In North Yorkshire we are committed to supporting families to build strong relationships for the sake of their children.
Whether parents are together or separated the relationships they have with each other really matter, and when parents get on, their children do better. Parents and other caring adults are hugely important to their children, and when those adults are able to effectively communicate and cooperate, it can have a positive impact on a child’s life. There are things that professionals can do to support parents relationships.
What sort of behaviours are harmful?
Whether together, separated or divorced all couples and co-parents will have arguments or disagree sometimes. But if that conflict is frequent and intense it can be harmful to both children and to adults too. All couples and co-parents may experience challenges in their relationships but when that conflict is poorly resolved and they are unable to find solutions it can be damaging. Parental conflict may include regular bickering, arguing, micro-managing issues such as contact, lack of positive communication, name-calling and point-scoring. It may also involve the children as they are used as messengers, spies, mediators or confidants, all of which may impact on their wellbeing.
Having curiosity about the parental relationship is crucial. Talking to parents about how they manage arguments and disagreements can open up useful conversations. We want to ask ourselves “How would I describe the health of the relationship between these two people?” rather than a narrower “Is there domestic abuse in this relationship?”.
Parental conflict is not the same as Domestic Abuse. It does not involve coercive control, emotional, physical, financial or sexual abuse and does not involve either party feeling fearful of the other. Parental conflict is when parents struggle to get on without disagreeing but where the relationship is an equal one.
“Experts on domestic abuse recognise that it is evidently distinct from parental conflict. One is about two parents feeling able to express their feelings and wishes (albeit not always in a constructive or positive way), but the other is about one partner exerting power and control over another – even where a victim may attempt to resist that control” Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales
When we show curiosity about the couple or co-parent relationship we become better able to identify both parental conflict AND domestic abuse. If you are concerned that parents you are working with are experiencing domestic abuse please visit https://idas.org.uk/get-help-now/ or call 03000 110 110. You can read more about Domestic Abuse, including coercive control here:
Impact on Children
Research shows us that if children and young people are exposed to poor, conflictual or distressed relationships around them, it can have a negative impact on all aspects of their life. Their schoolwork, their health, their wellbeing and their relationships with other people, including their parents may suffer. We also see links between the relationships surrounding children and the behaviour they display. Often parents will focus on the child’s behaviour rather than understanding how their adult relationships are influencing that behaviour.
Children don’t have to see or hear arguments to know they are happening. Children will sense arguments and hostility and may feel guilty, think it’s their fault and worry about what might happen. Children can feel caught up in the middle of conflict.
Children of all ages are affected by parental conflict. Having conversations with parents about how their couple / co-parent relationships impact on the child is really important. We could ask “How do you think your child would describe the relationship between you and their other parent? What words might they use?”. It’s a great way to help parents see the family world through their child’s eyes.
In summary the quality of the interparental 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.
Further details of the research findings are available here https://www.eif.org.uk/report/what-works-to-enhance-interparental-relationships-and-improve-outcomes-for-children
This short video provides a child’s perspective on parental conflict:
What causes conflict in relationships?
The normal pressures of busy family life can pile on the stress and trigger arguments and conflict. Typically arguments might include things like
- Working hours
- House work / household tasks
- How we parent the children
- What other family members think / say
- Lack of intimacy and time as a couple
- Arrival of a new baby
- Lack of sleep
- Dealing with own / children’s / family members health needs
These are just examples. Every family is different but these things can happen to anyone. It can be easy to let unhelpful conflict behaviours sneak in and become normal in relationships. They can soon become a habit. So as well as learning healthy relationship habits, it’s also important that support is available around the issues which are causing the stress.
Talking about relationships with parents
No relationship is perfect and most will experience challenges at some point. There may be specific events such as the arrival of a new baby or day to day challenges over money and housework. We want practitioners to normalise talking about relationships and emphasis the link between relationships and children’s outcomes. It is important parents do not feel judged or blamed as relationships are hard and often parents will not have realised how much their child has been affected.
Professionals can talk to parents about the sort of behaviours which may be helpful or harmful for their children. For example we could suggest they try to avoid
- Getting defensive
- Bringing up issues from the past over and over again
- Avoiding talking about problems that need addressing
- Criticism / name calling
- Talking over one another
- Using social media to air grievances
- Using the child as a messenger, or as a spy or a judge and encouraging them to take sides
- Sharing too much information with the child about the relationship issues.
And instead try to
- Stay calm
- Listen to what the other person is saying
- Think about what your child needs
- Explain what you need without blame
- Seek advice from a neutral person
- Choosing a time to talk when you both feel calm
“(The training and tools) enabled me to talk more easily about the effects on children and help parents understand how they can change” NYC Family Worker
Resources to support professionals
Workforce Development / Training
North Yorkshire Council Stronger Relationships team offer a range of training packages to support workforce development in the context parental conflict and healthy relationships. Once you have completed the training you will have access to the North Yorkshire Stronger Relationships toolkit.
Click here to see details of currently available training courses:
“I used the tools with a family where the parents were separated and were in conflict. Supporting them to understand that their goals for their children were the same but their conflict was the focus and stopping them from prioritising their children” NYC Early Help Worker
See it Differently
There are a range of resources at the See it Differently webpage. These include four scenario videos and a practitioner guide.
One Plus One digital resources
Parents in North Yorkshire can also access digital support packages free of charge. These interactive resources have been produced by One Plus One and offer parents a step by step guide to relationships. There are three available. We recommend practitioners look through the resources themselves before signposting parents to the courses. There is a practitioner area with extra resources https://www.oneplusone.org.uk/practitioners/introduction to support delivery.
Me, You and Baby Too – for new and expectant parents
Me, You and Baby Too is packed with videos and animations to help couples navigate the transition to parenthood. Becoming parents can change your relationship. Tiredness and stress associated with parenthood can lead to you and your partner misunderstanding each other. This online course, available for free to parents in North Yorkshire can help you improve communication skills and manage conflict better. https://www.oneplusone.org.uk/parents
Arguing Better – for couples who want to improve how they communicate
Knowing how to argue in a constructive way can make all the difference to your relationships and to your children. Learn more with this online course currently available at no cost to residents in North Yorkshire https://www.oneplusone.org.uk/parents
Getting it Right for Children – for separated or separating parents
Separating can be difficult for everyone involved. This course helps parents develop effective ways to co-operate after separation.
When parents separate, it’s easy for children to get caught in the middle of their disagreements. Getting it Right for Children is a free online course for parents in North Yorkshire designed to help them parent co-operatively after parting. https://www.oneplusone.org.uk/parents
Relationships Matter – national support for couples / co-parents
These websites also contain useful information and tips for both parents and professionals.
North Yorkshire Stronger Relationships team have produced a leaflet you can give to parents. It can be found here.
For more information about Stronger Relationships and Parental Conflict please contact Sara.Atkins@northyorks.gov.uk