What is the Reducing Parental Conflict programme?
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) commissioned research by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) in collaboration with Professor Gordon Harold and his team at Sussex University on the effects of parental conflict on children. This research was published in 2016 and found that when interparental conflict is frequent, intense and poorly resolved it is harmful to children’s mental health and longer-term outcomes. This finding led to the creation of the RPC programme, which aims to integrate support to reduce parental conflict in local services for families, in particular families experiencing economic pressure where the triggers for conflict are likely to be greater. Its focus is parental conflict below the threshold of domestic abuse.
Between 2015 and 2017, DWP funded 12 local authority areas to trial approaches to increasing support for parental relationships through the Local Family Offer trial. This trial informed the design of the national RPC programme.
The main objectives of the RPC programme are to:
- develop the evidence base on what works to reduce parental conflict
- help equip local areas to integrate support to reduce parental conflict in their services for families.
The programme has included the testing of specialist interventions, work to explore how to support parents facing additional challenges, strategic leadership support for local authorities, practitioner training and support for local partners from a team of regional integration leads. It also included the services of a ‘what works’ centre, the EIF, including dissemination of evidence on why parental conflict matters for child outcomes, assessment of interventions, work with local areas to improve evaluation and building an online hub.
DWP is now working with all upper-tier authorities in England and their partners to help them develop strategies for reducing parental conflict.
The quality of the interparental relationship, whether parents are together or separated, is increasingly recognised as a primary influence on children’s long-term mental health and future life chances. The research by EIF on behalf of DWP found that parents who engage in frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk. Addressing parental conflict should therefore be a key part of early intervention efforts.
There are many triggers for parental conflict including having a new baby, health difficulties, losing a job and getting into debt. Economic disadvantage is associated with poorer quality of interparental relationships, which in turn impacts on child outcomes.
This is illustrated in the EIF family stress model. It shows how economic stress, family and household factors, as well as parental risk factors such as mental health, the quality of the parent-child relationship and parenting, affect the quality of interparental relationships. The model also shows that in turn, the quality of interparental relationships impacts on child outcomes.
It is important to be aware that parenting interventions in families where there are high levels of parental conflict are unlikely to be effective, so it is critical that the interparental relationship is also addressed, as often it is conflict that drives parental behaviours.
Parents in conflict will have varying needs for support depending on the extent and nature of their conflict. The different levels of support can broadly be differentiated as follows:
- Level one – universal support: written and digital information or advice, to include posters, leaflets and digital resources
- Level two – early support: conversations with trained practitioners
- Level three – moderate support: structured support from trained practitioners
- Level four – specialist support: high intensity expert provision
Individual parents may need support at different levels at different times, and may access a combination, depending on their particular context.
The aim of the workforce development arm of the RPC programme is to facilitate training for practitioners from a wide range of services, including voluntary and community services. This training enables practitioners to contribute to reducing the impact of harmful conflict between parents on children. They can help through building trusted relationships with families, identifying parental conflict, providing information and advice, promoting conversations about healthy relationships, and referring to or in some cases delivering intense, specialist support. For example:
- universal services such as midwifery, health visiting and school nursing, police and community safety services, school and early education services, housing and benefits advice, family support services including children’s centres, sex and relationship education
- targeted services such as specialist midwifery, community perinatal team, child development centres, targeted youth work, speech and language, occupational health and physiotherapy, early help family support teams, local authority ‘front door’ services, specialist special educational needs and disability services supporting schools and families, specialist support staff located in schools and school family services, pupil referral units and alternative provision academies
- specialist services such as adult mental health services, child and young people’s mental health services, adult drug and alcohol services, social care, safeguarding and disabled children’s teams, parental relationship breakdown services including contact centres, mediation, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), private family law, family group conferencing and specialist adolescent services.
As seen in EIF’s family stress model described above, the impact of interparental conflict on children and young people’s wellbeing can be profound.
A review of relationship support services carried out by the EIF found that families however are not always aware of the relationship support available to them. Culture, stigma and mistrust of services can play a role in parents not accessing help earlier. Additionally, barriers such as cost, childcare and lack of out‐of‐hours provision can impact on the accessibility of relationship support services, and this is likely to disproportionately affect lower-income families.
As well as these factors, early learning from the implementation of the reducing parental conflict suggested that practitioners were not confident in enquiring about relationship quality in order to elicit evidence of relationship distress. Without the confidence to ask appropriately and consider options for parents, practitioners were not able to provide help and support. Messages from practice also suggest that communication between professionals can be particularly challenging in cases of parental conflict, which can impact on the support provided to children and young people.
Overcoming these kinds of barriers is an important part of the RPC programme.
How could Family Hubs support the delivery of effective relationship support to reduce parental conflict?
When parents experience greater levels of relationship distress, it is important for relationship support services to be timely, flexible, and accessible. Family Hubs are well placed to do this.
Because Family Hubs bring together services for families with children of all ages (0-19) or up to 25 with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), they can provide support at a range of key transition points in family life:
Becoming a new parent or having a baby
The birth of the first child and the transition to parenthood can put strain on relationships.
Children starting primary or secondary school
Children’s performance at school can be negatively affected by parental conflict. Targeting a child’s transition into school can be a key moment at which to intervene early and address relationship difficulties between parents.
Experiencing poverty and economic stress
Being in or at risk of poverty, and experiencing economic pressures such as unemployment or ill health, can increase parental stress and mental health difficulties. This can in turn increase the risk of relationship difficulties.
Parental separation or divorce
Separation of parents represents a specific risk for children. Parents who do not separate well can increase their children’s vulnerability and jeopardise ongoing coparenting arrangements. Programmes that target the interparental relationship in high-risk contexts, such as divorce, suggest improved outcomes for children.
Family Hubs are a community-based one-stop shop for all families and provide a place where they can build on existing peer support. One of the strengths of Family Hubs is that they are accessible to all parents and carers and have the potential to normalise relationship support by offering this as part of their service offer open to all families.
Evidence tells us how important it is for fathers to have strong relationships with their children, and how this relationship can be adversely impacted by parental conflict. Family Hubs actively engage fathers.
Family Hubs offer the potential for different levels of response from a simple conversation and signposting opportunities to digital support or more structured support with a practitioner or group sessions.
Family Hubs offer an environment to build professional networks and develop partnership working across services and disciplines. This can build the confidence and skills of practitioners and enrich the professional support available to a family and a practitioner while providing the opportunity for families to tell their story once. Co-location can increase and encourages opportunities for the development of systems and processes for whole families and for building on existing trusted relationships (for example where a family has a strong relationship with one professional but not another).
Family Hubs provide a valuable trusted space for children, young people and their parents and carers. Practitioners should not shy away from conversations about what’s going on at home. The Family Hub should enable practitioners to listen to and provide support and reassurance for young people and parents and carers with an opportunity for them to ask questions. Family Hubs should also allow parents to access support that will help them work together to protect their children from parental conflict.
Note: Although destructive conflict can include domestic violence and abuse, the focus of this module is on non-abusive conflict between parents
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