practices (Brooks-Gunn & Zamsky, 1994).



Single Fathers versus Single Mothers

Literature suggests that single fathers and single mothers have slightly different experiences when single-parenting.  One big difference concerns the relationship between socioeconomic variables and parenting practices.  Research suggests that a single-parent’s parenting behavior is affected by both satisfaction at work and economic status, both of which are higher for single fathers than for single mothers (Christoffersen, 1998).  Single fathers seem to have better overall psychological well-being due at least partially to their higher salaries and educational attainment (Amato, 2000).  Research indicates that single fathers are actually more likely to draw on extended family members to provide practical support and childcare, and noncustodial mothers are more likely to stay involved and carry parenting responsibilities.  Compared to single mothers, single fathers are more likely to be seen as noble and not as financially burdensome on the community (Barber & Eccles, 1992).

Resilience Factors for Single-Parent Households

The most important factor contributing to successful single-parent households is adequate income.  Also important is a strong family network, positive involvement from outside people including the noncustodial parent, and adequate attention to parental social and psychological needs (Jackson & Huang, 2000).  Parental well-being and healthy self-esteem increases the parent’s ability to rear his/her children successfully.  When a parent’s needs are neglected, stress and depression squelch a parent’s energy resulting in a loss of nurturing, attentive care, which is crucial for a positive outcome.  Studies have shown that secular employment and social or family obligations increase a parent’s self-esteem and mental health.  When a parent is not exhausted of his/her child care responsibilities and is feeling good about themselves, their parenting skills improve and parent-child interactions tend to be less castigatory (Jackson & Huang, 2000).  Beyond that, a strong family structure with routines, boundaries, and organization are additional components salient to successfully maintaining a single-parent family.  An added help to single parent families resides in older children or extended family members, who can act as a surrogate parent in certain ways.  These older children or extended kin can help manage the younger ones, help them with schoolwork, and possibly even find a job to contribute to the family income (Taylors, Chatters & Jackson, 1997).  They can also act as networks for social interaction, emotional support, and parental relaxation (Taylors, Chatters & Jackson, 1997).  Children’s networks also require attention.  Children, especially when they have no siblings, may need a variety of connections to balance the intensity of the single-parent-child relationship.  Similarly, siblings competing for limited parental resources may need other adults to fill the gaps in what any one parent, however competent, cannot provide (Arditti & Madden-Derlich, 1995).

Issues with Stepfamilies

Knowing what is common in different types of stepfamilies can provide involved individuals with some understanding of the typical sources of stress in a particular stepfamily.  This knowledge can enable counselors to deal more effectively with situations that arise, and enhance their client’s self-esteem and coping skills by giving them a helpful perspective of common behaviors and situations.  Clients can then experience the difficulties as normative challenges rather than as signals that their family is not successful.

Unlike single-parent families whose main concerns revolve around financial survival, stepfamilies main problem revolves around emotional adjustment to the new family member(s).  These family systems are more complex in structure, with a greater number of built-in subsystems and more ambiguity (Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1997).  The continual transitions can result in greater stress and less cohesiveness because of issues like boundary disputes, power issues, conflicting loyalties, and rigid unproductive relationship triangles, just to name a few examples.

Being a newcomer in any group can be hard.  Often the newcomers in these situations are stepfathers or stepmothers joining in on the pre-existing family, consisting on the biological parent and his/her children.  Children may also feel like newcomers if they come to a biological parent’s household who has remarried, and only stay for the weekends or the holidays.  Adolescents are particularly sensitive to this feeling.  In the newness of these relationships and the less “neutral” emotional climate of the stepfamily group, the feelings of exclusion, intrusion, rejection, and resultant anger and depression can be amplified.  Working out ways of dealing with the shifts and transitions takes time and understanding, patience, and tolerance for ambiguity (Pasley & Dollahite, 1995).

Along with these feelings on joining a new group, or being accepting of a newcomer, are issues of conflicting loyalty.  The more volatile a post-divorce relationship between two ex-spouses, the more loyalty conflicts children face.  Since a child typically feels tied to both biological parents, a child may feel torn when these parents are separated and start attacking each other in the child’s presence.  When another adult enters the picture through parental remarriage, a child may become increasingly defensive thinking the remarriage is serving to negate the original family’s ties.  Children may sometimes feel they should try to sabotage the new couple relationship to see if they can manage a reunion of their biological parents.  The emotionally charged environment in stepfamily household and potential feelings of betrayal by the child may lead to stressful or unpleasant interactions between the child and his/her new step-parent, which may ultimately stunt the bonding process (Kennedy, 1985).

