PARENT PSYCHOEDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS
AND REDUCING THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF
INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT FOLLOWING DIVORCE
This article reviews psychoeducational programs to reduce interparental conflict in divorcing families and the neg-
conflict on children. The authors initially identify factors shown in the basic psychosocial research
literature to be related
the effects of interparental conflict
children. They then review the content of programs
currently being delivered and evaluate the evidence
well-controlled studies concerning their effectiveness.
Finally, the article considers directions
future program development and evaluation.
psychoeducational programs; prevention: parenting: interparental conflict; divorre
Interest in developing interventions to reduce the effects of interparental conflict in
divorcing families is motivated by findings that
of divorced families remain
highly conflicted long after separation (Maccoby
that children from high-
conflict divorce families are at greater risk for adjustment problems (Hetherington,
and that high-conflict divorced families use
disproportionate amount of court resources
(Kline Pruett, Nangle,
The purpose of this article is to discuss current parent
psychoeducational programs in terms of their focus on interparental conflict. First, we pres-
multidimensional conceptualization of interparental conflict and identify the different
these programs. We then describe current approaches to reducing the
effects of conflict in terms of the content of the programs and evidence concerning their
effects. Our review includes programs that are targeted to the full population of divorcing
families (universal programs) and those that are designed specifically for high-conflict
divorcing families (targeted programs). Finally, we discuss directions for future research and
interventions to reduce the negative effects of interparental conflict in divorcing families.
RESEARCH ON INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT
KNOWLEDGE BASE FOR INTERVENTIONS
MULTIDIMENSIONAL CONCEPTUALIZATION OF
We conceptualize interparental conflict
including three main types: legal conflicts,
interpersonal conflicts, and attitudinal conflict. Legal conflict involves actions in the court
Requests for reprints should be sent to
Research Center: Arizona State University, Tempe,
FAMILY COURT REVIEW
Interparental Conflict and Children
About About Children’s
Conflict Conflict Mother Father Adjustment
Legal conflict 0.39**
Children’s adjustment 0.30**
Father’s attitude about mother
Mother’s attitude about father
system such as continued litigation, requests for change in decrees, and enforcement actions
for noncompliance with the decree. Interpersonal conflict involves a wide range of conflict
behavior between the parents including verbal disputes, physical violence, and badmouth-
ing. Attitudinal conflict involves the parents’ anger and hostility toward their ex-spouse,
including their negative attitude toward their ex-spouse in the parenting role. Within this
typology of interparental conflict there are also four important conflict dimensions to con-
sider: topics (i.e., child custody), tactics (i.e., physical aggression), intensity (i.e., degree of
hostility), and frequency (Johnston, 1994).
displays the correlations between interpersonal conflict, legal conflict, attitudinal
conflict, and child adjustment problems from a reanalysis of survey data collected by Braver
of 94 matched pairs of mothers and fathers 4 to
months after the final-
ization of divorce. This sample was obtained as a random sample from public divorce
records. The following criteria were used to determine eligibility for participation: (a) both
members of the couple resided in Maricopa County, (b) both members of the couple were
willing to participate in an interview about the relationship (because we were seeking
matched reports between spouses), and (c) the couples had one child aged
each for their participation. Interpersonal conflict was assessed by a cornpos-
ite of mother and father reports on two measures. One of the measures was the 13-item Chil-
dren’s Perception of Interparental Conflict Scale developed by Grych and Fincham
(sample item: “The child knows that my ex and
argue or disagree
lot”) and the other mea-
sure was the 15-item Braver Conflict Breadth Scale developed specifically for this study (in
which the parents were asked how much conflict they currently had about such matters as
child support payments, discipline of the child, and dating relationships). Legal conflict was
measured by a composite of mother and father reports on one item (“Following your divorce,
how much conflict between you and your ex has been expressed through the legal system?”).
Mother and father reports of attitudinal conflict were uncorrelated, and thus were not
a composite measure. Attitudinal conflict was measured by the 4-item
Incompetent Parent Scale from Ahrons and Wallisch (1987) (sample item:
have felt my ex
is an irresponsible parent”). Child adjustment problems were measured by the composite of
mother and father reports
the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1991). As depicted
in Table 1, interpersonal, legal, and attitudinal conflict were moderately related to each other.
