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EIF report

Interparental relationships, conflict and the impacts of poverty: An overview

This overview summarises a set of EIF outputs about why action to tackle interparental conflict matters for children and families who are in or at risk of poverty.

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New EIF work has looked specifically at the implications for parental relationships in families experiencing poverty and disadvantage. DWP analysis shows that 28% of all children living in workless couple-parent families, live with parents who report having a distressed relationship. This is almost three times greater than is reported where both parents are working.

There is growing interest in tackling parental conflict and supporting parental relationships. In January 2016, the government doubled funding for relationship support to £70 million. Since 2015, 12 local authorities have been exploring ways to embed support for parental relationships within their ‘Local Family Offer’. Most recently, the Improving lives: Helping workless families policy paper puts forward a set of proposals to address parental conflict as a key component of supporting disadvantaged families.

Supporting parent relationships, tackling conflict and improving outcomes for children

Our findings reinforce earlier research that tackling couple conflict and the quality of parental relationships is an important focus for early intervention activity.

This work suggests that families who may benefit most from this support may be least likely to receive it for a range of reasons to do with service availability, cost and barriers such as perceived stigma.

This is an area that needs greater focus, as the evidence suggests that supporting parental relationships and tackling conflict for families who are under economic stress has the potential to improve outcomes for children.

Relationship support services in the UK are currently under-developed. The voluntary sector is the current main provider of services, but has operated in an unstable funding environment for many years. There is a clear need to grow and invest in UK relationship support provision and embed a focus on parental relationships in local systems and services.

There are interventions which have evidence of effectiveness linked to interparental relationship issues and parenting in the context of poverty which could be delivered more widely. Embedding relationship support in mainstream services, such as children’s centres and health visiting, or within wider multi-agency early intervention systems offers the potential to overcome access barriers and reach families early. Targeting transition points – such as new parenthood, separation, a child’s transition into school or when parents risk falling into poverty – offers opportunities to reach families before relationship difficulties escalate.

Poverty is a multi-faceted issue and living in poverty places families at risk of multiple adverse outcomes. Multi-faceted interventions – which support parental relationships alongside supporting parenting and development of, for example, coping skills or techniques for dealing with stress – also have potential in relation to this group of families and wider efforts to reduce poverty and tackle worklessness.

What needs to happen now?

Future action on this agenda should focus on the following priorities:

Supporting local areas to prioritise this as part of their overall service delivery to children, young people and families, with a strong focus on outcomes

  • This means supporting a greater focus on inter-parental relationships and tackling parental conflict within family services.
  • This might include developing some of the tools practitioners need to identify and assess dimensions of relationship distress, to match family need to appropriate interventions, and to capture outcomes (including child outcomes).
  • It also includes the development of specialist relationship support and a focus on improving access for families in poverty and other vulnerable groups that are less likely to access help.

Developing and communicating the UK evidence in relation to improving child outcomes in families facing poverty and disadvantage

  • The UK evidence-base on ‘what works’ needs to be grown through investment in the design and evaluation of programmes developed in the UK and trialling effective programmes from abroad.
  • This includes further testing of interventions for families in or at risk of poverty, as well as other disadvantaged groups, such as separated families and minority groups, in order to better understand what works for whom and in what circumstances, including how to reach disadvantaged groups.
  • This work has highlighted a number of promising programmes which have good evidence and need to be invested in and tested in the UK.

Shifting the debate on effective family policy

EIF’s new research helps to shift the debate about effective family policy away from a focus on family stability or structure (whether parents are married, divorced or separated) and towards more important questions about the quality of the relationship between parents and the role this has in driving outcomes for children.

It points to the need to address parental conflict as part of wider early intervention efforts, where a focus on the parent–child relationship by itself is often insufficient. It pinpoints the greater psychological stress which can be experienced by families under economic stress or in poverty, and the impact that this has on how children fare later in life. In combination with other policies to address family’s access to work and income, addressing parental conflict is a critical component of improving outcomes for these children and their life-chances – and ultimately those of their own children.

The recent attention given by government to these issues is encouraging. The 12 Local Family Offer areas show that there is real appetite for developing services to tackle parental conflict locally and to embed this in the existing family system. A sustained focus on parental conflict support in response to this evidence is now needed to ensure we are responding to what is a key signal of risk in relation to children’s life-chances.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.