Inter-parental conflict and outcomes for children in the contexts of poverty and economic pressure

Publication Details

Publication date: 28 April 2017

Authors: Daniel Acquah, Ruth Sellers, Laura Stock and Gordon Harold

In this report, we provide a review of the evidence on discord between parents (inter-parental conflict) in the contexts of poverty and economic pressure, and the link to poor outcomes for children and adolescents across emotional, behavioural, social, academic and future relationship domains.

Objectives:

  • To understand what is known from the latest scientific research about the links between poverty, economic pressure, family processes and outcomes for children, specifically in relation to the role that conflict between parents (inter-parental conflict) plays relative to child and adolescent development.
  • To use systematic methods to review the peer-reviewed literature examining the evidence on the effectiveness of interventions implemented in the UK and internationally which aim to improve the inter-parental relationship and outcomes for children from families in or at risk of poverty.

Key findings

Poverty and economic stress affect the quality of inter-parental relationships, and this in turn impacts on child outcomes

Longitudinal evidence shows that parents in poverty or under economic pressure are more likely to experience relationship conflict, which can affect outcomes for children. Economic pressure impacts on parents’ mental health, which can cause relationship problems and difficulties with parenting. These difficulties can include reduced parental sensitivity and time spent interacting with their child, and can lead to harsher parenting practices, which are linked to future difficulties for children and adolescents. These difficulties include externalising (such as antisocial behaviour) and internalising (such as anxiety) problems, academic and physical health difficulties, and social and interpersonal relationship problems.

There are a range of factors which are associated with resilience to relationship and parenting difficulties in low income families. These include maternal social support, effective coping strategies, communication and problem-solving, community and neighbourhood support.

There are interventions to address inter-parental conflict for families in or at risk of poverty which are effective, but the UK evidence needs to develop further

The UK evidence of effective programmes to address inter-parental conflict to improve child outcomes is at a relatively early stage. Interventions that have robust evidence are mainly those tested overseas. In this latest report, EIF looked at 13 interventions, which fall into two broad categories:

  • those which focus on the couple and addressing problems between the parents, which in turn impact on the children in the family
  • those with a primary focus on the parent–child relationship, with an additional component to support the couple.

Of the 13 interventions, eight fall into the couple-focused category and five into the parent-focused category.

Through an initial assessment, eight of the 13 programmes were found to have had positive impacts on child outcomes, and showed positive impacts for children in poverty or economic pressure. This is either because they have been implemented with disadvantaged families and shown positive results, or because the authors have demonstrated that results from a universal implementation are not affected by income.

Programmes have a range of impacts, including reduced relationship conflict and disagreements, reduced depression and anxiety for parents, and improved child behaviours and mental health. All of the interventions were developed internationally, but two (Parents as Partners and Incredible Years School Age BASIC and ADVANCED) have been tested and evaluated in the UK.

It is important that relationship support interventions are implemented and evaluated alongside other approaches to reducing poverty and its effects. For example, there is evidence that children living in poverty benefit from school-and community-based interventions designed to improve social and emotional skills directly.

Although we have not yet done empirical analysis of the ‘active ingredients’ of the interventions, one implication of the longitudinal evidence and intervention research is that multi-component interventions (for example: stress and coping skills training, conflict resolution and communication skills training alongside training on parenting) may be the most effective way to respond to the often-complex and multiple problems faced by some families in poverty.

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