Furthermore, only interpersonal conflict, not legal
attitudinal conflict, was significantly
related to children’s adjustment problems. This analysis suggests that the different types of
interparental conflict are interrelated, yet they have differing effects on child adjustment
PROGRAMS FOR INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT
Legal interparental conflict.
is logical to believe that ongoing legal conflict
between parents is associated with problem outcomes for children, there is relatively little
empirical evidence on this issue. Clinical observations indicate that children
high-conflict families (who are high on legal, interpersonal, and attitudinal conflict) are two
to four times more likely to have high levels of behavioral and mental health symptoms com-
pared to national norms (Johnston
Campbell, 1988). However, evidence is more mixed
concerning the relations between litigation and child adjustment in the general population of
divorcing families, with some studies finding that use of an attorney is actually related to
lower child adjustment problems (Kline Pruett, Williams, Insabella,
Little, 2003; Wolman
Taylor, 199 1). These relations are currently not well understood and may reflect a correla-
tion between litigation and other family variables such as parental socioeconomic status or
parental mental health.
Research also has examined factors that influence the level of children’s adjustment prob-
divorcing families experiencing high legal conflict. Johnston, Kline, and Tschann
(1989; Johnston, 1994) reported that within these high-legal conflict families, children with
more frequent visitation with the noncustodial parent tended to be more aggressive,
depressed, and withdrawn, and had more somatic symptoms. Further analysis indicated that
the relations of noncustodial parent visitation with children’s behavior problems was par-
tially accounted for by higher aggression between the parents and children being caught in
the middle of the conflict. Although the authors rightly recommend caution in interpreting
this finding, the statistical model they present is consistent with other findings concerning
the negative relation between noncustodial parent visitation and child adjustment in high-
conflict divorced families (Amato
Attitudinal interparental conflict.
Investigations of the effects of attitudinal interparental
conflict on child adjustment are few and far between because previous studies have failed to
make the distinction between the different types conflict. As described above, results from
the current study indicated that attitudinal conflict was not a significant predictor of child
adjustment problems after controlling for the effects of legal and interpersonal conflict. Sim-
ilarly, Kline Pruett et al.
reported that having a positive view of the ex-spouse (i.e.,
low attitudinal conflict) was not a significant predictor of child internalizing and external-
izing problems. The results of their study also indicated that attitudinal conflict and inter-
personal conflict were significantly related, and interpersonal conflict was a significant pre-
dictor of child adjustment problems. Another study reported that parental hostility (i.e.,
attitudinal conflict) following divorce was significantly related to the amount of legal con-
date, the research provides no support for a relation
between attitudinal conflict and child adjustment in divorced families; however, further
research is needed to adequately study this issue.
Interpersonal interparental conflict.
A large body of research indicates that interpersonal
conflict negatively affects children’s emotional and cognitive functioning, placing children
at risk for externalizing and internalizing disorders (Davies
Cummings, 1994; Grych
Fincham, 2001). Illustratively, laboratory studies have shown that exposure to interparental
conflict and expressions of anger between parents leads to negative emotional
children and adolescents (Davies
Cummings, 1994). This research also finds that repeated
exposure to interparental conflict leads to greater distress when witnessing subsequent con-
flicts. These findings have important implications concerning
continuing high levels of
interpersonal conflict that occurs following some divorces.
Two models have been used to describe the internal emotional and cognitive processes
affected by children’s exposure to interpersonal conflict: the emotional security hypothesis
Cummings, 1994) and the cognitive contextual framework (Grych
1990). Davies and Cummings (1994) described emotional security as a set goal by which
children regulate their own functioning and form internal representations of themselves and
their family as secure or insecure. Research has indicated that exposure to interparental con-
flict threatens children’s emotional security, which then leads to child adjustment problems
The cognitive contextual framework implies that children’s internal representations of
the family are determined by their assessment of self-relevance, relative threat, and adequacy
of coping skills
response to interparental conflict. Research has supported this model by
showing that children who have been exposed to higher levels of interparental conflict tend
to evaluate conflicts more negatively and perceive interparental conflicts as more threat-
ening (Grych, 1998). Furthermore, the literature has identified several important cognitive
processes that affect child adjustment after divorce: positive illusions about the divorce si
ation, negative cognitive errors about the divorce situation (i.e., overgeneralizing; Mazur,
Sandler, 1992), and fear of abandonment (Wolchik, Tein, Sandler,
Research has also shown that the effect of conflict on children is affected by messages
about conflict resolution. Cummings and Davies (1994), on the basis of numerous studies,
concluded that children’s negative responses to interparental conflict are significantly
reduced when the conflicts are resolved. They reported that children’s distress reactions
conflict were reduced even when apologies were delivered with an angry tone (Shifflett-
Cummings, 1996) and when parents told the child that the conflict would be
resolved soon (Cummings
Wilson, 1999). In addition to resolution strategies, the fre-
quency of occurrence, intensity,
whether the conflict involves the child may also be impor-
tant factors (Grych
Fincham, 1990; Margolin, Gordis,
Mediators and moderators
interparental conflict. Interparental conflict
may also affect children’s adjustment indirectly, through its influence on other processes,
particularly parenting (Davies
Cummings, 1994). The evidence indicates that inter-
parental conflict is associated with a deterioration
positive parenting practices (i.e.,
responsiveness), as well as an escalation of negative parenting practices (i.e., harshness;
Conger, 1997). In addition, research has identified parenting as a mediator of the
effects of interparental conflict on children (Fauber, Forehand, Thomas,
This process applies to father’s parenting (Kline
and mother’s parenting
(Sturge-Apple, Gondoli, Bonds,
Salem, in press).
