December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW2

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Helping Children Cope with Divorce

Children of divorce are at risk for increased emotional and educational problems including anxiety and depression. A two-hour, court mandated program entitled "Helping Children Cope with Divorce" was developed to help parents understand these risks as well as how to communicate with children about the divorce and help children adjust to the changes in the family. Through a variety of educational methods, parents learn how to keep children out of the crossfire. The authors have surveyed nearly 340 program participants with end-of-meeting evaluations which revealed that parents now recognize that their children are more affected by divorce than they realized.

Beth D. Gaydos
Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Ohio State University Extension
Noble and Monroe Counties
Caldwell, Ohio
Internet address:

Shelly Schwieterman
Executive Director
Noble Behavioral Health Choices, Inc.
Caldwell, Ohio

Bruce P. Zimmer
Extension Agent, 4-H Youth Development
Ohio State University Extension
Monroe County
Woodsfield, Ohio
Internet address:

Background Information

Statistically, one out of two marriages in this country ends in divorce. One million children each year will be children of divorce. Some researchers suggest that approximately 20-to-25% of children in divorced and remarried families display problems of adjustment as compared to 10% in nondivorced families (Hetherington, Bridges, and Insabella, 1998). For example, children of divorce are at risk for higher anxiety levels, a variety of emotional and educational problems, and possibly depression and suicide.

Why would parents who are divorcing, seeking a dissolution (Ohio's version of marriage termination by agreement), or filing for custody changes need to attend a parent education program called "Helping Children Cope with Divorce?" Aren't these good parents? Don't they care about their children? The answer is yes.

Yes, they are good parents. Yes, they do care about their children. The problem is, as one local Common Pleas judge stated, "In many cases, I was dealing with fairly decent parents who were not acting very decently......" The judge often found himself embroiled in squabbles between parents over their children.

In response to this concern, Ohio State University Extension and Noble Behavioral Health Choices, Inc., a local counseling agency, together with the court developed and implemented a program to educate parents about the harm they can inflict upon their children in a divorce situation. The program has since expanded to a neighboring county. Both "Helping Children Cope with Divorce" programs are now mandated by local Court of Common Pleas judges in the two rural, southeastern Ohio counties.In one county, the program is team-taught by the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension professional and a counseling professional. In the other county, the program is led by FCS and 4-H Youth Development Extension professionals. Parents with children under 18 who are filing for divorce, dissolution, or custody modifications are the target audience.

Program Content

The two-hour "Helping Children Cope with Divorce" program consists of various educational methods focusing primarily on the children and how to prevent alienation. However, since this can be a very emotional time for everyone, especially parents, the program also educates adults regarding their own emotional state during this chaotic transitional period. For instance, the stages of grief are presented to illustrate that when a divorce or dissolution occurs, those involved often feel a sense of loss. It takes an average of two to four years for individuals to reach the acceptance stage of the change.

In addition, some common reactions children have to their parents divorce are presented in relationship to their specific age group. Regardless of age, it appears most children feel a sense of loss, divided loyalties, and self-blame for the divorce. Harmful games that parents and children play are also discussed in the program plus ways to avoid these destructive behaviors.

Finally, participants are given helpful hints about what they might tell children regarding the divorce or dissolution.For example, parents might stress that the children did not cause the change; that they will be able to continue to love both parents; and the special connection between parent and child will live on forever. Other topics presented include post-divorce parenting tips and living in a blended/step family environment. Educators interested in establishing a similar program can obtain the teaching outline and handouts from the authors.

Evaluation Results

Since January 1997 the program has been evaluated by 336 participants from Noble and Monroe Counties using an exit survey. The questions focus on program content, aspirations to apply program content, perception of their children's adjustment to the divorce, and demographics. The format includes Likert-type scales, multiple choice, demographic, and open-ended questions.

Participants were asked to name one thing they could do to keep children out of the middle of parental disagreements. Some responses included: "Have disagreements in private away from children," "Don't use the child as a weapon," "Do not talk negatively about the other parent," "Don't relay messages through your children," and "Be positive."

On a five-point Likert-type scale, participants were asked to rate how well their children were adjusting to the changes in the family. Evaluation results revealed that 56% of the parents indicated that they think their children are adjusting okay, not too well or not well at all to the divorce. Whereas 44% reportedtheir children were adjusting very well or well.

When asked what children need to hear about the divorce, 90% of the respondents correctly answered a multiple choice question. Ninety-two percent also agreed or strongly agreed that children can make a healthy adjustment after the divorce.

On a five-point scale, 85% of the parents agreed or strongly agreed that the program would be beneficial in helping them assist children with adjustment to the divorce.Seventy-two percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the program would make a difference in how they communicate with a former spouse.

Participants indicated they were married an average of 10.1 years. Also, 79% of the parents responded that this was their first divorce and 21% indicated they were divorced two or more times. Sixty-seven percent of the participants stated that their own parents were not divorced. The mean age of participants was 33.1 years.

Program Replication

Experience conducting this program has resulted in several adaptations to the program delivery.Specific issues that should be addressed prior to implementing a similar program include: (a) establishing policies with the local court for pre-registration, late arrival, payment, and availability of child care; (b) establishing a policy about whether or not couples should attend together and handling restraining orders that may be in effect for a parent; (c) determining the need for on-site law enforcement presence and discussing methods for managing behavioral conflict;(d) establishing guidelines for referrals to the court when parents question the need to participate or pay registration fees; and (e) determining whether or not friends or family members of participants may attend.

In addition several basic concerns should be discussed with cooperating judges. Those include: (a) who should participate (those seeking divorce, dissolution and custody modifications); (b) length of program and how often to repeat it; (c) reasonable participant fees based on printing costs for handouts, room rental, audio-visual expense, and refreshments; (d) which agency should receive partial or total registration fees when there is more than one sponsoring agency; (e) literacy level of participants; and (f) instructor qualifications.


Parents preoccupied with emotions often unknowingly neglect the needs of their children. This program encourages parents to think about how their actions and words may impact children. The main emphasis of the program is to encourage parents to talk to their children and avoid putting children in the crossfire. Based on requests for information about implementing a divorce education program for parents, the need for this type of parent education is becoming more prominent across the country.


Hetherington, E. M., Bridges, M., & Insabella, G. M. (1998). What matters? What does not? - Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children's adjustment. American Psychologist, 53, 167-184.