An Online Program Supports Mental Wellbeing for Parents and Children Affected by Divorce

Na Zhang has received an NIH/NIMH K01 grant to design an online mindfulness training module and test its feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary efficacy combined with an established behavioral parenting training intervention for divorced or separated parents experiencing psychological distress

Zhang's project will help parents regulate their own emotions and pave the way for cooperative coparenting. (Unsplash)

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

More than 8.1 million children in the U.S. live in divorced or separated families. All parents negotiating custody during a divorce or separation must complete a parenting class. There are parenting training programs that are proven to be effective at reducing children’s post-divorce mental health problems. However, the benefits are significantly lower when the parents are psychologically distressed.

“We know these parents going through divorce or separation have a greater vulnerability to environmental stressors and they also experience a greater number of environmental stressors,” Zhang says.

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. She will then evaluate the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary efficacy of this approach. The New Beginnings Program, co-developed by Sharlene Wolchik and Irwin Sandler at Arizona State University, helps teach parents effective parenting and coparenting tools to support their child’s healthy development after the divorce or separation.

This work is supported through an NIH K01 mentoring grant. Zhang will be mentored by established 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 Deater-Deckard, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Lynn Katz, University of Washington. This work will be carried out in the Department of HDFS and the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP).

“These mentors and collaborators will be a tremendous help to me to learn how to [carry out] this grant and learn the skills I need for success,” Zhang says.

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

In preparation for this project Zhang joined an online group for divorced moms. There, she noticed 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 come from them.

Mindfulness, in this context, is a state of non-judgmental awareness. Being aware of what you’re feeling at a given moment, and not deeming it “good” or “bad,” can allow you to better manage that emotional response rather than allowing it to spiral.

“I’m hoping mindfulness, this non-judgmental awareness, will promote a mindset of equanimity, peacefulness, and compassion not only for (parent participants) themselves but for the other parent as well and their child, and keep the goal in mind which is to coparent after the divorce and the healthy development of their child,” Zhang says.

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 in on their state of mind. The goal of this work is to help both divorced parents and their child developing a healthy mind.

“The idea is they take care of themselves first and learn how 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 says.

While in every state divorcing parents must complete parenting education, 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 a policy change.

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

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