For new parents, a little help goes a long way; 48 hours of group support can avert divorce, say UC Berkeley psychologists

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- 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 University of California, 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, UC Berkeley psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan.

The Cowans' findings appear in a new edition of their 1992 book, "When Partners Become Parents" (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) 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having school trouble, including academic problems, difficulty getting along with other children, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior.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 twenty-first 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 UC Berkeley's Schoolchildren and Their Families Project.

She said that couples met in small groups with mental health professionals and talked about their struggles with having new babies or young children entering kindergarten, as well as the unexpected impact of these transitions on the roles of wives and husbands and their relationships as couples. The result was that no divorces occurred in the group with new babies for three years following birth. By comparison, 15 percent of other 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."

The Cowans emphasize that the key to these good results was the enhancement of the parents' relationships with each other.

"We see how important it is for parents to devote some time to nurturing their relationship as partners," said Philip Cowan. "If they can't justify that on its own merits, they might think of 'doing it for the children,' since the benefits for the children flowed from improved marriages."

The psychologists are concerned that American society has turned a blind eye on the difficulties of having children in the modern environment.

"In the 20 years since we began our work with partners becoming parents, we are aware of no new family services for American couples starting the challenging work of creating new families," they wrote.

By contrast, the German government has funded for the past two years an ambitious project to apply the Cowans' research. Couples across Germany now are offered the opportunity to share their troubles in "Cowan und Cowan Gruppen," with mental health professionals trained by the Cowans to work with the issues that stress new families.

In the book's foreword, Gottman takes American culture to task for ignoring all that is known about the stresses of creating new families.

"We know what happens and why, and yet....most families move inexorably through the gauntlet toward catastrophe, as if all this knowledge were a secret," said Gottman. "(It) seems like a cruel joke.

"The work of the Cowans stands out as the one shining example that shows it is not all hopeless."


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