Parental conflict: the impact for children and how to resolve it

Academic whose research underpins new government drive to resolve parental conflict explains how policy can help councils develop support programmes that mitigate the damage it causes to children's wellbeing.

A Department for Work and Pensions policy document, Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families, sets out a series of innovative objectives aimed at helping parents who experience worklessness and other areas of disadvantage to improve outcomes and future life chances for their children. A key focus of the paper is the importance placed on supporting and strengthening the quality of inter-parental relationships, whether parents are living together or not.

This emphasis is based on a new generation of research that has highlighted the value of focusing on the quality of the relationship that exists between parents and carers, specifically how parents and carers relate to each other and manage conflicts in their relationship, in promoting improved outcomes for children and adolescents.

Acknowledging that how parents relate to each other as partners (whether living together or not) and how the dynamic between parents and carers affects children's emotional, behavioural, social and academic development offers substantial opportunity to improve the lives of young people.

Improving Lives introduces opportunities for councils and other providers to implement new support programmes aimed at vulnerable children, parents and families in the UK, and evaluate their efficacy in promoting improved outcomes (see case study).

The impact of conflict

It has long been recognised that how parents and carers relate to each other has a substantial impact on children. Multiple studies have found that children who witness inter-parental/adult violence experience negative consequences even when they are not themselves the direct victims of violence.

Recent evidence expands on this by highlighting that children who experience conflict between parents and carers that is not physically violent or aggressive may also be at risk of poor outcomes, with evidence showing the impacts of inter-parental conflict on children across a "silence to violence" spectrum.

When young people experience conflicts between parents and carers that are frequent, intense and poorly resolved, they are at elevated risk of multiple poor outcomes including anxiety, depression, conduct issues, academic failure, substance misuse and future relationship instability.

From an intervention standpoint, emphasis has historically been directed toward the role of the parent-child relationship in improving child outcomes.

While positive parenting remains an integral pillar of healthy child development, it is recognised that solely targeting parenting practices in the context of acrimonious inter-parental relations may have limited long-term impacts.

One of the most innovative evidence-based aspects of the Improving Lives paper is the acknowledgement and impact of research highlighting the role of the inter-parental relationship for children's mental health and other outcomes (for example, school attainment) that use research designs that overcome significant limitations of past research.

Past studies involving biologically related parents and children suffer from the problem that associations between family relationship influences - for example, inter-parental conflict and poor parenting practices - and child outcomes such as conduct problems, may be explained by genes being passed on from parents to their children.

Our research involving children adopted at birth or where children have been conceived using assisted reproductive technologies have remedied these challenges of past research (see further reading).

These studies allow examination of family relationship influences on children who are either fully genetically related to their rearing parents, or not at all, such as in the case of adopted children.

Findings are consistent with past research studies - inter-parental conflict, regardless of whether parents are living together or not or genetically related or not, adversely affects children's emotional, behavioural, social and academic development.

Based on our evidence, investing in intervention programmes that target the inter-parental/carer relationship may significantly improve the quality of parent-child relationships and promote improved outcomes for children.

Evidence for intervention

In the early stages of development in the UK, there is a growing international evidence base regarding the effectiveness of intervention programmes targeting the quality of the inter-parental/carer relationship that improve outcomes for children.

Specifically, evidence indicates long-term improvements in emotional and behavioural outcomes for children, as well as improvements in parenting and co-parenting practices when positive inter-parental relationship skills are promoted through intervention programme support.

Results also indicate improvements in adult mental health as a result of inter-parental relationship support.

There is also a growing evidence base highlighting the effectiveness of inter-parental relationship support programmes in areas of economic disadvantage.

In a recent report that analysed 38 other published studies, a significant effect of inter-parental relationship support was found for improvements in adult-reported relationship satisfaction, communication skills and a fall in relationship aggression.

Worklessness and disadvantage

Poverty and economic stress have long been recognised as risk factors for poor child outcomes. Recent research highlights that household economic stress may initiate a "cascade" of individual and family level processes that compromise children's long-term development, and that the inter-parental relationship is a primary mechanism (filter) through which the adverse effects of household economic pressure on child outcomes may be transmitted.

International research has found that when economic pressure is high, parents are at an increased risk of emotional distress in the form of anxiety and/or depression.

