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Having positive conversations about relationship difficulties: a new guide for local areas


15 Nov 2022

EIF research officer, Simran Motiani introduces our new guide to support practitioners and leads in local areas to effectively engage in conversations with families about the sensitive topic of parental conflict. Simran also highlights how local areas might use the guide and explains how it was developed in partnership with practitioners. 

Parental conflict is a sensitive topic amongst families, with parents experiencing relationship difficulties often feeling ashamed, judged or misunderstood by others. This can make it difficult for local areas to begin to address parental conflict in families and to engage parents in relationship support services. While using certain forms of empathetic communication and language can help to alleviate parents’ negative feelings about their relationship difficulties, knowing exactly how to have positive and inclusive conversations with families about parental conflict remains a complex and challenging task for local areas. Some of the challenges faced by local areas include:

  • The use of the term “parental conflict” can deter parents who don’t see themselves as being ‘in conflict’ from seeking support. For example, some parents assume their family difficulties only relate to issues surrounding the child, rather than their relationship with the other parent.
  • Depending on their cultural background and their personal experiences, different families may interpret the same language in a different way. For instance, some families may experience more stigma when asked to speak openly about their relationship difficulties outside of their family context.
  • The language preferences of individuals might vary. For example, many autistic people prefer to use identity-first language (e.g., ‘autistic person’) , rather than person-first language (‘person with autism’), although, this is not always the case.

EIF’s new guide Talking with families about parental relationships, builds on our previous work on language principles and offers practical guidance to support practitioners and local leads who provide relationship support to families. The resource includes practical tips on how to speak to all parents about parental conflict, as well a set of guiding questions for practitioners and local leads to reflect on how to use inclusive language with specific groups of vulnerable families, including parents with poor mental health, minority ethnic parents, parents belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, parents of children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), and separated or separating parents. These groups of families were selected as they may be deterred from accessing relationship support as their experiences may not be well-represented. This guide is the first in a series on talking with families about parental relationships. The next guide will focus on distinguishing between parental conflict and domestic abuse.

Using the guidance

The ultimate aim of this guidance is to help practitioners and leads in local areas increase families’ engagement with relationship support and reduce the risk of parental conflict negatively impacting child outcomes. The guidance can be used by practitioners and leads in local areas in different ways, in order to build their knowledge and to increase their overall confidence when having conversations with families about their relationship difficulties. For instance, the guide can act as:

  • a training resource for practitioners new to supporting parents, or particular groups of parents, with relationship difficulties.
  • a ‘refresher’ for more experienced practitioners, to be reviewed periodically or immediately prior to meeting with parents experiencing relationship difficulties.
  • a guiding document for both local leads and practitioners to begin to think about how to use inclusive language.

Producing the guidance

This guide is the result of several discussions we had with practitioners across England, and with EIF colleagues with experience in working with local areas and families. To develop our recommendations, we held 10 focus groups with practitioners across England. Over 100 practitioners expressed interest in the focus groups and 45 practitioners from various local areas participated. To collect diverse perspectives, each focus group discussed talking with a different group of parents about relationship difficulties, including parents with poor mental health, minority ethnic parents, parents belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, parents of children with SEND, and separated or separating parents. Additionally, when drafting the guidance, we repeatedly collected feedback from both colleagues and practitioners to ensure the final resource accurately reflected the discussions.

Practitioners across all the focus groups highlighted common principles for talking with families about parental relationships, such as , the importance of avoiding professional jargon in conversation, and knowing when to apologise to families. Additionally, within each focus group practitioners discussed ways to ensure conversations are sensitive to specific groups of parents when providing relationship support and how this may require continuous reflection from practitioners. For this reason, in the guide we provide general tips for talking with all families about their relationships as well as reflective questions tailored to each group of families.

While this guidance is based on insights from practical experience, we are eager to improve our understanding of important considerations when talking with parents about relationship difficulties. Please feel free to share your questions and feedback with us, as well as possible additions or revisions you might suggest. We know that as our general understanding of inclusive language evolves, this guide will be revised and updated.