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

Our assessment of programmes that aim to enhance the inter-parental relationship and improve outcomes for children shows that many of these need more testing

Programmes with evidence of a positive impact on child outcomes

Programmes with evidence of a positive impact on inter-parental outcomes

Source: What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children

Find programme examples here.

The Early Intervention Foundation have carried out a review of ‘What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children’ for the Department for Work and Pensions.

The review has been led by Professor Gordon Harold, an expert on the role of the family in children’s psychological development, and Dr. Ruth Sellers from the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice at the University of Sussex.

Key findings include:

  • The quality of the inter-parental relationship, specifically how parents communicate and relate to each other, is increasingly recognised as a primary influence on effective parenting practices and children’s long-term mental health and future life chances.
  • Parents/couples who engage in frequent, intense and poorly resolved inter-parental conflicts put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk.
  • Children of all ages can be affected by destructive inter-parental conflict, with effects evidenced across infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
  • The context of the wider family environment is an important factor that can protect or exacerbate child outcomes in response to exposure to inter-parental conflict. In particular, levels of negativity and parenting practices can exacerbate or moderate the impact of inter-parental conflict on children.
  • Inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother-child and father-child relationship, 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.

This indicates that the couple relationship is an important site for early intervention. It has implications for a wide range of policy areas from effective approaches to child mental health to managing child behaviours. In particular, it is important that policy makers and commissioners consider interventions and support for both the couple and the parenting relationship (both the mother-child and the father-child relationship). Just targeting the parental-child relationship in the context of ongoing inter-parental conflict does not lead to sustained positive outcomes for children.

Much more needs to be done to test and learn about what works, for whom and in what circumstances, and about how to implement effective interventions, ensuring quality of practice, appropriate supervision and impact. It is important that any future investment from Government and other funders builds in effective evaluation and enables commissioners and practitioners working on the ground to share learning.

Carey Oppenheim, Chief Executive of the Early Intervention Foundation, says:

“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 inter-parental relationships is not being asked about or considered in many childrens’ and family services. This is vital to ensure we avoid missing a crucial piece of the jigsaw in improving children’s mental health and future life chances.”

Feedback on EIF’s report

“The report ‘What Works to enhance couple relationships and child outcomes’ is really superb. It covers the literature and presents the argument about the importance of couple relationships in a clear and compelling way.”

Professors Carolyn and Phil Cowan, Berkeley Psychology, University of California

“You are breaking new ground in fascinating areas. My guess is that  for many, the idea that we can be scientific and objective about this sort of work will be a revelation.”

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation


Publication Details

Publication date: 22 March 2016
Edited by: Leon Feinstein

Authors: Gordon Harold, Daniel Acquah, Ruth Sellers and Haroon Chowdry


We would like to acknowledge the role of the ESRC in enabling this work. The ESRC have facilitated unique UK and international studies examining family relationship influences on children’s emotional, behavioural and academic development. Without this support, state-of-the-art UK-based findings would not have been available for inclusion in this  report. The ESRC project codes linked to the research cited are (R000222569; RES-000-23-138; ES/L014718/1).

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