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Celebrating Healthy Relationships Week: what we have learned about reducing parental conflict


30 Oct 2020

Donna Molloy, EIF’s director for policy and practice, reflects on some of the major themes that emerged during our Healthy Relationships Week series of online events.

Back in 2016, we started a programme of work on the impact of parental conflict on outcomes for children. Right from the beginning, we realised that parental conflict was different from most areas of early intervention, which tend to be longstanding, mainstream social policy priorities. Unlike improving children’s mental health or preventing youth crime, the quality of the parental relationship and how this impacts on outcomes for children was often neglected in child or adult services. Over the past four years, we have made tackling harmful parental conflict and its effects on children a major focus for both our own work at EIF and our efforts to support national government and local public services.

Held in late October 2020, Healthy Relationships Week really brought to life the progress that’s been made on this agenda. It is certainly no longer neglected – the three webinars sold out within a week, and Twitter was filled with messages about how people are supporting and taking forward work on parental relationships, from Brighton to Hull to Northern Ireland. Yet as Ben Lewing pointed out in his blog before the week started, we can’t take this progress for granted: it takes time to embed a new focus or ways of working in services, and we need to continue to invest in efforts to reduce parental conflict.

A quick recap if you missed it then, before I draw out some of the themes that came from the webinars:

At the heart of week, though, were the three webinars: on change in a Covid-19 world, healthy relationships as part of everyday services, and parenting when separated. It was fantastic to bring together almost 300 virtual participants, 10 fabulous speakers – all of whom are grappling with parental conflict in their various roles locally – including a parenting coordinator, commissioning manager, couple therapists and a police chief inspector, and 15 small group discussions to share local insights and ideas.

Some people talked about how this agenda felt urgent but still new, and requiring different terms to describe support that was neither to improve parenting skills nor to tackle domestic abuse.

It wasn’t until May 2020 that we became aware of the term parental conflict and started to think how we could develop our work. We were in the middle of a pandemic and it would have been very easy for us to just say “it’s not the time”, but we knew that this was an opportunity that we needed to grasp.’

Improving digital skills and building use of social media was a common theme, although different organisations had had very different experiences of how easily they had been able to move into the digital world, and practitioners were worried about the lack of opportunities to spend time with families and respond to on-verbal cues.

In Suffolk, our new Facebook page worked really well to share what’s on: for example the recent seminar had 1,200 shares, which wasn’t happening before, with the way we were publicising them.’

Engaging fathers, who are often less likely to be reached by support services, and separated parents was a key objective for many local areas, and the metaphor of gatekeeping resonated strongly with people:

The child has to go through the gate with safety and care to explore both sides of their family life, and neither side should keep it, the child should never be kept away from the gate.’

Another theme which came through was the importance of taking account of diversity and difference, whether for families of different ethnic or community groups, or for families living in urban or rural communities. People talked about the opportunities that had been opened up by no longer having to physically travel to meet with families or practitioners, but also digital poverty, the greater risk of impact on mental health, and the lack of a transition when the camera abruptly turns off.

All three webinars kept coming back to the importance of impact. Although local areas are being innovative in their responses to pandemic, it is still too early to really understand what difference this is making. More broadly, there are increasingly positive signs that a focus on relationships is exactly what parents and children need, and we need to measure the impact of this agenda using reliable measures at local level.

There is still much to be done, but Healthy Relationships Week has shown that, despite the current challenges, we are making real progress. The quality of the parental relationship and how this impacts on outcomes for children is increasingly now recognised and seen as an important focus for child, parent and family services.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.