Boundaries about personal space, privacy, or between adults and children may also be stressful.  Often children are confused by the different boundaries set by members of two households with different disciplinary rules or authoritative expectations.  When children are frequently coming and going from one stepfamily’s household, special accommodations may need to occur to make room for the “extra” family members.  Boundaries, therefore, of personal space or alone time may also be lost by either those living permanently in the house and those visiting (Pasley & Ihinger-Tallman, 1989).

Power struggles are well documented in stepfamilies.  Divorced women who have managed to care for their children and are now looking to remarry often do not want to regress to their more submissive roles as nurturer after gaining self-empowerment and learning that they have the ability to run the household independently.  Therefore, they often look for men who are very egalitarian in their thoughts or men who are submissive and willing to let the woman lead.  Divorced men, alternatively, may feel like their power is taken from them if a divorce leaves them paying child support or alimony.  Anger is often one of the many emotions divorced men feel because the women they divorced are tapping into their bank accounts and draining their finances.  Further, the alimony, child support or other financial obligations to the old family limits what the man can provide for his new family.  Children can also gain power unfairly.  When biological parents live in separate households, children can play them against each other, especially if the divorce was volatile.  Children can also act out disrespectfully toward stepparents by disobeying them, stating that they feel no obligation to listen because they are not biologically related and new to the family system (Burgoyne & Morrison, 1997).

Differences between Stepfather and Stepmother Families

Stepfather families are one of the most common stepfamily structures, with about 15% of all children under age 18 residing with their mother and her spouse or partner (U.S. Census Bureau, 1995).  Studies indicate that stepfather families tend to experience less stress than stepmother families (MacDonald & DeMaris, 1996).  Research indicates girls tend to respond less favorably to having stepparents (Nielson, 1999), and especially to having a stepmother.  There are many reasons attributed to these patterns, the first of which seems to be the mother-daughter bond.  It may be that disturbances in this bond are more upsetting to girls than disturbances in the father-daughter relationship during and after divorce.  A second issue may occur when biological fathers abdicate child-rearing responsibilities to the stepmother, a practice that rarely occurs in step-father families.  Children are likely to react more negatively to a stepmother’s efforts because of the “outsiderphenomenon and her newfound position to instate rules or play a role, which were previously handled by the biological mother. If the stepmother does not have children of her own, she will encounter more difficulty adjusting to her stepchildren (Ihinger-Tallman & Pasley, 1997).  When stepmothers find themselves ineffective with their stepchildren especially when the children are older, stepmothers’ sense of competence and value is diminished (Nielson, 1999).  Similarly, when stepchildren ignore the initial efforts of stepfathers early, stepfathers are more likely to withdraw from such interaction.  Thus, the reciprocal nature of interaction between stepparents and stepchildren affects the quality of the relationship that is developed and maintained over time (Ihinger-Tallman & Pasley, 1997).

Blended Families

People with children from prior relationships have substantially higher rates of separation than people marrying without children.  About 42 percent of first marriages and over 50 percent of remarriages with children end in divorce in the United States, and rates of separation are even higher in cohabiting than married stepfamily couples (United States Census Bureau, 2001). When discussing conflict topics, frequent negative communication or withdrawal predict deteriorating relationship satisfaction in first-marriage couples (Ahrons, 2007).  Regarding step- and half-sibling relationships resulting from the remarriage, studies suggest children often do not think of their stepsiblings as brothers or sisters (Ahrons, 2007). Age differences, frequency of contact, and personality issues all enter into the equation of defining what step-siblings mean to each other. The situation with half-siblings is much more predictable. Children think of their half-siblings as brothers or sisters because they have a shared history, and they know this child from the time he or she is born.  Further, by the time the half-sibling is born, children of divorce usually have had time to adapt to the remarriage of their parent and the coming of the new baby.

Characteristics of Successful Remarried Families

Successful stepfamilies do not accept the common misconceptions that lead to unrealistic or idealistic expectations.  They do not expect in instant love and adjustment, or believe that the newly formed stepfamily will be just like the original family.  They understand that relationships take time to grow and cannot be forced (Visher et al. 2003).  They accept the fact that younger children can more easily develop relationships with stepparents than adolescents can.  If the stepparent is a new parent, he or she is able to let go of any idealistic ideas of marriage, and come to terms with the reality of stepfamily life, with a former spouse and stepchildren immediately part of their lives (Visher et al. 2003).  The adults also tend to be more sensitive to sadness in the children and provide support and adjustment time for them, while they go through the mourning of their lost first family.  Lastly, well-functioning stepfamilies have strong couple relationships that eventually offer a new sense of stability and consistency to the children, and ultimately lessens everyone’s stress and anxiety about the change in family constitution (Coleman et al., 2000)

