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What Works to Enhance Inter-Parental Relationships and Improve Outcomes for Children

Healthy child development is the bedrock of a healthy, productive, and secure society. The central role of positive parenting practices in promoting this objective has been emphasised in past research and echoed in recent government policy. The Prime Minister has recently emphasised the importance of both relationship support and parenting as key elements in improving children’s life chances. Traditionally these two areas of policy and practice have been seen as separate activities. Yet increasingly, the role of the couple relationship as a precursor to promoting positive parenting practices is recognised as an essential ingredient in delivering positive outcomes and long-term life chances for today’s generation of children and tomorrow’s generation of parents.

The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) was founded as an independent charity and What Works Centre established in July 2013 to champion and support the effective use of early intervention for children with signals of risk. In so doing, we hope to reduce the human and economic costs of late intervention which is needed when problems become entrenched and difficult to reverse on the journey from childhood to adulthood.

EIF was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out a review of ‘What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children’. The review was commissioned with a view to informing the 2015 Spending Review, as well as the government’s ‘Life Chances Strategy’. EIF collaborated with Professor Gordon Harold, a world expert in child development and the role of the family in children's psychological development, and his team at the University of Sussex.

This review summarises state-of-the-art research evidence examining links between the inter-parental relationship, positive versus negative parenting practices, and long-term outcomes for children. It finds that the quality of the couple relationship serves as a substantive influence both on the quality of parenting that children experience and on their long-term mental health and future life chances. While everyday conflict between couples and parents is common in families, parents who engage in frequent, intense, and poorly resolved conflict put their children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk.

The case is made that by prioritising and investing in couple relationship support and intervention at key stages in children’s lives, improved parenting and child outcomes will be promoted. This will lead to more sustainable outcomes for the present generation of children and the next generation of parents and families in the areas of education, health, employment, family stability, and the overall welfare of society, for example reduced anti-social behaviour, mental health, and related impacts.

In the context of present practice and policy, models of family and child intervention and support, the quality of relationship between parents and associated outcomes for child development is a neglected site for early intervention; it has had little attention in maternity, children’s, and family services. But there are critical opportunities ahead with new investment in relationship support, parenting, mental health, and Troubled Families to bring this focus centre stage. Given that the evidence is still at an early stage it will be vital to test and learn as we go along.

The principal objective of this report is to review and make accessible the very latest evidence highlighting the role of the couple relationship as an influence on children’s development, with recommendations provided for policymakers, commissioners, and practitioners aimed at improving the life chances of modern-day families and the individuals that comprise them – adults/couples, parents, and children.