From a family systems perspective, the effects of interparental conflict may be mediated
by the relationship the child has with both parents (Minuchin, 1985). That is, research
has found that one of the mechanisms by which the effects of interparental conflict affects
child adjustment is through the children being caught in loyalty conflicts between the parents
and by role reversal in which the child takes on a protective role with one of the parents
Another factor that may mediate the negative effects of interparental conflict on children
of divorce is parental mental health problems. Research has indicated that parents involved
high-conflict divorces are at greater risk for severe psychopathology and substance abuse
PROGRAMS FOR INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT
influence the effects
suggesting that parental psychopathology may be part of the
chain of events that lead to child adjustment problems in high-conflict divorce families. In
support of this notion, interparental conflict has been identified as a significant predictor of
parental psychopathology, and the link between parental psychopathology and poor child
adjustment has been well documented (Zahn-Waxler, Duggal,
Gruber, 2002). Interest-
ingly, recent research supports a bidirectional effect between interparental conflict and
parental psychopathology. Thus, interparental conflict may exacerbate parental psycho-
pathology, while at the same time parental psychopathology may impede positive inter-
parental relations (Maccoby
presents a model
the pathways by which interparental conflict influences the
children of divorce. The box at the far left lists the aspects
conflict that are
found to influence child adjustment. The evidence is limited and mixed for ongoing litiga-
tion, but indicates that very high levels of continued litigation that co-occur with high levels
of interpersonal conflict are associated with elevated adjustment problems. Other factors,
such as repeated exposure to interpersonal conflict and involvement of the child in the con-
flict, are clearly linked to child adjustment problems in multiple studies. Notably absent is
evidence concerning what we have termed attitudinal conflict, the degree to which the par-
ents are hostile to each other
view parenting by the other in an unfavorable light. The mid-
dle box shows multiple factors that mediate or moderate the linkage between conflict and
child adjustment, including factors having to do with the child (i.e., emotional security or
cognitive evaluation of the conflict) or the parents (i.e.. the quality of parenting
pathology). Notably absent are factors such as amount (rather than quality)
the parents, which are more complexly related to child adjustment, particularly in very high-
conflict families. The circle at the upper left indicates that these factors are potential targets
interventions to improve child adjustment following divorce. Multiple intervention strat-
egies might follow from this model, and we
little about their relative effectiveness.
example, children’s exposure to conflict may be reduced either by actually decreasing the
level of interpersonal conflict between the parents or by teaching parents to keep the child
the war zone by not enmeshing them in the conflict. Alternatively, giving the child
reassuring messages about the conflict (i.e., that
is not their fault, that the child will con-
tinue to be cared for by the parents, and that the conflict will be resolved) may be important in
reducing the negative effects of conflict exposure. In addition, the negative effects of conflict
may be reduced by directly strengthening the factors that mediate and moderate the effects of
interparental conflict on child adjustment. For example, one of
most consistent mediators
of the effects
conflict is the quality of parenting, and programs that directly support high
quality parenting by the custodial or noncustodial parent may reduce the negative impact
of conflict on children. We now turn to reviewing the intervention literature with divorcing
families to examine the variables actually targeted for change, and their efficacy in improv-
ing these outcomes.
