Two Families Now, an interactive computer program, is meant to strengthen parenting skills through what is one of the most wrenching transitions a family will ever go through.

EUGENE — In the throes of a sometimes acrimonious divorce last winter from his wife of 20 years, Douglas Cone would catch himself doing and saying things he knew weren't good for his three children.

"There have been times when it has gotten ugly," the 44-year-old Eugene accountant said. "It's been difficult to wade through this in a constructive way and not get caught up and let my feelings about (his soon-to-be ex-wife) overflow on them."

It's still a delicate dance, he said, with the divorce set to be final next month. But Cone is convinced that an online parenting program he recently completed has helped him keep the missteps to a minimum.

Cone is one of 69 participants so far in a continuing study to gauge the effectiveness of Two Families Now, a locally produced, interactive computer program meant to strengthen parenting skills through what is one of the most wrenching transitions a family will ever go through.

"(The kids) are already struggling as it is — divorce is never a good thing," said Cone, whose children are 20, 17 and 13. "This just gave me a lot of good tools to help me keep my emotions and opinions from negatively affecting my kids in the process. It helped me work through some of the most challenging situations."

With grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $1 million, Eugene-based IRIS Educational Media produced the program, turning to a broad range of experts to help design and review it.

The firm, which produces research-based, mostly online training programs for educators and parents, is also conducting the study of its effectiveness, and hopes to sign up 80 or so more participants before an October deadline.

Broken into four sections, the program offers brief video lessons, interactive assessments, mastery exercises, printable resource materials, podcasts, a journal tool and an online participant discussion forum.

It covers a lot of ground: how to interrupt the stress cycle, protect children from conflict, effectively communicate, establish new routines, handle the transition between households, respect the child's relationship with the other parent, and more.

Former IRIS research scientist Laura Backen Jones wrote the grant proposal and serves as co-investigator on the project. It was a discussion with Donna Austin, who manages Lane County's Family Mediation Program, that inspired her to create and test such a program, she said.

Through Austin's program, any parent going through divorce in Lane County is required to take a four-hour class called Focus on Children.

"Donna just felt like that was a taste, but parents really need more," Backen Jones said, adding that attendance at those classes is spotty given the county's inability to properly enforce the requirement.

A wealth of research shows that divorce can have both immediate and lasting negative effects on children. Children of divorce are more likely to have academic, behavioral and mental health problems and are more likely themselves to divorce.

Though divorce rates have declined slightly since the 1990s, it's estimated that nearly half of all unions end in divorce or separation. That means that many children — by one estimate, 1 million every year — are vulnerable.

"What we're targeting (with the program) are the risk factors that we know affect children's long-term development," explained Backen Jones, who has a doctorate in developmental psychology. The biggest predictor of success, she added, is for a child to have a strong, positive relationship with at least one of the parents.

The program takes about four hours to complete, but study participants have six weeks to do so.

Parents going through divorce or separation are typically stressed and overburdened already, so it was crucial to give them the flexibility to complete the program at a leisurely pace, on their own time, said IRIS CEO Nell Caraway, the other project co-investigator.

That made all the difference for Marianne Senhouse-Wilson, a Springfield mother of two and full-time Oregon State Police forensics scientist.

"I could always stop and restart whenever it was a good time," said Senhouse-Wilson, whose children are 4 and 6. "I would do the modules while my children were sleeping. I have to wait until they're asleep to have my 'me' time."

For financial reasons, Senhouse-Wilson, 31, and her soon-to-be ex-husband continue to share the home they own together, taking turns staying with friends and families so they don't overlap.

The situation is "a bit rough," she said, but she said the program has helped. She also has checked out library books on parenting through divorce.

"This is different because the visual media has an advantage," she said, particularly for those who don't like or have time to read. "And for someone who has already encountered the information, it's good reinforcement. And because it's visual, it gives you examples of what to do and what not to do, and it's easy to kind of come up with your own scripts."