Working effectively with fathers to reduce parental conflict
The quality of the relationship between parents – and specifically how they communicate and relate to each other – has a significant influence on effective parenting, and on children’s long-term mental health and future life chances.
Sadly, parental conflict is relatively widespread; according to evidence gathered by the Department for Work and Pensions for its £39 million Reducing Parental Conflict (RPC) Programme, where a child lives with both parents in the same household, 12% of children have at least one parent who reports relationship distress; that figure doubles for children living in workless families.
In this article, we consider the vital role of father-inclusive interventions, and high quality, systematic father-engagement, in maximising the impact of work with couples to reduce parental conflict.
In its Commissioner Guide to Reducing Parental Conflict (originally published in 2017 and updated in March 2021), the Early Intervention Foundation made clear that where conflict between parents is frequent, intense and poorly resolved, it can harm children’s outcomes – regardless of parent ‘type’ (biological, step, foster or adoptive, and heterosexual or LGBTQ+); whether they are together or separated; and whether or not the family is regarded as ‘high risk’ (EIF, 2021).
Destructive conflict behaviours which put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk include aggression, non-verbal conflict or ‘the silent treatment’. Children may experience resultant harm to their emotional and social development, educational attainment, later employability and physical and mental health (Department for Work and Pensions, 2017).
It is clear that work with both parents is required, if we are to reduce, and/or help parents better manage, conflict. The EIF’s What Works review found that parental conflict is a primary influence or central mechanism through which family stress (such as economic pressure) impacts both parenting and children’s long-term outcomes. Parental conflict is a precursor to poor parenting practices (such as insensitivity, low quality and quantity of time spent together, harsh parenting or over-controlling behaviours) and also negative child outcomes.
Parents in a hostile and distressed couple relationship are typically more hostile and aggressive towards their children, and less sensitive and emotionally responsive to their children’s needs. This then affects the parent–child relationship – and parental conflict may have more of a negative impact on the father–child relationship than the mother–child relationship. Fathers are more likely to respond to parental conflict by withdrawing from their children or being hostile towards them, for example.
However, fathers are much less likely to receive targeted support, or to be actively recruited or addressed by family-focused support and interventions – including universal services delivered by maternity and children’s services; parenting classes/ support; and support provided through social services (see Burgess & Goldman, 2018; Panter-Brick et al, 2014; Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, 2021).
Projects in the DWP Reducing Parental Conflict Challenge Fund have so far reported particular challenges in engaging with, and providing support that resonates with, fathers (DWP, 2021). Such problems chime with a small but highly relevant evidence base about the gendered nature of men’s expectations and experiences as recipients of information and support as parents, especially in the perinatal period (see, for example, Hodkinson & Das, 2021).
Parental separation – more common in families where children are older – can lead to reduced and inconsistent contact between children and their fathers, who are much more likely than mothers to live separately from their children post-separation.
Recent Covid-19 lockdowns may have exacerbated this challenge to successful father-child relationships for some ‘own household fathers’. In our Lockdown Fathers: The untold story report (available via the resources section on our website) we found that 46% of such fathers, and 73% of those in the lowest socio-economic grade (D/E), had less ‘in person’ time with their children during the March 2020 lockdown. A quarter (24%) reported a worsening of their relationship with their child/ren as a result (Burgess & Goldman, 2021).
When and how to engage with dads
Overall, EIF suggests that including fathers in family-focused interventions should be an important future direction for both practice and research; and that conflict resolution skills are an important focus for intervention to improve child outcomes. It also recognises that families may be particularly vulnerable to stress and parental conflict at key transition points in family life, including:
The birth of the first child and transition to parenthood (which evidence shows can put strain on relationships, cause a decrease in relationship satisfaction and increase parental conflict)
Parental separation / divorce (which represents a specific risk for children, as a context where ongoing conflict may be taking place – and provides an opportunity to help children adapt by supporting positive relationships between separated parents during and after separation)
We offer a range of father-inclusive training options and interventions – both couple-focused and father-focused – that enable commissioners to respond to these clear, strongly evidenced areas of need by ‘bringing fathers in’.
