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Parental conflict damaging to children’s mental health

Study finds conflict between parents is harmful to children’s mental health

Conflict between parents can affect their children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing, according to a new study.

A review carried out by the Early Intervention Foundation and Professor Gordon Harold, of the University of Sussex, for the Department for Work and Pensions found that children’s exposure to conflict between their parents – whether parents are together or separated – can put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk.

Carey Oppenheim, EIF Chief Executive, said: “Our new research shows that quality inter-parental relationships – regardless of whether the couple is together or not – and the ability to resolve conflict have a huge influence on the long-term life chances of children. Yet, improving the relationships between parents is not taken account of in many children’s, maternity and family services. Children of all ages can be affected by inter-parental conflict.”

The review finds that specifically, unresolved inter-parental conflict can affect children’s long-term mental health. It adds that parents embroiled in hostile and distressed relationships are typically more hostile and aggressive toward their children and are less responsive to their children’s needs.

The review also identifies:
*       Children who witness severe, ongoing and unresolved inter-parental conflict can be aggressive, hostile and violent. Others can develop low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, be suicidal. It also reduces their academic performance and limits the development of their social and emotional skills and ability to form positive relationships themselves, all of which will affect the long term life chances of children.

*       Inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother-child and father-child relationships, with evidence suggesting that the association between inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices may be stronger for the father-child relationship compared to the mother-child relationship.

*       Interventions which seek to improve parenting skills in the presence of frequent, severe and unresolved inter-parental conflict – without addressing that conflict – are unlikely to be successful in improving child outcomes.

The charity warns that improving support aimed at promoting positive inter-parental relationships remains a neglected area for early intervention services with little attention paid to it by maternity, children’s and family services.

Yet evidence from internationally-run programmes suggests that they have the potential to help improve aspects of couple relationships and parenting practices which led to more positive outcomes for children.

The charity is calling for greater national investment in developing and evaluating which services work best to support relationships between parents in different circumstances.

Professor Gordon Harold, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, said: “Accumulating evidence points to a substantive message for parents, practitioners and policy makers – how parents relate to each other, whether parents are separated or together, represents one of the strongest influences on children’s long-term mental health, wellbeing and future life chances.

“This message is highlighted by very recent UK and international research which shows that even when parenting practices are considered, conflict between parents affects an array of negative mental health and poor outcomes for children, including reduced academic attainment.

“Failing to support the inter-parental relationship where the objective is to promote positive child and adolescent outcomes linked to family experiences, may mean a key influence is substantively missed out. This will not only affect today’s generation of children, but tomorrow’s generation of parents.

“This report provides an evidence-based platform aimed at promoting real world opportunities through effective policy making that really can facilitate meaningful impacts on the long-term life chances of children, parents and future families,” he concluded.

 

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