In the UK, it’s estimated that around 11% of all children, and 27% of children in workless families, have parents in a distressed relationship.
Decades of international studies have demonstrated the negative effects of such a situation on children’s life chances. Yet a 2016 report, conducted by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) with child development expert Professor Gordon Harold, found that parental relationships are a neglected area of early intervention, and the evidence on how policymakers can reduce conflict is weak.
In response, the British Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has set out to try to find out which interventions actually work. So how is the conflict affecting these children’s lives, and what can government do about it?
Effects of parental conflict
Beginning in infancy, destructive interparental conflict — defined by experts as “frequent, intense, and poorly resolved” — can impact several of children’s developmental needs, from emotional to academic.
For example, young children who witness severe conflict often exhibit a marked increase in temper tantrums and aggression. This is associated with long-term problems like academic failure, substance misuse and depression.
While policymakers have often focused on family breakdown, the EIF’s research emphasised the role of aspects like communication and coping with stress.
“It wasn’t about relationship structure, it was about relationship quality.” said Ben Lewing, EIF’s Assistant Director of Policy & Practice. Up until now, discussing the quality of parents’ relationships has been a “taboo subject,” he said. “We need to change that, because the impact on children is so significant.”
For decades, the government had funded support for couple’s relationships, but the report made them pay more attention to couples with children, said Julia Gault, Deputy Director of Family Policy at DWP.
People have long understood the negative impacts on children living in an environment with domestic abuse, but the research demonstrated that “we should be worrying about children experiencing conflict below that threshold,” she said. “It could still be damaging to them in quite a significant way.”
Finding the right interventions
The EIF report on parental conflict found some interventions from around the world with promising evidence, but few were robust enough to recommend to policymakers. However, “the quality of evidence was pretty weak,” said Lewing, and many of the studies on interventions only looked at outcomes for parents, not children.
The best interventions, which showed positive impacts on parental relationships, used methods including helping parents cope with stress management, modelling and roleplaying effective communication, and intersecting at key moments of difficulty—such as the transition to parenthood.
This often includes an add-on to pre-existing programs for parents of children with behavioural difficulties. For example, Incredible Years is a 12-week course of facilitator-led 2.5 hour sessions for parents, which includes group discussions, videotape modelling and homework assignments. The Advanced add-on program includes extra sessions to help improve the quality of interparental relationships, focusing on communication skills, problem solving and self-control.
Testing them out
Following EIF’s findings, therefore, DWP developed the Reducing Parental Conflict program to test eight interventions in four regions across England. This consists of programs like Incredible Years Advanced, targeted to specific parents referred with diagnosed problems, and other programs for those with an increased risk of parental conflict—like Triple P Family Transitions, a five-session intervention for small groups of individual parents experiencing difficulties as a result of divorce or separation.
The department chose interventions which have both a reasonable promise of impact, Gault explained, and are easy to roll out at sufficient scale to build an evidence base. The aim is to report their findings in 2021 or 2022.
Participating local authorities are working to develop the most effective referral mechanism of parents to these programs. The plan is for parents who need the extra relationship support to be referred from frontline staff such as social workers, health visitors and nurses. These staff engage in conversations with families on a regular basis, and therefore can expose any potential issues with the parental relationship and offer the programs on a voluntary basis.
One would expect people might be uncomfortable with the government getting involved in personal relationships. So far, at least, there’s been “remarkably little” pushback, said Gault. Local service providers instinctively understood it was an issue, she said, but previously felt like they had nothing to do about it.
As well as helping parents and their children, a key priority is building the capacity to evaluate these interventions. “The arrangements for collecting data and showing progress are not yet well-established at a local level,” said Lewing. “We’re really keen to build the UK evidence base, and to generate advice for local commissioners so they can have confidence in interventions.”
Embedding the approach
“If we’re going to leave a legacy from this program,” Gault said, “it needs to be embedded into the consciousness of the systems that are working around families and children.”
But it is unclear how much more funding will be pushed from central government to the local administrations responsible for such interventions, she explained, and success currently relies on the expertise and enthusiasm of a small number of people.
To help cement the program, DWP has a senior ambassador from a local authority on secondment, and have created a cross-government group to connect other departments to the agenda.
Along with the testing in four regions, all local authorities are being offered some support on parental conflict, such as training for frontline practitioners. “Even though we are in such financially straightened times,” said Gault, the local authorities “recognise this is an issue which feels very real to them.”
The research suggests that these interventions have the potential to improve parental relationships, boost child welfare and likely also save money in the long-run.
Lewing recommended exercising patience, however, as “people for a while have been overpromising” on early intervention as a quick fix for problems. “If we are to see the benefits,” he said, “it needs to be sustained over a long term.”
(Picture credit: Unsplash)