Intervention Programs for Children of Divorce

From a systems perspective, it may be necessary to involve all members of both the child’s households in order to achieve insight to the problem, when possible.  There is always some degree of loss that has occurred in single-parent or stepfamilies.  The accompanying grief should be one of the first matters addressed.  Increased self-esteem and confidence in a child should be one of the main objectives, especially in families where tension and chaos are at the forefront (Visher, et al., 2003).  Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1996) have identified six psychological tasks that children of divorce must resolve.  These tasks provide a great framework for the counselor.  First, children, especially when young, fantasize about the reunion of their parents and often need help coming to reality of the marital split.  Second, children tend to be overly involved in parental conflict, and lose their stable routines and schedules.  Counselors need to work with children and their custodial parent to ensure continued focus in school and extracurricular activities for the children.  Third, counselors must address the issue of loss, and help children acknowledge that they are experienced a sort of loss.  Along with this psychological issue, children may be feeling anger or self-blaming for the divorce.  Counselors must dissuade children from blaming themselves and encourage emotional outlets for children to express their feelings of anger or frustration with the situation.  Lastly, mental health providers must help children achieve a realistic hope regarding the new relationships coming into their lives.  Adolescents, in particular, have struggles with forming familial-type relations with a step-parent or sibling, and need guidance in forming these bonds.

Child-centered therapy is a well-documented intervention practice helping children of divorce.  The main goals of child-centered interventions are to increase individual competence and promote a sense of self-efficacy.  Interventions can be direct or indirect.  Direct interventions work to solve problems that are resultant of the stepfamily environment.  Indirect interventions seek to support the child in other ways that will simultaneous help him or her cope with the family-related stress. School-based group interventions in particular have been empirically shown to be efficacious.  Bibliotherapy is a popular choice for individual or group direct intervention.  Children can gain insight on the stepfamily situation.  Feelings can be explored and normalized through the identification of one’s own challenging family situation with that of a fictional character.  Readers achieve a greater understanding of what a stepfamily is and is not, and can be comforted by positive resolutions to problems presented in the story.

This is a great tool for use in schools, as it can be utilized in a group format and is not highly time-consuming (Coleman & Ganong, 1990; Richardson & Rosen, 1999)

Since parental happiness and self-esteem has been correlated with successful outcomes of divorce, there have been many counseling intervention programs designed to target the parent.  The understanding is that if the parent is mentally healthy, he or she will not neglect their children or their parental responsibilities.  Children in the Middle (CIM) is an evidenced-based, one to two 90- to 120-minute session(s) for divorcing adults.  The CIM program’s objectives include reducing parental conflict, lessening loyalty pressures, and cutting communication tribulations that can place significant stress on children. The intervention teaches specific parenting skills and functional communication skills to reduce the familial conflict experienced by children. Each parent attending classes typically receives two booklets that give advice for reducing the stress of divorce/separation on children and promote practice of the skills taught in the course. Each parent also watches a video, which illustrates how children often feel caught in the middle of their parents’ conflicts (Kearnes et al., 1992).

The New Beginnings Program (NBP) is another research-backed program designed for divorced parents who have children between the ages of 3 and 17. The goal of NBP is to promote resilience of children following parental divorce. The NBP consists of 10 weekly group sessions and 2 individual sessions. The parents learn skills to improve parent-child relationship quality and effectiveness of discipline, reduce exposure to interparental conflict, and decrease barriers to nonresidential parent-child contact. Each session includes a short lecture, skill demonstration, and skill practice. Participants are assigned homework after each session; difficulties and successes in implementing the skills at home are discussed in subsequent sessions. Each group is co-led by two master's-level clinicians. The two individual sessions are timed to occur after the third and sixth group sessions (Wolchik et al., 2007).

The Children of Divorce Intervention Program (CODIP) is the only evidence-based intervention in existence that is designed for school-based group counseling of children.  It has shown to increase children’s accurate understanding of family changes and clarify divorce-related misconceptions, enhance children's adjustment and positive perceptions of self and family, and educe anxiety, behavior problems and somatic symptoms.  Its objectives include fostering a supportive group environment, facilitating identification and appropriate expression of divorce-related feelings, promoting understanding of divorce-related concepts and misconceptions, enhancing active coping skills and realistic perceptions of control, and enhancing children's perceptions of themselves and their families.  The curriculum has four primary units, consisting of twelve sessions where the program’s central goals of peer support and skill building are underscored in active involvement.  The first few sessions aim to establish a safe, supportive environment and discuss counseling rules.  The first session’s purpose is to identify the objective of the group and discuss confidentiality.  Children choose a name for their group and their group's puppet. The second and third sessions focus on helping children identify and express their feelings in adaptive ways, introduce the concepts that everyone has a range of different feelings and that all feelings are acceptable, and lastly encourage the children to develop an emotional vocabulary through a variety of activities.  Moving forward, the group begins to discuss family changes they have experienced resulting from the divorce.  The fourth meeting deals with each group member's family composition and living arrangement. Through drawings, and structured play with family dolls, children are helped to share their feelings about their families and explore how all families share things in common and yet how each one is also unique.  The fifth session builds on that concept, by focusing on the many changes associated with divorce and to promote understanding of divorce-related concepts.  Through group discussion, puppet play, doll play and the interactive use of books, children learn that divorce is a “grown-up problem” that they neither cause, nor control.  The sixth session introduces the communication skill of asking parents or other adults for things they need. Children develop their ability to ask for assistance, clarification, information, and support through games such as Ask the Dinosaur, which teach children the importance of asking for what they need. The third key element in this skills training involves teaching children to differentiate between problems that they can and cannot control. In the seventh session, children are taught to "stop and think" of various solutions when faced with a range of every-day problems.  The next session engages puppet play to help children become more familiar with problem scenarios, problem-solving steps, and applications of these skills to personal problems.  The ninth session reinforces the previous session.  Children are shown how to differentiate between problems they can and cannot solve by playing the Red Light, Green Light game, where they are taught to disengage from unsolvable problems and focus on what they can do to feel better when faced with uncontrollable circumstances.  The fourth part of the program focuses on building self-esteem and maintaining support. Key program concepts and skills are reviewed in the tenth session, using the Kids are Special People game created to address specific divorce-related concerns of children and to reinforce coping skills, self-esteem and other objectives of the program.  More self-esteem training follows in the eleventh session by emphasizing each child's special and unique qualities and specific ways they have contributed to the group.  The final session of the program provides children the opportunity to review their experiences in the group.  As a memoir and reference for the children, each is given their All about Me Book containing copies of program materials. Pictures of each child and the group are mounted on the book as a memento of the group experience.  Children also discuss ways to stay in touch with each other and are encouraged to identify other supportive adults to whom they could turn if they had a problem (Pedro-Carroll, 1992).

Though these interventions are helpful for all nontraditional families going through divorce, blended or stepfamilies that have step-siblings or half-siblings require a unique understanding utilizing different counseling approaches.  Visher & Visher (1996) identified 16 characteristics of the blended family that need to be counseled on, versus the six for non-blended families.  Walsh (1992) recommended 20 categories of discussion, reiterating that these families require more guidance.  He collapsed these categories into four major issues that stepfamilies have as they try to blend.  The first category he termed, “initial family issues,” entails issues like fantasies of reconcilement between biological parents, feelings of disloyalty for developing love toward a new guardian, feelings of jealousy, grief or loss of the old family unit, change in the power structure of the family, and feelings of discomfort from seeing the custodial parent and stepparent show affection.  The second category, called the “developing family issues” category, seems to apply to families past their initial stage of blending.  Difficult family issues like discipline, role assignments, sibling conflict, and moving between families for visits are just some of the issues families at this stage encounter.  The third category, labeled the “feelings about self and others” category, entails child issues like anger, low self-esteem and guilt that result from the poor perception their school or community may have toward stepfamilies.  Children suffering from these internalizing issues may act out in school or have difficulty concentrating in class, which in turn, makes interactions between parents at home more stressful.  The fourth category is the “adult issues that relate to the new family” category.  Child support, alimony, and other financial concerns, as well as continued argument between the divorced parents, or any combination of parents, puts a lot of stress on children, and may have long-term effects with respect to their views of marriage, family interaction patterns, and child rearing.  When counseling these children, one must consider the loss these children have endured, in addition to their feelings of helplessness, frustration, and insecurity.  Because the newly formed parental subsystem in unfamiliar with becoming a blended family, the counselor should be willing to intervene and work with the parents (McFarland & Collerud, 2004).

Divorce signifies major change in the lives of children and adolescents.  To understand the complete impact of divorce on children, it is important to take a historical perspective and investigate the long chain of events that led up to this occurrence.  The pain and confusion, loss of a parent, change in socioeconomic status, change of home, change in family composition, and many other issues, can be very debilitating for children without proper support from adults.  It is important when working with the population, to try to address their needs by investigating their family’s idiosyncrasies, and matching their risk factors with evidence-based support services, so long-term damage is prevented.  This paper reviewed some of the many issues divorced and stepfamilies face, as well as some interventions that can alleviate the stressors of divorce and remarriage.  Given the rising trend in divorce, it is imperative school psychologists, counselors, and other service providers become familiar with what is available for supporting these children, and what has proven most effective, so they are able to function optimally in the school environment.



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