Online program supports mental well-being of parents and children affected by divorce

Na Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS), will investigate the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary effectiveness of digital mindfulness-informed interventions for divorced or separated parents in psychological distress .

More than 8.1 million children in the United States live in divorced or separated families. All parents negotiating custody in a divorce or separation must take a parenting course. There are parent training programs that have been shown to reduce mental health problems in children after divorce. However, the benefits are significantly lower when parents are in psychological distress.

“We know that these divorcing or separating parents are more vulnerable to environmental stressors, and they also experience a greater number of environmental stressors,” Zhang said.

To address this problem, Zhang will combine an existing, evidence-based online parenting intervention called the New Beginnings Program with a new mindfulness training tool. It will then assess the feasibility, acceptability and preliminary effectiveness of this approach. The New Beginnings program, co-developed by Sharlene Wolchik and Irwin Sandler of Arizona State University, helps teach parents effective parenting and co-parenting tools to support their child’s healthy development after divorce or separation.

This work is supported by an NIH K01 mentorship grant. Zhang will be mentored by recognized experts in the field, Kim Gans at UConn and Sharlene Wolchik at Arizona State University. The project will also include five collaborators: Judson Brewer, Brown University; Larissa Duncan, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Aaron Lyon, University of Washington; Kirby Deeater-Deckard, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Lynn Katz, University of Washington. This work will be carried out in the department of HDFS and the Collaborative Institute for Health, Intervention and Policy (InCHIP).

“These mentors and collaborators will be of great help to me in learning to [carry out] this grant and learn the skills I need to succeed,” says Zhang.

Zhang and her collaborators will create a mindfulness training intervention with input from parents and stakeholders in the family court system.

In preparation for this project, Zhang joined an online group for divorced mothers. There, she noticed that the conflicts between these mothers and their ex-partners sometimes stemmed from overreactions to a minor disagreement. Mindfulness can help parents avoid these kinds of overreactions and the snowball of negative emotions and consequences that follow.

Mindfulness, in this context, is a non-judgmental state of awareness. Being aware of how you are feeling at any given moment, and not labeling it as “good” or “bad,” can allow you to better manage that emotional response rather than letting it fly away.

“I hope that mindfulness, that non-judgmental awareness, will foster a mindset of equanimity, peace and compassion not only for (participating parents) themselves, but also for the other parent and their child, and keep in mind the goal of post-divorce co-parenting and the healthy development of their child,” Zhang said.

The online mindfulness module will help parents better observe and regulate their emotions through the development of mindfulness techniques like formal meditation or informal practices by simply checking their state of mind. The purpose of this work is to help divorced parents and their child develop a healthy mind.

“The idea is that they take care of themselves first and learn to relate to their own suffering and that will lay a good foundation for how they can relate to their children who are going through this with them,” Zhang said.

While in every state divorced parents must complete parenting training, not all states allow online interventions, including Connecticut. Zhang says she hopes conducting this research to further validate the effectiveness of online interventions could help pave the way for policy change.

This is the first external grant from Zhang’s lab, the Family Resilience and Mindfulness Empowerment Lab (FRAME)has received since its inception in 2020.

Follow UConn Research on Twitter & LinkedIn.

Karen O. Fielding