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Parental conflict damages children's mental health and life chances

Children's exposure to conflict between their parents - whether parents are together or separated - can put children's mental health and long-term life chances at risk, new research warns today (Tuesday 22 March). 
A review carried out by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and Professor Gordon Harold, of the University of Sussex, for the Department for Work and Pensions found that children's wellbeing can be affected by the quality of the parental relationship.
Specifically, unresolved inter-parental conflict can affect children's long-term mental health and wellbeing while also adversely affecting wider aspects of family functioning, including parenting quality.
The charity warns improving support aimed at promoting positive inter-parental relationships remains a neglected area for early intervention services with little attention paid to it by maternity, children's and family services.
The EIF identified 15 interventions designed to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children available in the UK as part of its review. It found that overall there is limited evidence available and more work is required to build up the evidence base of the effectiveness of these programmes.
Evidence from internationally-run programmes, however, does suggest they have the potential to help improve aspects of couple relationships and parenting practices. This led to more positive outcomes for children.
It is calling for greater national investment in developing and evaluating which services work best to support relationships between parents in different circumstances. 
Key findings of the EIF review published today include:

  • Parents embroiled in hostile and distressed relationships are typically more hostile and aggressive toward their children and are less responsive to their children's needs.
  • Children who witness severe, ongoing and unresolved inter-parental conflict can be aggressive, hostile and violent. Others can develop low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, be suicidal. It also reduces their academic performance and limits the development of their social and emotional skills and ability to form positive relationships themselves, all of which will affect the long term life chances of children.
  • Inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother-child and father-child relationships, with evidence suggesting that the association between inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices may be stronger for the father-child relationship compared to the mother-child relationship.
  • Interventions which seek to improve parenting skills in the presence of frequent, severe and unresolved inter-parental conflict - without addressing that conflict - are unlikely to be successful in improving child outcomes.

Carey Oppenheim, EIF Chief Executive, said:
"Our new research shows that quality inter-parental relationships - regardless of whether the couple is together or not - and the ability to resolve conflict have a huge influence on the long-term life chances of children. Yet, improving the relationships between parents is not taken account of in many children's, maternity and family services.
"Children of all ages can be affected by inter-parental conflict.
"More needs to be done to encourage couples to seek support and make services available to them. We urgently need to develop our knowledge of what types of services and interventions works to support inter-parental relationships in different contexts.
"This is vital to ensure we avoid missing a crucial piece of the jigsaw in improving children's mental health and future life chances."
Professor Gordon Harold, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, said:

"Accumulating evidence points to a substantive message for parents, practitioners and policy makers - how parents relate to each other, whether parents are separated or together, represents one of the strongest influences on children's long-term mental health, wellbeing and future life chances.
"This message is highlighted by very recent UK and international research which shows that even when parenting practices are considered, conflict between parents affects an array of negative mental health and poor outcomes for children, including reduced academic attainment.
"Failing to support the inter-parental relationship where the objective is to promote positive child and adolescent outcomes linked to family experiences, may mean a key influence is substantively missed out. This will not only affect today's generation of children, but  tomorrow's generation of parents.
"This report provides an evidence-based platform aimed at promoting real world opportunities through effective policy making that really can facilitate meaningful impacts on the long-term life chances of children, parents and future families."

Posted on behalf of: Lynsey Ford, Media Relations, 01273 873712
Last updated: Tuesday, 22 March 2016

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