NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Most U.S. states require divorcing couples with children to take a co-parenting course before the marriage can end, and one of the most widely used online programs can be helpful, according to a new review.
The study’s lead author says such courses are “timely” because conflict between parents during the separation period before divorce is more intense compared to a few years later.
“There is evidence that the conflict between parents contributes to child maladjustment and behavior issues among youth,” said Bowers, a researcher with the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The effects of the inter-parental conflict have been found to be stronger than the effects of the divorce itself,” she added.
Some previous research has shown that children fare better when their parents cooperate and work to minimize conflict, she told Reuters Health.
“This is why laws and policies surrounding these classes focus on the children . . . the aim is to help parents cooperatively communicate, minimize conflict and communicate with their child about the divorce,” she said.
Bowers and her colleagues have reviewed online co-parenting courses that satisfy the courts in the past. She said they look at the design of the program and its content, to see if they include important topics for divorcing parents and if they’re based on solid scientific evidence.
“The content reviews have included the quality of the program’s focus on child adjustment, adult adjustment, co-parenting, court-focused information, and special circumstances, such as interpersonal violence, substance abuse and mental health issues,” Bowers said.
“With the design, we look at instructional strategies, activities and the degree to which the online teaching process included the use of the most current and effective methods for online instruction,” she said.
Bowers noted that active instructional methods, which encourage participants to reflect on a topic or to develop a plan, are better than passive instruction that only requires participants to read or listen to content.
The new review, published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, was invited by Online Parenting Programs, a provider of online courses that is recognized by courts in more than 850 counties in the U.S.
In addition to evaluating a 4-hour version of the program, the study team looked at 1,543 parents’ impressions of the course in surveys taken before and after they completed it in 2011 and 2012.
Those results showed that parents felt the biggest benefit from the program was improved communication with their children. Men were more likely than women to rate the program as useful in that regard, although the researchers are not sure why.
Bowers said that overall, the company did a great job with the content that is specific to outcomes for children, such as helping parents to think about what their children may be experiencing based on their age, encouraging parents to think about the effects of conflict on children and providing some basic strategies for managing conflict and cooperatively communicating.
In addition, she said the program included a range of relevant topics and accurate content on issues like changes to family structure, finances and communication between co-parents and their children.
Bowers and her team made some suggestions to improve the program, including increasing the amount of content that may be more helpful for the parents.
“The child-focused content is important, yet we believe that more adult-focused content and strategies that help the social-emotional wellbeing of the parents are needed to ensure that parents can adequately help their children through this period of transition,” Bowers said.
The study team also suggested the course address such issues such as dating, cohabitation and blended families.
“These topics may seem less relevant in this early stage of the separation process although it may be important to provide some direction or resources to consider,” Bowers said.
While court-focused content, such as parenting plans, child support and financial obligations were covered, issues related to legal procedures, legal representation, review of legislation, custody evaluation options and mediation were not discussed at all, Bowers noted.
“Given this is a time when parents may be interacting with the court systems for the first time, having information about these things could reduce some of their stress or anxiety about the process,” she said.
Michelle Muncy, CEO of Online Parenting Programs, said that she and her team used the review to reevaluate and adjust the program, primarily by making the content easier to read, adding definitions and more interactive content.
“We did quite a bit of revamping of our entire program based on that study,” Muncy told Reuters Health.
In addition, the company allowed parents to have access to the program after finishing the course.
“Something the parents really appreciate is having access to the program after completion as a resource tool,” Muncy said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1vX2GzW Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, online August 8, 2014.