NHS survey data estimates that one in every eight children and young people over the age of five has a mental health disorder. We know that family and environmental factors are hugely important to good mental health; as are other factors which can too easily be overlooked such as the impact of economic stress on parents and how that affects their children’s mental health.
Poverty and economic pressure are associated with increased parental stress and mental health difficulties, and this increases the risk of conflict between parents and poor parenting which can put children’s mental health at risk.
Conflict between parents isn’t always destructive. In situations where parents seek compromise, show warmth and humour and maintain respect it can teach valuable lessons. For a child the best ending to a fight between parents is seeing a warm and meaningful resolution with apologies.
We know that not all parental conflict is like this. Children who witness their parents arguing frequently, intensely and with no resolution can show signs of emotional and behavioural distress. Even children as young as six months are sensitive to parental conflict. Parents who are in a hostile relationship with each other are also typically more confrontational and aggressive towards their children, and less sensitive and emotionally responsive to their children’s needs.
There are points in the life course when the risk of conflict between parents is higher, for example when they become new parents, when a child starts school or indeed when parents separate. Providing support at these key moments can help families to reduce or prevent the destructive impact of conflict on their children.
These are the moments when families are more in need of support from someone who they can talk to about personal relationships. We need people working in family services who have the confidence, knowledge, sensitivity and time to have these sorts of conversations. Yet we know from qualitative research and the experience of pioneers that relationship difficulties are often seen as a private matter by family services and by parents themselves. In fact, the very parents most likely to benefit from support are often the least likely to ask for it.
Specific types of support have been shown to reduce the impact of parental conflict on children. These include helping parents to understand the impact of conflict behaviours, and what they could do differently; focusing on stress management, coping and problem-solving skills; and avoiding undermining the other parent. The evidence of how to help is growing.
If we are serious about making children’s wellbeing and good mental health a priority every week of the year, then we need a serious focus on effective early intervention alongside new efforts to reduce child poverty. These two courses of action are not alternatives, we need to do both.
Ben Lewing, assistant director, policy and practice, the Early Intervention Foundation