The benefits of reducing parental conflict

30 April 2018

By Ben Lewing, senior adviser at the Early Intervention Foundation

This article was originally published in the April issue of First, the magazine of the Local Government Association

Ask anyone whether they think aggressive arguing by parents or giving each other ‘the silent treatment’ is good for their children – you know the answer. We intuitively recognise that frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict between parents can be damaging to children.

Our intuition is now backed up by decades of evidence. Destructive conflict between parents – whether they are together or separated – is associated with a range of problems for children and young people as they grow up, including mental health difficulties, poorer academic outcomes, reduced employment prospects and poor future relationship chances.

The impact of parental conflict on children and young people places significant pressures across a range of public services, and particularly on local government. Reducing parental conflict has the potential to reduce many of these pressures, including on adult and child mental health; home, school and care placement breakdown; worklessness; and domestic abuse.

But we know that interventions which focus solely on the parent–child relationship in the context of ongoing parental conflict are unlikely to be effective. So why have we not already designed public services to focus on reducing conflict between parents?

First, while there are many examples of public services that ‘think family’, the separation of planning and commissioning between children’s services and adult services continues to make a whole-family approach difficult, particularly as budgets contract around statutory responsibilities. This doesn’t help with reducing parental conflict, where the intervention is focused on adults but the benefit is seen in children’s lives.

At an operational level, we continue to have something of a Victorian attitude towards ‘interfering’ in the private relationship between two adults, unless it is explicitly seen as being abusive. This is compounded by the fact that couples tend to seek help with their relationship only when they have already reached crisis point.

Our qualitative research suggests that front-line practitioners in early help, health, schools and social care often lack the confidence and knowledge to raise the issue of relationship problems. This means that they are missing opportunities to identify and support families experiencing parental conflict.

Lastly, we know that financial stress and worklessness increase the risk of destructive conflict between parents. However, low-income families who may benefit most from relationship support are less likely to access it, due to lack of service availability, cost and the stigma of being judged as failing or doing harm.

Despite all this, it now looks like the tide is turning.

Ten pioneering local authorities have adapted their family services, focusing on how they equip their workforce to ask the right questions, and offer advice and support to parents in relationship distress.

DWP is investing millions in new face-to-face interventions that will grow the UK evidence base. They are creating a network of regional advisers and ambassadors to support local authorities and their partners, and funding local workforce development, all as part of the new £39m Reducing Parental Conflict Programme.

And practical tools are available to support local areas, including the EIF Guidebook of evidence-based programmes, a guide for commissioners, and a new self-assessment planning tool, all through the Reducing Parental Conflict Hub.

Yes, improving outcomes for children by reducing parental conflict is difficult for practical, systemic and cultural issues. But we all know it is the right thing to do.

  • Rachel Wild

    what is the evidence base for what approaches are (likely) effective? Baby Steps [NSPCC and rolled out] has parental relationship as a component of a manualised perinatal groupwork programme – internal evaluation showed parental relationships maintained at base level (where usually they drop) at the birth of a new baby when families participated. Baby Steps is NL2 on EiF rating (not yet having ‘effectiveness’ research in trial conditions as eval has been without a control group etc.) What else is known on intervention and support?