Key takeaways for parents
- A brief, online program can help parents promote their children’s resilience following separation and divorce.
- Not all online programs for divorced and separated parents are the same. Evidence from research can help parents and practitioners identify online programs that work rather than ones that are just based on someone’s favorite approach.
- Programs that give parents simple, practical tools to strengthen parenting and reduce conflict between the parents are most likely to reduce children’s behavior problems.
- The eNew Beginnings Program provides an inexpensive but effective opportunity for court professionals and mental health practitioners to help parents promote their children’s resilience following separation and divorce.
An evidence-based online program for divorced and separated parents
Most divorced and separated parents are concerned about their children and ask themselves: “What can I do to protect my children from the problems that often follow divorce?” Although many online parenting-after-divorce programs offer advice, few are backed by solid research that show they actually work.
However, recent research provides new scientific evidence that one online parenting-after-divorce program can provide parents with the help they seek. In the first rigorous evaluation of an online program, this study showed that a brief, online parenting intervention for divorced and separated parents reduced interparental conflict and children’s behavior problems, and improved the quality of parent-child relationships and the effectiveness of parental discipline.
The online program, the eNew Beginnings Program (eNBP), was adapted by researchers Sharlene A. Wolchik and Irwin Sandler from their in-person group program for parents that reduced the mental health problems, drug and alcohol use, and risky sexual behavior of children from divorced families. The program also improved children’s self-esteem, grades, coping, and work competence. Several of the positive changes lasted up to 15 years after the program ended: When the offspring were young adults, they had lower rates of depression, substance use, and painful feelings about the divorce.
Despite the positive effects of the in-person program, few divorced parents could participate because it was expensive for agencies to offer. Moreover, parents faced practical barriers, such as travel, making time in their busy schedules, and finding child care.
Practical tools for parenting after divorce
To make the program affordable, more widely available, and easier for parents to use, Wolchik and Sandler adapted the in-person program into an online version. The eNBP is affordable, and parents can take part on their own time and in the comfort of their own homes. They need only a smartphone, computer, or tablet. The eNBP is a five-hour (20 to 30 minutes per session over 10 weeks) online program that includes all the material in the in-person version. Separate versions of the program were developed for divorced and separated fathers and for divorced and separated mothers.
The eNBP works by teaching parents practical tools to strengthen positive relationships with their children, create and use family rules that reduce the hassles often associated with discipline, and decrease the level of conflict with the other parent (i.e., the ex-partner). The program teaches these tools in a step-by-step, highly interactive way.
For example, sessions begin with a check-in when parents respond to questions about their use of the program tools and are provided with ways to address the challenges they experienced using them. This is followed by teaching a new tool using modeling videos, interactive exercises, and testimonials from prior participants.
The eNBP then prompts parents to set times to use the tool, identify barriers to using it, and select strategies to reduce these barriers. Parents receive downloadable tip sheets on how to address common challenges in using the tools, sheets to record their use of the tools, and handbooks that summarize what was covered in the session.
Positive impacts of the online program on parents and children
The effectiveness of the eNBP was evaluated using the gold standard of program evaluation, a randomized controlled trial. One hundred thirty-one parents were randomly given access to the program or assigned to a waiting list. Parents were recruited from across the United States. Of the parents, 78% were non-Hispanic White, 8% were Hispanic, and 14% were of another race/ethnicity. Parents had various levels of education: 1% had less than GED or high school diploma, 14% a GED or high school diploma, 17% an associate degree, 29% some college or vocational training, and 39% a bachelor’s degree or higher. Annual income ranged from $10,000 to $175,000 (median = $30,001–$40,000). Parents were on average 41 years old; 60% were female. Children averaged 13 years old; 48% were female.
After completing the program, both parents and their children provided information about its effects. Parents and children reported that the program improved the quality of parent-child relationships, increased effective discipline, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression in the children. Both parents and children also reported reduced conflict between parents.
The program was equally effective when used by mothers and fathers. The improvements noticed by the children increase confidence in the study’s findings because the children did not take part in the program.
The improvements from the online program were as strong or stronger than those that resulted from the original in-person program, which has had remarkable effects in three randomized controlled trials. The program developers think this may be due to the high level of interactivity of the online program and the ease of using it.
The rate of program completion was also higher for the online than for the in-person program. Among the parents who completed the first session, only 16% finished the in-person version (Sandler et al., 2020), whereas 60% finished the eNBP. Parents were very satisfied with the program. Most felt that it helped them and helped their relationships with their children. And more than 80% of the parents said that family courts should recommend that divorcing or separating parents complete the eNBP.
Who can use the online divorce program?
The program is available in two formats, a 6-week program and a 10-week program. The same material is included in both formats; the 10-week program allows parents more practice and provides them with more feedback about the skills that are taught. The 6-week version is appropriate for those who are taking part in the program to fulfill a parenting class required by the court.
Family courts can use the eNBP in several ways. Family court judges, mediators, and attorneys can use the program as a tool to protect the well-being of children whose parents experience high conflict or are having difficulty developing a parenting plan.
Mental health practitioners can use the program in their work with individual clients. Parents could complete a session at home and then when meeting with the practitioner, the practitioner could address questions and help the parents solve any problems they had using the tools.
In summary, the eNBP is an effective research-based resource for fathers and mothers who want to protect their children following a divorce. It is easy to access and parents enjoy the program, as shown in these comments by parents who took part in the eNBP:
“It got me and my children closer to each other.”
“It was exactly what I needed.”
“There are several tools I used immediately that my kids are big fans of.”
Parents can directly access the program at www.divorceandparenting.com.