Changing the Legacy of Divorce: Evidence From Prevention Programs and Future Directions*

AuthorSharlene A. Wolchik,Jenn‐Yun Tein,Spring R. Dawson‐McClure,Irwin N. Sandler,Rachel A. Haine
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2003.00397.x
Published date01 October 2003
Date01 October 2003
2003, Vol. 52, No. 4 397
Special Collection
Changing the Legacy of Divorce: Evidence From Prevention
Programs and Future Directions*
Rachel A. Haine, Irwin N. Sandler,** Sharlene A. Wolchik, Jenn-Yun Tein, and Spring R. Dawson-McClure
This paper has two primary objectives. The f‌irst is to assess the current status of efforts to prevent mental health problems in children
of divorce by highlighting the importance of using theory in the design and evaluation of prevention programs and by reviewing the
empirical research on the eff‌icacy of programs to improve outcomes for children of divorce. The second objective is to propose two
future directions for advancing theory-based preventive interventions for children of divorce: (a) improving our understanding of the
theoretical mechanisms underlying prevention program effects, and (b) bridging the gap between the current evidence of program
eff‌icacy and the development of a public health strategy to reduce the negative outcomes experienced by children of divorce.
Parental divorce is experienced by 1.5 million children each
year in the United States, and 40% of American children
are predicted to reside with a divorced parent prior to age
16 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995). Although the
popular public press has described a controversy regarding the
risks associated with divorce (e.g., Corliss, 2002), the empirical
evidence is not equivocal. Approximately 20–25% of children
of divorce exhibit serious mental health or life adjustment prob-
lems (e.g., Amato & Keith, 1991; Hetherington, Bridges, & In-
sabella, 1998). Serious problems can persist into adulthood, as
indicated by the 39% increase in the risk of clinical levels of
mental health problems in children of divorce relative to their
peers from two-parent families at age 23 (Chase-Lansdale, Cher-
lin, & Kiernan, 1995) and the 85% increase at age 33 (Rodgers,
Power, & Hope, 1997). In addition, 41% of children of divorce
report receiving mental health services between ages 18 and 22
compared with 22% of their peers from two-parent families (Zill,
Morrison, & Coiro, 1993), and children of divorce have a shorter
life span relative to their peers by over 4 years (Schwartz et al.,
1995). Also important is that children of divorce are at increased
risk for additional stressful family transitions such as remarriage.
Thus, divorce can be seen as having an important impact on
public health, and interventions that prevent the negative effects
of divorce on children have major public health signif‌icance.
Our f‌irst objective here is to assess the current status of
prevention efforts to change the legacy of divorce for children,
both by highlighting the importance of using theory in the design
and evaluation of prevention programs and by reviewing the em-
pirical research on the eff‌icacy of programs to improve child
outcomes. Our second objective is to propose two primary future
directions to advance prevention programs for children of di-
vorce. One direction involves expanding tests of the theoretical
mechanisms underlying program effects. We illustrate this direc-
tion by presenting secondary data analyses on a previously eval-
uated intervention to test a theoretical pathway through which
*Support for this research was provided by three National Institute of Mental Health
grants that are gratefully acknowledged: grant 2P30-MH39246 to establish a Preventive
Intervention Research Center at Arizona State University, grant 1R01-MH057013 to conduct
a 6-year follow-up of preventive efforts for children of divorce, and grant 5T32-MH18387
to support training in prevention research. The authors are also grateful to the mothers and
children for their participation, as well as to the group leaders, supervisors, and graduate
students for their assistance with implementing the program. The authors would also liketo
thank the editors and reviewers for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft.
**Program for Prevention Research, Arizona State University, P.O.Box 876005, Tem-
pe, AZ 85287-6005 (irwin.sandler@asu.edu).
Key Words: children, divorce, intervention, prevention, resilience, public health.
(Family Relations, 2003, 52, 397–405)
the intervention reduced children’s mental health problems. A
second direction involves devoting research attention to bridging
the gap between evidence of program eff‌icacy and the devel-
opment of a public health strategy to change the legacy of di-
vorce for children.
Prevention Programs to Change the Legacy
of Divorce
In this section we f‌irst discuss the benef‌its of using theory
in the design and evaluation of prevention programs and present
our approach to constructing an underlying theory of a preven-
tion program for children of divorce. We then review the exper-
imental and quasi-experimental trials of prevention programs for
children of divorce, noting both the program effects and the un-
derlying theory of the program, if specif‌ied.
Using Theory in Designing Prevention Programs for
Children of Divorce
The use of theory in intervention design and evaluation of-
fers three critical advantages (e.g., Sandler, Wolchik, Mac-
Kinnon, Ayers, & Roosa, 1997). First, it provides strong guid-
ance for program design by identifying the factors to be targeted.
Second, it provides a theoretical basis for testing the mechanisms
by which programs have effects, and this can add to our under-
standing of both the basic processes that affect children’s ad-
justment and how programs work. Third, it provides a basis to
guide program redesign and dissemination.
Grych and Fincham (1992) argued convincingly that pre-
vention programs for children of divorce should be science-
based, focusing on changing the factors that have been empiri-
cally demonstrated to predict postdivorce adjustment. A large
body of research has identif‌ied potentially modif‌iable factors as-
sociated with problem outcomes of children of divorce, which
we call resilience resources or risk factors. Resilience resources
for children of divorce include coping efforts (Sandler, Tein, Me-
tha, Wolchik, & Ayers, 2000); warmth and discipline provided
by the residential mother (Forgatch, Patterson, & Ray, 1995;
Wolchik, Wilcox, Tein, & Sandler, 2000); and quality of the fa-
ther-child relationship (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999). Risk factors
include negative appraisals (e.g., fear of abandonment; Wolchik,
Tein, Sandler, & Doyle, 2002); postdivorce environmental
changes (e.g., moving; Sandler, Wolchik, Braver, & Fogas,
1986); and the relationship between parents (e.g., interparental
conf‌lict; Amato & Keith, 1991).
We have used evidence of these resilience resources andrisk
factors to form a ‘‘problem-driven theory’’ of a prevention pro-
gram for children of divorce. We use the term problem-driven

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