As EIF says, these key life-course transition points for families are predictable stressors and so provide an opportunity to intervene in a more preventative way. But it is also clear that to be really effective in reducing parental conflict, services need to ‘up their game’ in reaching out to and supporting fathers as well as mothers. We do not claim this work is easy: it requires father-inclusive systems and interventions; practitioners who understand fathers’ importance and are skilled at listening to and empathising with them; and carefully tailored information and support.
Projects in the DWP Reducing Parental Conflict Challenge Fund have reported difficulties in engaging dads in user research and testing across the board, with mothers more likely to engage and seek support for conflict situations (DWP, 2021). Projects also reported that men tended to see relationships as more of a private matter and were more likely to respond to practical rather than emotional support; and that men in low-income target groups often demonstrated traditional views on gendered roles in parenting. The recruitment of male practitioners was found to support father-engagement and encourage greater contribution from fathers during their participation.
How the Fatherhood Institute can help
The Fatherhood Institute’s evidence-based training and interventions can make all the difference, getting you into the best possible shape for including fathers in the support you provide to couples.
Our new brochure details a range of ways we can help. Two of our most popular learning routes are:
Training to deliver Family Foundations: a well-evidenced based, thoroughly evaluated and cost-effective parenting programme, originally developed in the US and adapted for the UK by the Fatherhood Institute. Family Foundations comes highly recommended by the EIF, with a strength of evidence rating of 4 (out of 5) and a cost rating of 1 (out of 5) in the EIF Guidebook [Note 1]. It also featured as an ’exemplar’ in a major systematic review of father-inclusive parenting interventions led by a team at Yale University [Note 2]
Workforce development learning packages: designed to help you develop a father-inclusive approach to supporting couple and parental relationships – regardless of what interventions you’re using (although it’s worth remembering that if they’re not specifically designed with fathers in mind, or evaluated in ways that can tell you about impact with fathers in particular, this may reduce the effectiveness of your work dramatically!). All our learning packages draw on a strong evidence base, are informed by our wide understanding of ‘what works’, and are delivered online by expert trainers.
Learn more in our two training brochures for providers of children's and family services
Note 1: Link
Note 2: Link
Burgess, A. & Goldman, R., (2018). Who’s the bloke in the room? Fathers during pregnancy and at the birth in the United Kingdom (Full Report). Contemporary Fathers in the UK Series. Marlborough: Fatherhood Institute.
Burgess, A. & Goldman, R. (2021) Lockdown Fathers: The untold story (Full Report).Contemporary Fathers in the UK series. London: Fatherhood Institute.
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2021). The Myth of Invisible Men: Safeguarding Children under 1 from Non-Accidental Injury by Male Carers.
Deave, T., Johnson, D. & Ingram, J. Transition to parenthood: the needs of parents in pregnancy and early parenthood. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 8, 30 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2393-8-30
Department for Work and Pensions (2017). Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families.
Department for Work and Pensions (2021). Reducing Parental Conflict Challenge Fund: learning from the first phase. Download here.
Early Intervention Foundation (2021). Commissioner Guide: Reducing Parental Conflict.
Fraser, C. (2010). Supporting the transition to fatherhood: an evaluation of ‘Hit the Ground Crawling’ in Staffordshire. Abergavenny: Fatherhood Institute.
Hodkinson, P and Das, R (2021). New Fathers, Mental Health and Digital Communication.Switzerland: Palgrave Pivot.
Kerr, D. C. R., Capaldi, D. M., Owen, L. D., Wiesner, M., & Pears, K. C. (2011). Changes in At-Risk American Men’s Crime and Substance Use Trajectories Following Fatherhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(5):1101-1116. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00864.x
Panter-Brick C, Burgess A, Eggerman M, McAllister F, Pruett K, Leckman JF (2014). Practitioner review: Engaging fathers–recommendations for a game change in parenting interventions based on a systematic review of the global evidence. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014 Nov: 55(11):1187-212. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12280 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24980187/