New research: Tackling conflict between parents is a crucial priority for early intervention designed to protect children from the impacts of economic stress

28 April 2017

New research published by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), in collaboration with Professor Gordon Harold from the University of Sussex, affirms the link between a family’s experience of poverty or economic pressure, parental conflict and an increased risk of long-term negative outcomes for children. This finding, combined with new qualitative research highlighting the barriers to accessing relationship support for families experiencing economic stress suggests that those who may benefit most from this kind of support may be least likely to receive it.

EIF sets out strong evidence that poverty and economic pressure increase the risk that parents experience psychological distress, such as anxiety or depression, which is associated with difficulties in the relationship between parents and in the parent-child relationship, and ultimately with long-term negative impacts on children, such as poor mental health or reduced academic attainment.1

28% of children in workless couple-parent families live with parents who report having a distressed relationship. This is almost three times greater than is reported where both parents are working.2

Supporting parental relationships and tackling conflict between parents – regardless of whether they are living together or not – has the potential to improve outcomes for children later in life. However, a range of barriers to accessing relationship support services exist – including the availability of services, cost, and perceived stigma – and EIF shows that these barriers may be greatest for low-income and other hard-to-reach families.

Carey Oppenheim, chief executive at EIF, says:

“Improving the quality of parents’ relationships and helping them to reduce and resolve conflict must be an important part of early intervention designed to protect children from the long-term consequences of living with poverty and economic stress. We need existing services to support parental relationships as well as other types of family and parenting support, in order to address the multiple challenges of worklessness, economic pressure and family stress in a holistic way.”

EIF highlights that relationship support services in the UK are under-developed and under-resourced.3 EIF identifies 13 programmes which focus on the parental and parent–child relationship, some of which have been shown to have positive effects on outcomes for children in poverty. There is a clear need to grow and invest in relationship support provision, to diversify the range of types of intervention provided, and to test the effectiveness of new and existing interventions, whether developed in the UK or imported from other countries.

Tom McBride, director of evidence at EIF, says:

“Evidence indicates that the context of economic pressure can disrupt the inter-parental relationship, which in turn impacts on couples’ parenting abilities and ultimately on long-term outcomes for children. There are overseas interventions which recognise this link and provide effective support to families under economic pressure. However, the UK evidence-base on how relationship support can improve child outcomes is less developed, creating a valuable opportunity for policymakers and practitioners to identify and test new approaches.”

There are interventions which have evidence of effectiveness in supporting parental relationships and conflict resolution that could be delivered more widely. EIF recommends that:

  • A new focus on parental relationships should be embedded in existing family services, such as early help services, services for troubled families, children’s centres or health visiting, to reduce barriers and reach families early, before problems become more deeply entrenched.
  • Crucial ‘transition points’ – such having a child for the first time, a child’s transition to primary or secondary school or facing the prospect of losing work or experiencing poverty – should be targeted to prevent future problems.
  • The potential of interventions that support couple relationships alongside parenting and other skills, such as problem-solving and coping techniques, to reduce the negative impacts of poverty and worklessness should be explored further.

Previous EIF research has highlighted that the quality of the inter-parental relationship – the relationship between parents, irrespective of the family structure or couple status – is a primary influence on children’s long-term wellbeing, mental health and life chances. In particular, experiencing sustained, intense and unresolved conflict between parents is associated with poorer long-term outcomes for children, including health and economic outcomes as an adult.4



  1. EIF’s review of ‘what works’ to support families in poverty is available at: (from 00:01 Fri 28 April). Copies are available in advance, on request. This research was conducted by EIF with Professor Gordon Harold and the University of Sussex, as part of a programme of work on early intervention and poverty, in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).
  2. ‘Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families Analysis and Research Pack’, available at:
  3. EIF’s review of current UK family support provision in five areas is available at: (from 00:01 Fri 28 April). Copies are available in advance, on request. This research was conducted by researchers from NatCen, commissioned by EIF as part of a programme of work on early intervention and poverty, in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).
  4. See EIF report, What Works to Enhance Inter-Parental Relationships and Improve Outcomes for Children? (March 2016):


  • The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) is an independent charity that champions and supports the use of effective early intervention to improve the lives of children, young people and their families, reduce hardship and improve value for money in the long run. As a member of the What Works network, EIF is dedicated to expanding and communicating the evidence-base related to early intervention in the UK. For more information, see:
  • An overview of EIF’s work on early intervention and poverty is available at: (from 00:01 Fri 28 April). Copies are available in advance, on request.
  • Information on a range of evidence-based programmes, including parenting and family interventions, is available via the EIF Guidebook: