Last week, I summarized research presented in the book Parental Conflict: Outcomes and interventions for children and families to explain how conflict between parents harms kids. In addition to suffering short-term problems, like disturbed sleep, aggressive behavior, or depression, children whose parents often fight may have poorer interpersonal skills later in life, which means they may reproduce their parents’ problems in their own romantic relationships, sparking a vicious cycle from one generation to the next. Can we intervene before that cycle sets in?
Like any family problem, parental conflict offers no quick fix: it may stem from partners’ deeply rooted habits or fundamental disagreements on important topics, and it’s sometimes entangled with other thorny problems, like substance abuse or poverty. Thus programs (whether public or private) that directly aim to fight substance abuse and alleviate poverty could have the side effect of improving parents’ relationship. But what about couples who don’t suffer such problems yet still find themselves fighting?
Parental Conflict offers an overview of intervention programs aimed at these problems. Not many studies of programs boasted large sample sizes or long-term follow-up evaluations, so the following analysis is provisional rather than absolutely conclusive.
First, general parenting programs could theoretically reduce the “spillover” effect that parental conflict has on kids; however, those programs are not as successful with parents who are already fighting (“the conflict seems to undermine parents’ ability to cooperate and engage with” such programs).
Parenting programs that incorporate the couple relationship seem to be more successful. One program offering guided discussion of parenting and relationship issues to parents of preschoolers over the course of 16 weeks had positive effects on parent-child relationships, children’s adjustment to school, couple interaction quality, and couples’ conflict levels. Positive effects were not large, but some persisted 10 years after the program took place.
A third group of interventions focuses on at-risk couples (for example, those in poverty) and difficult relationship transitions, like becoming parents. Programs aimed at new parents—promoting relationship skills and realistic expectations, educating couples about parenting, encouraging them to make their relationship a priority—have had positive effects on relationship satisfaction and couple communication. Longer programs and those led by professionals had greater success.
Other programs are aimed at couples in the process of separating or divorcing, as parents’ conflict level during that period has a major impact on kids’ adjustment to the split. Research on these programs is limited, but those that educate parents about why conflict matters, encourage parents not to undermine one another, and actively help parents build their skills seem to be effective.
Finally, some programs are designed to educate couples about destructive conflict and to equip them to handle disagreements before serious ones arise. Research is again limited, but parents who have completed such programs have been shown to handle conflict more constructively, with positive implications for their marital satisfaction and parenting. Importantly, greater parental knowledge about conflict was associated with changes in conflict behaviors, meaning “knowledge may be an important factor in behavioural change.” Simply learning about constructive and destructive ways of handling disagreements, that is, may shape couples’ behavior.
Conflict between parents is a complicated and stubborn problem—but as Parental Conflict suggests, it’s not totally intractable. Policy-makers, couples’ therapists, social workers, religious leaders, and couples themselves can all contribute to addressing it.