This increase in distress in turn leads to an increase in inter-parental conflict, which leads to an increase in harsh or inconsistent parenting practices and results in greater risk of negative outcomes for children.

Supporting parents and carers who experience economic stress and disadvantage at an inter-parental relationship level may tackle the effects of household economic disadvantage. Furthermore, evidence suggests that inter-parental relationship support for adults/parents who experience economic disadvantage and poverty can have a positive and stress-buffering effect on their mental health and wellbeing.

Promoting these outcomes through targeted relationship support is a key objective that Improving Lives has at its core.

Translating policy into practice

Translation of this research into couple/parent and child-focused intervention programmes designed for implementation within the UK lags significantly behind other nations.

The Improving Lives policy paper and its core focus on supporting the inter-parental relationship in the context of economic and other areas of disadvantage represents substantial opportunity to haul back this deficit in evidence-based support for at-risk parents and carers and children.

A vital first step to advancing opportunities in this area is to recognise the need for training and capacity building among providers of therapeutic and related support services aimed at vulnerable parents and children. This needs to occur at three levels:

  • Frontline practitioners and other professionals would benefit from training in the use of and access to standardised assessment resources that provide opportunities to robustly assess inter-parental/partner relationship quality, enabling them to recognise potential negative effects of inter-parental conflict on children's outcomes at an early stage.
  • Alignment of specific intervention programmes that relate to different degrees of severity of inter-parental/partner relationship distress is essential if those groups targeted are to benefit from these. This is linked to the importance of accurately measuring "outcomes" linked to the focus of each programme.
  • Support and capacity building needs to be prioritised so that providers develop the skills and confidence that allow effective implementation of programmes aimed at vulnerable families.

Commissioning the right early training and capacity building is essential if the needs of parents and children are to be addressed and sustainably delivered. The Improving Lives policy paper is a notable step in the right direction.

By Gordon Harold is professor of child and adolescent mental health at the School of Psychology, University of Sussex

How the funding is being used in Westminster

Westminster City Council was one of 12 areas to pilot new approaches to family relational support under the Department for Work and Pensions' Local Family Offer trial. It has been awarded £50,000 to continue the work under the Improving Lives initiative.

Westminster's outreach service, delivered by national charity Family Lives, is based in the Portman Centre and commissioned by the council. The service regularly visits different families to carry out assessments and deliver bespoke work to tackle breakdowns in family relationships. The team targets vulnerable families, with children aged under five, to help them engage with council services. New training has been provided to staff to help them spot families who may need help and to open up conversations to see what support can be given. The funding is aimed at supporting co-parenting, regardless of whether parents live together or not.

Madhu Chauhan, early help and partnerships service manager at Westminster City Council, says: "Each family will have its own issues and problems that need resolving, and the training allows staff to identify the best way to communicate with parents and show services where to signpost them.

"We are taking a tried-and-tested approach to the training, which ranges from the Brief Encounters programme, centred around a light touch approach to begin conversations about relationship issues, to more intensive interventions such as Parents as Partners, training on group-based intervention."


  • Improving Lives is a Department for Work and Pensions project to support local areas to improve the effectiveness of family services
  • £30m has been set aside to fund proven projects and train staff to identify the signs of conflict
  • It will draw on lessons from the DWP's Local Family Offer trial which has supported 12 areas to link parental conflict support into other local services for families
  • It is based on research that suggests that children's emotional, behavioural and educational success is influenced by their parents' relationship
  • It will link closely with the DWP's Troubled Families Programme

Source: Department for Work and Pensions


How Can Genetically-Informed Research Help Inform the Next Generation of Interparental and Parenting Interventions? G Harold, L Leve, R Sellers, Child Development (2017)

What Works to Enhance Inter-Parental relationships and Improve Outcomes for Children, G Harold, D Acquah, R Sellers, Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and Department for Work and Pensions (2016)

Is couple and Relationship Education Effective for Lower Income Participants? A meta-analytic study. A Hawkins, S Erickson, Journal of Family Psychology (2015)

Inter-Parental Conflict and Children's Academic Attainment: A Longitudinal Analysis, G Harold, J Aitken, K Shelton, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2007)

Interventions as Tests of Family Systems Theories: Marital and Family Relationships in Children's Development and Psychopathology, P Cowan, C Pape-Cowan, Development and Psychopathology (2002)

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