PARENT PSYCHOEDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS
psychoeducational programs have been developed to address the
problem of continuing conflict between divorced parents. Our review will address two
issues: (a) What are the goals and the content of the programs? We will be particularly inter-
ested in the degree to which the programs address factors supported by research as affecting
either the occurrence or effects of interparental conflict. (b) What are the demonstrated
effects of these programs? We are interested in effects on any aspect of conflict, including
attitudinal conflict (i.e., attitude toward parenting role for the other parent), interpersonal
conflict (i.e., how much parents fight or involve the children), or legal conflict (i.e., ongoing
litigation). We also review factors that have been demonstrated to influence the degree to
which conflict affects children’s postdivorce adjustment, such as quality of parenting by the
custodial or noncustodial parent and children’s interpretations
the conflict. We will review
programs that are designed for all divorcing families (universal) because interparental con-
flict is related to child adjustment for the general population
divorced families, as well as
programs that are specifically targeted for high-conflict families (targeted). Finally, we will
consider a more comprehensive approach that brings together the strengths of different
Parent education programs for divorcing parents have become extremely widespread
and, as of the late 1990s,
16 counties offered such programs (68% of respondents in a
national survey; see Geasler
Blaisure, 1999). These programs are generally short (mode of
hours for court-provided programs and
hours for community-provided programs), and
may either be mandated for all families or be widely available but not required. These pro-
grams are generally rated as positive and helpful by parents and court personnel (Geasler
Blaisure, 1999). Two surveys of short-term parent education programs provided information
about their content (Braver, Salem, Pearson,
DeLusC, 1996; Geasler
Geasler and Blaisure (1999) report that many programs target reducing children’s exposure
improving parenting skills (55%) and decreasing legal complaints
PROGRAMS FOR INTERPARENTAL
Braver et al. (1996) report that three of the most intensively covered topics involved
interparental conflict (i.e., benefits of cooperation vs. conflict, impact of badmouthing, con-
flict resolution skills). Parenting skills received somewhat less coverage, and legal options
for dispute resolution received still less coverage. In addition, several studies of experi-
mental parent-focused programs designed to improve adjustment of children following
divorce have recently been published (i.e., Wolchik et al.,
Although these pro-
grams are not specifically designed for high-conflict families, they target factors that
affect children’s adjustment to interparental conflict (i.e., parenting skills and children’s
exposure to conflict).
Techniques to decrease interparental conflict.
Several change techniques are used to
reduce interparental conflict. We discuss them in order of least intensive to most intensive.
At the least intensive end of the continuum, most of the programs provide information
attempting to convey to parents that interparental conflict negatively affects children. This
information might be in written form or simply presented verbally.
Next, some of the short-term programs provide information about resources that may
help parents resolve their legal conflict. The PEACE program (Atwood,
ents with a description of the legal process and how custody disputes are resolved. The Chil-
Middle Program (Arbuthnot
Gordon, 1996) provides parents with a list of dif-
ferent legal services and outlines not only the legal costs and benefits of these approaches but
also the cost and benefit to the parents and children.
Next, many of the programs attempt to motivate parents to decrease interparental conflict
by using videotaped vignettes to describe how interparental conflict affects children. The
Children First program
Washo, 1993) presents several video vignettes of
interparental conflict and incorporates
discussion of the impact that conflict has on chil-
dren. The discussion and videos are used to motivate parents to put the needs of their children
before the conflict with their child’s other parent.
A fourth technique is that many programs specifically focus on how involving children
the conflict lead to increased child adjustment problems. For example, the Children in the
Middle Program (Arbuthnot
Gordon, 1996) shows parents video vignettes of children: (a)
carrying stressful messages between parents, (b) seeing their parents criticizing each other,
(c) becoming involved in money-related issues, and (d) telling a parent about the other
parent’s life. After the video, the parents discuss how the destructive behaviors affected the
children. Another program, New Beginnings (Weiss
Wolchik, 1998), addresses bad-
mouthing between parents and why parents might be tempted to bad-mouth each other.
