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Children in the Middle

Ages 3-15

Rating: Level 3


Children in the Middle is a skills-based program that helps children and parents deal with the children’s reactions to divorce. The program is built around a 37-minute video for parents and a 30-minute video for children. The parent video teaches the skills parents need to avoid putting children into the middle of their conflicts. The child video helps children understand why parents divorce. The program is designed to deal with problems such as 1) loss of concentration and attention, 2) declining grades and behavior problems at school, 3) withdrawal from friends, 4) emotional outbursts and health problems, 5) serious anger with one or both parents, and 6) delinquency and substance use. The program needs no special training or licensing to implement.

Parents are usually mandated by domestic relations courts to attend classes held in their communities (at social service agencies, community colleges). A group leader facilitates the adult portion of the program. The first session includes the 37-minute video narrated by a dynamic husband-and-wife team, augmented by realistic scenes of divorce depicting inappropriate and appropriate methods of handling conflict. The tape is stopped at cued discussion points to allow parents to respond to questions about how children feel when caught in loyalty binds and what they can do to resolve the conflicts. Workbook exercises and role-plays give parents a chance to practice new skills. One or two 90- to 120-minute class sessions are typical.

The children’s program may be held at school, with a mental health practitioner, or in groups at social service agencies. Parents and children will view a video together and complete workbook exercises at home or at the practitioner’s office with guidance from the practitioner. Typically, a family counselor will incorporate the materials into a treatment plan consisting of 4 to 10 sessions over 2 to 4 months. Parents are given the What About the Children? booklet and the Parents and Children’s Guidebook to study and complete exercises at home.


Eight evaluations of the program or its components have been conducted. Three studies used random assignment of participants to treatment and control or alternate treatment groups. These studies were conducted in court settings, schools, community agencies, and therapists’ offices in small towns and large cities. More than a thousand families were involved in these evaluations, representing a cross-section of incomes and all major ethnic groups.

The most recent evaluation compared Children in the Middle (n=329) to another divorce education program, Children First in Divorce (n=278). Parents mandated to attend divorce education in Jacksonville, Fla., were randomly assigned to one of the treatment groups. A control group (n=208) was assembled in Birmingham, Ala., which is similar to Jacksonville in region and participant demographics but where divorce education was not mandated for parents. The sample was 78 percent European-American, 16.2 percent African-American, and 5.7 percent “other.” Racial composition was not significantly different among the three groups. Parents in the Children in the Middle group received an abbreviated version of the program consisting of one 3-hour session on communication skills and parenting skills, emphasizing ways to keep children out of parental conflict. Parents were given a pretest, a posttest, and a follow-up test 3 months after the class.


In general, the evaluations find that after completing the Children in the Middle program parents became less angry toward their ex-spouses and dramatically reduced their children’s exposure to conflict. Parental mastery of program skills and reduction of divorce-related behaviors in the children were related to the level of divorce-related relitigation. Compared with divorce education programs that were either based on providing information or informing parents about children’s feelings about divorce, the skills-based Children in the Middle program 1) decreased children’s exposure to parental conflict, 2) decreased the stress children experienced, and 3) increased parental communication skills.

In particular the evaluation in Florida showed that parents who completed Children in the Middle improved the most on parental communication measures. No effects were seen in the level of parental conflict between the groups, but the two treatment group parents kept their children out of conflict significantly more than the control group parents did. Researchers feel that the similarity of results between the two treatment groups could be due to the abbreviated version of Children in the Middle that was used.

Risk Factors


  • Broken home
  • Family management problems/Poor parental supervision and/or monitoring
  • Pattern of high family conflict

Protective Factors


  • Perception of social support from adults and peers
  • Positive / Resilient temperament
  • Social competencies and problem-solving skills


  • Effective parenting
  • Good relationships with parents / Bonding or attachment to family
  • Having a stable family
  • Opportunities for prosocial family involvement


  • SAMHSA: Model Programs


Arbuthnot, Jack, and Donald A. Gordon. 1996. “Does Mandatory Divorce Education Work? A 6-Month Outcome Evaluation.” Family and Conciliation Courts Review 34(1):60–81.

Arbuthnot, Jack, Kevin M. Kramer, and Donald A. Gordon. 1997. “Patterns of Relitigation Following Divorce Education.” Family and Conciliation Courts Review 35(3):269–79.

Kearnes, V., Donald A. Gordon, and Jack Arbuthnot. 1991. “Children in the Middle: Reducing the Stress of Divorce Through Videotape Modeling.” Washington, DC: American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology.

Kramer, Kevin M., Jack Arbuthnot, Donald A. Gordon, Nicholas J. Roussis, and Joann Hoza. 1998. “Effects of Skill-Based Versus Information-Based Divorce Education Programs on Domestic Violence and Parental Communication.” Family and Conciliation Courts Review 36(1):9–31.

Kurkowski, K., Donald A. Gordon, and Jack Arbuthnot. 1993. “Children Caught in the Middle: A Brief Educational Intervention for Parents.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 20(3/4):139–51.


Donald Gordon, Ph.D.
Center for Divorce Education
1005 E. State St., Ste G
Athens, OH 45701
Phone: (740) 594-2526
Web site: