Exploring parental relationship support: A qualitative study

Publication Details

Publication date: 28 April 2017
Edited by: Laura Stock and Tom McBride

Authors: Meg Callanan, Ruth Hudson, Fatima Husain, Ellie Roberts

This report aims to map the range of relationship support services and provision available in five case-study areas, to explore in depth:

  • the perceived aims of relationship support;
  • the current range of provision available and perceived gaps;
  • how services are currently commissioned and provided;
  • access and take-up of support, with a particular focus on families in or at risk
    of poverty;
  • views on effective provision and how services monitor and evaluate their
    provision;
  • recommendations for how provision could be improved.

Key findings

The new qualitative research reinforces previous findings that support for relationships is not easily available within existing family services. Respondents describe a patchwork of largely uncoordinated relationship support provision across the country, which appears to be inconsistent in level and availability.

The qualitative work also highlights barriers to increasing the focus on early intervention to support parental relationships within family services.

  • Families in or at risk of poverty experience are felt to be less likely to take up relationship support and experience significant barriers to accessing these services.
  • The perceived stigma attached to seeking help for relationship issues and the limited availability of affordable support are seen as key barriers for parents.
  • There is also a lack of consistent understanding as to what is meant by relationship support services. Current provision takes different forms, ranging from formal relationship support services, such as counselling and mediation, usually offered by specialist organisations, to more generic early help provided by family support workers or health visitors, which may touch on relationship issues.
  • Respondents clearly identify a link between the quality of parental relationships and child outcomes, but are not able to provide evidence of relationship support services being currently commissioned with the primary aim of improving child outcomes.

Information on how best to deliver relationship support services is felt to be currently under-developed, and this is seen to inhibit more concerted action on this issue.

  • Local stakeholders recognise that relationship support is a means to improve outcomes for children. However, they feel that it is challenging to act upon this message, given that child outcomes are not usually measured and the research evidence in this area is limited.
  • The lack of clarity about how to measure parental relationship distress and measure the impact of services makes it difficult for commissioners to make the case locally for investment in this agenda. For example, the link between parental relationship conflict and outcome frameworks used for children and family services is not clear. It is felt that the link between these things needs to be developed in order to incentivise commissioners to focus on this area.
  • More clarity on what we know about what has been shown to be effective for specific groups or types of family problems is felt to be crucial to increasing local action on parental relationship support.

A important final point is that current funding pressures in local areas are felt to be leading to a narrow focus on meeting statutory duties, which means that relationship support is not close to being seen as a priority for local investment. The fact that there is no natural ‘home’ or service area to take responsibility for parental conflict and relationship support locally is also seen to be a barrier to increasing the focus in this area.

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