The fifth, most intensive technique is that many programs teach parents problem-solving
and communication skills that will help them resolve their conflict. The Dads for Life pro-
gram (Braver, Griffin, Cookston, Sandler,
Williams, in press) illustrates effective and inef-
fective methods of resolving conflict using video vignettes. The program postulates that
conflict becomes unproductive when parents try to win the argument or when one of the par-
ents “checks out” or avoids conflict. The videos highlight and the parents practice productive
methods of resolving conflict. The New Beginnings program (Weiss
encourages parents to develop self-statements (e.g., “Just because he is a jerk, I don’t have to
be one”) to help them manage their anger when their children are present. In addition,
encourages parents to practice talking to their friends and family about not bad-mouthing
their child’s other parent. Programs (i.e., Children in the Middle) also encourage
ments to help parents clearly articulate what they want and not what the other parent is doing
Several different approaches are used to improve par-
enting. Some programs focus primarily on increasing contact between children and the non-
custodial parent (Arbuthnot
Gordon, 1996), but others attempt to improve the quality of
the relationship that the child has with the custodial and noncustodial parent (i.e., Forgatch
DeGarmo, 1999; Weiss
Wolchik, 1998). The programs that target contact use a variety
techniques to increase the amount of time that children spend with the noncustodial parent.
The Children in the Middle Program (Arbuthnot
Gordon, 1996) presents a video interview
with a parent describing why he avoids contact with his children. The program hypothesizes
that one reason why parents avoid spending time with their children is that they do not want
to argue with the other parent. As aresult, the program highlights communication skills such
as active listening that decrease the level of conflict with the other parent. It is notable that
this approach encourages parallel parenting by both parents rather than cooperation between
Programs that target the quality of parenting teach positive parenting skills (i.e., warmth)
and negative parenting skills (i-e., limit setting) that relate to better child adjustment
divorced and nondivorced families (i.e., Wolchik et
2000). Consistent with the research
reviewed above, by improving the quality of parenting, these programs may dilute the im-
pact that interparental conflict has on children’s adjustment.
Helping parents plan family activities is one way these programs improve the positive
quality of parenting (i.e., Braver et al., in press; Devlin, Brown, Beebe,
Wolchik et al.,
For example, the New Beginnings program teaches parents to plan
short (15-minute) periods of one-on-one time with the child. During this period, the child
chooses the activity and the parent gives his or her child undivided attention and focuses on
what the child is doing well and does not criticize the child. During the program, parents
watch a videotape of a one-on-one activity and are given an opportunity to role-play. After
the role-play, the parents discuss the benefit that children receive from this activity and the
importance of warmth and acceptance are highlighted. Programs that were developed for
fathers also emphasize the importance of planning activities that allow parents to interact
with their child in natural environments. Another technique is to teach communication skills
between the parent and child (i.e., Braver et al., in press; Devlin et al., 1992; Forgatch
DeGarmo, 1999; Wolchik et al., 2000).
example, Dads for Life uses a video with a base-
ball metaphor in which listening skills are portrayed as catching the ball.
Other techniques focus
limit setting with their children (i.e., Braver et al., in press;
DeGarmo, 1999; Wolchik et al.,
For example, the New
Beginnings program takes a three-tier approach to helping parents improve their discipline
skills. The first is to discuss the importance of clear, consistent, and age-appropriate limits.
The second step is to discuss the consequences for misbehavior. Attention is placed not only
on consequences that are meant to punish negative behavior but also consequences that are
meant to reinforce positive behavior. Parents are also provided with an opportunity to role-
play implementing these consequences and
encouraged to be consistent with these lim-
its. The last step
the program is developing a specific behavior plan for the child. Parents
are taught how to monitor progress, evaluate effectiveness, and actually practice implement-
ing their plan.
UNIVERSAL PARENTING PROGRAMS
The criteria we use for considering evidence of program effects are that the evaluation
report be available
the published professional literature (or dissertation abstracts), that the
research design includes
least a comparison between the program and a control group
(randomly assigned or other: the nonequivalent control group), that pretesting and post-
testing be included to assess program effects on change over time (particularly critical where
groups are not randomly assigned to conditions; see
Campbell, 1979), that a quanti-
tative measure be used to assess the outcomes, and that appropriate statistical tests be
employed to assess differences in change between those in the program and control condi-
tion. Although several evaluations utilize posttest-only assessment with a nonrandom con-
trol group, we did not include them because this design allows only very weak inferences
concerning program effects (see Braver, Smith,
includes results from four separate short-term parent education programs. None
of the studies used a randomized experimental design, which allows for the strongest con-
clusions concerning program effects. One study (DeLusC,
used a regression disconti-
nuity design that has been advocated as a powerful design for detecting program effects (see
Campbell, 1979), and the others used a nonequivalent control group design. The
sample sizes of the evaluations are large, with four of the five studies having sample sizes of
and one study having a sample size
This indicates that the
studies have adequate power to detect treatment effects
Campbell, 1979). Most of
the evaluations used only parent report measures to assess treatment outcomes, which may
positively bias the results because parents may be aware of intended program effects and
may respond in the direction that is desired by the program. One strength of these evalua-
that three of the four programs were connected with local family courts and were pro-
vided in community agencies, showing that the programs were studied under “real-world”
Based on the studies reviewed in Table
there is some support that
one of the short-term programs affected interpersonal conflict but only mixed support that
other programs affect interparental conflict. An evaluation of the Children in the Middle pro-
M. Kramer, Arbuthnot, Gordon, Rousis,
Hoza, 1998) indicated that the families
who received the program, when compared to families who did not receive the program,
reported less conflict on two of the four different measures of interparental conflict. Parents
in the treatment group reported they improved their parental communication and reduced
their children’s exposure to conflict significantly more than a comparison group. There were
no significant differences in parents’ report of domestic violence or reports of actual overt
conflict. Another program, Children First, was evaluated in two separate investigations
Kramer et al., 1998; L . Kramer
Washo, 1993). In one evaluation
Washo, 1993), the study did not indicate that the families who received the program reported
lower levels of interparental conflict than the control group, but follow-up analysis sug-
gested that parents who were identified as high-conflict families may have benefited from
the program. The results
the other study
1998) suggested that the
program had an impact on only one of the four measures of interparental conflict. A third
program, Kids in Divorce and Separation, was evaluated by a study that used six measures of
interparental conflict (Shifflett
Cummings, 1999). On three of these measures there was a
significant difference between the treatment and control group. However, the conclusions
from these analyses are limited because of large pretest differences between the groups
(more than 1
that violates the assumptions of an analysis
the nonequivalent control
group design (Reichart, 1979). Taken together, the results indicate that there is some evi-
dence that the Children in the Middle program influences interparental conflict, but only a
Short-Grm Psychoeducational Pmgrams
Interpersonal Attitude Legal Quality Children
Design Measure Setting Conflict Conflict Conflict Parenting Adjustment
Kramer& Wash0 (1993) Children First 21
Nonequivalent Parent Community
Kowal (1998) Children Fin1
Nonequivalent Archival retrieval Community
1999) Kids 39 Nonequivalent Parent Not reported
Wolchik et al. (2000, 2003)
Wolchik et al. (1993)
Forgatch et al. (1999,
Devlin et al. (1992)
Children in the 189 Nonequivalent Parent Community
Nonequivalent Parent Community
Mandated Divorce 412 Regression Archival retrieval Community
Experimental Multiple Method Research
Experimental Multiple Method Research
Parenting 238 Experimental Multiple Method Research
Nonequivalent Parent Community
Nonsignificant No lest No test Nonsignificant
test No test Nonsignificant' No test
significant' No test No test No test
4 significant No test No test No test
significant No test No test No test
test Nonsignificant No test
Nonsignificant Nonsignificant No test 60f9
test No test Significant
test Nonsignificant No test 4of6
a. Article reported group differences, but the analysis violates assumptions
ANOVA, which made the results difficult to interpret.
Treatment by baseline interactions change the results.
sparse amount of evidence to suggest that other parenting programs affect interparental
Table 2 also indicates that some studies examined the impact that short-term programs
had on relitigation. One of the studies (DeLuse‘, 1999) indicated that parents who received a
short-term program did not have lower relitigation rates than comparison families. Another
Kowal, 1998) also indicated that parents who received the program did not
have lower relitigation rates than a comparison group; however, the results did suggest that
high-conflict families who received the program relitigated less than
group. Taken together, this suggests that whereas the short-term programs do not influence
relitigation rates for most families, they may influence relitigation rates for high-conflict
The evaluations also indicate that there is no evidence to suggest that
impact high-quality parenting
attitudinal conflict. One reason that high-quality parenting
was not assessed is that the programs were not specifically designed to affect high-quality
parenting. The one study that did examine this (Kramer
Washo, 1993) did not report any
significant differences. None
the programs examined the impact that the short-term pro-
grams had on attitudinal conflict.
The evaluations also suggest that short-term programs do not affect children’s adjust-
ment. Four evaluations did examine how short-term programs affected children’s adjust-
ment, and none of the programs reported any significant differences between the treatment
and comparison families. This indicates that there
no empirical evidence to suggest that
short-term parenting programs improve children’s well-being.
also presents the results of the studies examining the effec-
tiveness of longer term parenting programs. The table indicates that the evaluations of these
programs were more rigorous than the evaluations of the short-term programs. For example,
three of the four studies listed used a randomized experimental design to examine the results.
