“They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”
So begins Philip Larkin’s famous poem, This be the Verse. Larkin’s representation of familial inheritance here is clearly overly pessimistic and cold in the extreme, yet it alludes to a kernel of truth now supported by a wealth of evidence from neuroscience: family relationships have a significant impact on children’s outcomes.
This makes relationships a clear social justice issue: the sheer contingency of our birth determines so much of what makes us who we are in a completely arbitrary way, long before we are even able to even know who we wish to be or what we want to do.
Parenting, we have come to realize, cannot therefore be a purely private matter. And parenting support was a key theme in the Prime Minister’s recent speech on life chances, in which he announced a new focus on the ‘Troubled Families’ programme on parenting skills and child development, as well as an expansion of universal parenting support as part of the forthcoming ‘life chances strategy’.
However, what has yet to be grasped fully by policy makers is the enormous influence of inter-parental relationships on children’s outcomes. The evidence is clear that:
- Children growing up with parents who have good relationships and low parental conflict enjoy better physical and mental health [i], better emotional wellbeing [ii], higher academic attainment [iii] and a lower likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors [iv].
- Children whose parents have poorer relationship quality exhibit more ‘externalizing’ behavior problems (e.g. hyperactivity, aggression).[v]
- Inter-parental conflict which is frequent, intense and poorly-resolved is detrimental to children’s development, [vi] and can result in increased anxiety, withdrawal and depression, and behavioral problems including aggression, hostility, antisocial behavior, and even criminality.[vii]
- Almost every study examining parental relationships and parenting has found the quality of the relationship between parent and child to be linked to the quality of the relationship between the parents [viii].
- Parents who report greater intimacy and better communication in their relationship tend to be more attuned to and affectionate toward their children [ix].
- Parents whose relationship is troubled are less likely to have a more effective, authoritative parenting style with their children [x].
- Parental conflict can lead to a reduced capacity to parent effectively, which results in impaired parent-child relationships and a higher likelihood of anxiety, behavior problems or withdrawal in children [xi].
What’s more, there is even some evidence from several longitudinal, randomized controlled studies indicating that parenting approaches that incorporate a focus on the quality of the parental couple relationship are more effective than those that maintain an exclusive focus on individual parent-child relationships and behaviors at maintaining couple relationship quality, reducing harsh parenting, reducing academic, social and emotional behavior problems in children, and reducing parenting stress [xiii].
However, parenting support tends to predominantly focus on parental behaviors, skills and techniques, rather than on the quality of parents’ relationships and their effects on children’s wellbeing and outcomes. Yet since evidence indicates that interventions that simultaneously aim to improve parenting skills and relationships within families, rather than focusing on parenting skills alone, are likely to have the most positive impact on families and children [xiv], we need to see a focus on the inter-parental relationships become a central focus of parenting support.
[i] Meltzer , H. Gatward, R., Goodman, R., & Ford, T. (2000) Mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain. London: TSO
[ii] Harold, G. T., Rice, F., Hay, D. F., Boivin, J., Van Den Bree, M., & Thapar, A. (2011) Familial transmission of depression and antisocial behavior symptoms: disentangling the contribution of inherited and environmental factors and testing the mediating role of parenting. Psychological Medicine, 41(6), 1175-85; Cowan, C. & Cowan, P. (2005) Two central roles for couple relationships: breaking negative intergenerational patterns and enhancing children’s adaption. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20 (3), 275-288
[iii] Harold, G. T., Aitken, J. J. & Shelton, K. H. (2007) Inter-parental conflict and children’s academic attainment: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48
[iv] Coleman, L. & Glenn, F. (2009) When Couples Part: Understanding the consequences for adults and children. London: One Plus One
[v] Garriga, A. & Kiernan, K. (2013) Parents’ relationship quality, mother-child relations and children’s behaviour problems: evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Working Paper
[vi] Harold, G.T., Aitken, J.J. & Shelton, K.H. (2007) Inter-parental conflict and children’s academic attainment: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(12), 1223–1232
[vii] Harold, G.T. & Leve, L.D. (2012) Parents and Partners: How the Parental Relationship affects Children’s Psychological Development. In Balfour, A., Morgan, M., & Vincent, C. (Eds.) How Couple Relationships Shape Our World: Clinical Practice, Research and Policy Perspectives. London: Karnac; Grych, J. & Fincham, F. (1990) Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: a cognitive contextual framework, Psychological Bulletin, 2, 267-290
[viii] Lindahl, K.M., Clements, M. & Markman, H. (1997) Predicting marital and parent functioning in dyads and triads: A longitudinal investigation of marital processes. Journal of Family Psychology, 11(2), 139 – 151
[ix] Grych, J. H. (2002) Marital Relationships and Parenting in Handbook of Parenting, Volume 4, Social Conditions and Applied Parenting. Ed. Bornstein. M. H. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
[x] Cowan, C., P. & Cowan, P. (2005) Two central roles for couple relationships: breaking negative intergenerational patterns and enhancing children’s adaptation. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20(3)
[xi] Grych, J.H. and Fincham, F.D. (1990) Marital conflict and children’s adjustment: a cognitive contextual framework, Psychological Bulletin, 2, 267-290
[xii] Cowan, C., P. & Cowan, P. (2005) Two central roles for couple relationships: breaking negative intergenerational patterns and enhancing children’s adaptation. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20(3)
[xiii] Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2000) When partners become parents : the big life change for couples. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Cowan, C., P. & Cowan, P. (2005) Two central roles for couple relationships: breaking negative intergenerational patterns and enhancing children’s adaptation. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 20(3)
[xiv] Cowan, P., & Cowan, C.P. (2008) Diverging family policies to promote children’s well-being in the UK and US: Some relevant data from family research and intervention studies. Journal of Children’s Services, 3, 4–16