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For New Parents, a Little Help Goes a Long Way

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For New Parents, a Little Help Goes a Long Way

Forty-eight Hours of Group Support Can Avert Divorce, Say Berkeley Psychologists

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Posted October 6, 1999

The risk of marital strain for couples having babies in the 1990s is higher today, and the level of support is lower, than 10 years ago, according to new findings from an ongoing Berkeley study of young families.

Still, by spending only 48 hours -- once a week over the course of six months -- with other new parents in a support group led by mental health professionals, wives and husbands can avoid unnecessary stress and divorce, said the researchers, Berkeley psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan.

The Cowans' findings appear in a new edition of their 1992 book, "When Partners Become Parents," out this month. Begun in 1979, the study of new families is being conducted at the campus's Institute of Human Development.

In a foreword to the new edition, family researcher John Gottman of the University of Washington calls it "the most important book on the prevention of divorce than has ever been written."

The Cowans' latest research was gleaned from a group of 100 middle-class, Bay Area parents with children who entered kindergarten in the 1990s. These parents are compared to a similar group of married couples who 10 years ago had their first children, only to experience a sudden increase in stress and divorce.

Philip Cowan, a psychology professor and director of the institute, said that declining job security and health insurance benefits since the 1980s have increased the risk of marital stress in the new group.

Meanwhile, levels of clinical depression are as high in the Cowans' second study as they were in the 1980s, affecting one third of the parents. About a quarter of the couples in both studies had serious marital discord and, in the first group, 20 percent already were divorced when their children entered kindergarten.

In both studies, by the time the youngsters were in kindergarten, 10 percent of them were having school trouble, including academic problems, difficulty getting along with other children, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior.

"Even more than before, couples having babies at the turn of the 21st century face rugged terrain," the Cowans write.

"The good news is that a little concerted effort can change these dismaying statistics," said Carolyn Pape Cowan, adjunct professor of psychology and co-director of Berkeley's Schoolchildren and Their Families Project.

She said that couples met in small groups with mental health professionals and talked about their struggles -- such as having new babies or young children entering kindergarten, or the unexpected impact of these transitions on their relationships. The result was that no divorces occurred in the group with new babies for three years following birth. By comparison, 15 percent of families without group support were divorced in that period.

In the families with preschoolers entering kindergarten, the Cowans demonstrated that the benefits of the support for parents lasted for six years in the lives of their children and still was detectable in higher test scores and fewer behavior problems at the end of the fourth grade.

"It is quite amazing that we could affect these families so profoundly with so little professional help," said Carolyn Cowan. "We have shown that we can keep couples together in the early years of parenthood. Now, our newest results tell us that improving the relationship between the parents has a positive impact on parenting, and the children reap the benefits in more successful adjustment to school for years to come."



October 6 - 12, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 9)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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