In addition, four of these evaluations used multiple measures from multiple reporters as out-
come variables to test program effects. A weakness of these studies is that they were primar-
ily conducted in research settings rather than under real-world conditions of the courts.
The table indicates that none of the studies examined how the long-term programs
affected legal conflict, and only the New Beginnings program evaluations examined how the
programs affected interpersonal conflict. One of the studies indicated that the program did
not influence interpersonal conflict (Wolchik et al., 1993), and the other study indicated that
the program affected conflict for the high-conflict families but did not for the other families.
This weak effect may be attributed to the lack of emphasis the program placed on inter-
parental conflict (2 out
sessions) compared to high-quality parenting
promising program (Dads for Life) that did put more emphasis on interparental conflict is
currently being evaluated, and initial analyses do suggest that it has
interparental conflict as measured by parental report and behavioral observation (Braver
et al., in press).
Three of the four evaluations also examined how the long-term programs affected attitu-
dinal conflict, assessed as parental attitude toward the child’s relationship with the other par-
ent. The results indicate that for two of the evaluations (Devlin et al., 1992; Wolchik et al.,
1993), there were no significant differences between the treatment and control families
attitudinal conflict. Another evaluation (Wolchik et al., 2000) indicated that the impact is dif-
ferent depending on the initial level
conflict. This evaluation indicated that for parents
who initially had a more negative attitude, the program led to an improvement
tude to the other parent.
Although the effect that longer parenting programs have on interparental conflict remains
unclear, there is strong evidence that several
these programs promote high-quality
parenting. All of the studies indicate that the programs had an impact on the majority of the
measures of high-quality parenting. Two of the studies indicate that impact is different,
depending on the parents’ initial relationship with their child (Wolchik et al., 1993, 2000).
The results for both New Beginnings studies suggest that parents who initially had worse
relationships with their children benefited more from the program than the parents who ini-
tially had better relationships with their children.
Additionally, the evaluations find that children benefit from the longer parenting pro-
Forgatch, 2001; Wolchik et al.,
Wolchik, Sandler et al., 2002). For
example, evaluation of the New Beginnings program found short-term effects for the pro-
gram to improve children’s externalizing problems, particularly for those who had higher
levels of problems at the time they entered the program (Wolchik et al., 2000). A long-term
evaluation of the program (Wolchik, Sandler et al.,
indicates that children benefit from
years after the intervention on a wide range of measures, including reduced
levels of mental health problems and reduced use of alcohol, marijuana, and drugs. Further
analyses revealed that children who were at the highest
of developing mental health
problems (due to high levels of parental stress, interparental conflict, and child externalizing
problems) benefited the most from this program (Dawson-McClure, Sandler, Wolchik,
Milsap, in press). Illustratively, there was a
reduction in the prevalence of diagnosed
years later in the high-risk children whose mothers participated in the
program as compared with the high-risk children in the comparison group.
In summary, the results
the longer term programs provide encouraging evidence about
improving parenting and child adjustment, and a newly emerging program shows promise of
reducing the occurrence of interparental conflict. There is some evidence that short-term
programs reduce interpersonal conflict but no evidence that they improve parenting or child
Psychoeducational Programs for High-Conflict Families
Targeted psychoeducational programs have also been developed specifically for high-
conflict families. According to a survey
court-connected parenting education programs
Blaisure, 1999), a substantial
number of communities offer some type of
psychoeducational programs to high-conflict families.
review of these programs indicates
that long (i.e., Kibler, Sanchez,
Baker-Jackson, 1994; McIsaac
Finn, 1999) and short
formats (ie., Maricopa County Family Court,
are used to provide services to these
the targeted high-conflict programs indicates that they
include activities to reduce interparental conflict, but it remains unclear
they provide activ-
ities directed at high-quality parenting. The programs reviewed (i.e., Kibler et al., 1994;
Finn, 1999) discuss the impact that interparental conflict has on children and
present skills to reduce conflict, but they do not include activities that focus on the parents’
relationship with their children (i.e., parental warmth or limit setting). Although a substantial
number of counties implement psychoeducational programs for high-conflict families
Blaisure, 1999), we have not found any published evaluations using appropriate
control groups on the effectiveness of these programs. Future research, therefore, is needed
to determine if these programs indeed reduce interparental conflict and improve children’s
IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
The goal of this review was to examine psychoeducational programs aimed at reducing
interparental conflict and preventing the harmful effects of interparental conflict
divorced and separated families. We reviewed a broad range of pro-
grams, from those that are delivered universally to those that are targeted at high-conflict
families, and including shorter and more intensive programs. The findings from the review
will be summarized in terms of four questions: What factors are programs currently trying to
does that compare to the factors that research supports as positively affecting
the adjustment of children to interparental conflict? What is the scientific evidence of the
effectiveness of these programs? and What are directions for future program development?
What factors are targeted for change?
Programs are currently targeting a broad range of
factors. The most prominent focus of programs is on reducing some aspect of interparental
conflict. Universal programs attempt to reduce conflict by providing information about how
conflict affects children and legal options to resolve conflicts, attempting to arouse motiva-
tion to not expose children to conflict, and teaching skills
reduce conflict. Short-term pro-
grams tend to focus more
providing information and motivational films, whereas longer
term programs spend more time on skill building. Programs that are targeted for high-
conflict families focus most intensively on strategies to reduce conflict.
Programs also focus, but to a lesser extent,
parenting. The greatest emphasis of the
short-term universal programs is
promoting contact between children and the
custodial parent, either by emphasizing the importance of both parents or by teaching skills
to remove barriers to parenting. Although some programs attempt to teach cooperation be-
tween the parents, others focus on parallel parenting. Despite its demonstrated relations to
children’s adjustment, fewer programs teach quality of parenting, and those tend to be the
longer programs that focus extensively
does the program content relate to the research evidence
factors that affect chil-
dren’s adjustment to interparental conflict?
provides an encouraging menu
tors that might be the targets of interventions. Programs are currently targeting multiple
aspects of interparental conflict that are identified in Figure
However, it is less clear that
programs are targeting the multiple mediators or moderators of the effects of conflict on chil-
dren. For example, messages about conflict resolution, children’s cognitions or emotional
security, and quality parenting of the custodial and noncustodial parent provide important
directions for future program development. In addition, many programs focus on factors that
have no known relationship to improving children’s adjustment such as stages of divorce or
grief stages. More intensive programs do focus more on issues such as quality of parenting.
What is the scientijic evidence of program effectiveness?
There are very few studies that
provide scientifically credible evidence concerning the effects of these programs. Thus,
although the programs enjoy a high level
satisfaction from the public and by the courts,
we know relatively little about their effects. It may be appropriate and natural in the
276 FAMILY COURT REVIEW
development of new services to meet a public need that strong evaluation of the effects of
those services follows assessment of public acceptability of the program. However, now
that the programs have clearly established their acceptability to the public and are wide-
spread, evaluation of their effects becomes an urgent issue. Some evaluations
grams provide evidence of reducing interparental conflict, but few programs report on
effects on ongoing litigation, parenting,
effects on children’s adjustment. The longer term
parenting programs have been evaluated in well-designed studies and have shown very
encouraging evidence to improve quality parenting and children’s adjustment. The most
intensive programs to work with high-conflict families have received only limited evaluation.
directions forfuture program development?
Three directions for future pro-
gram development are suggested. First, there is a need for a stronger partnership between
program development and evaluation. Although it is difficult to conduct strong evaluations
for court programs with proper research designs and control groups, without such studies
we cannot learn whether innovative services are having their intended effects. Second, find-
ings from more basic research on interparental conflict provide significant leads about fac-
tors that might be targeted in future programs. Third, future programs might integrate and
combine effective strategies to better address the needs of divorcing families. For example,
short-term programs might be used to motivate parents to become involved in more intensive
programs that address their needs. Also, strategies with demonstrated efficacy might be
combined to develop multicomponent packages that best meet the needs
families. For example, strategies that are effective in reducing conflict might be combined
with strategies that improve the quality of parenting to have the maximal effect to reduce
conflict and improve the lives of children in these families.
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Mutthew Goodman, Ph.D.,
at the Prevention Research Center
Durya Bonds. Ph.D.. isapostdoctora1,fellow at the Prevention Research CenteratArizonaState Universit).
Irwin Sandler; Ph. D., is a ptwfessor ofpsychology and director
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PROGRAMS FOR INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT
Sanford Bravez Ph.D., is a professor ofpsychology and coprincipal investigator
the Prevention Research
Center at Arizona State Univer,sity.
principal investigator of the Dads