It’s what children see that affects them, not how parents feel
So it’s easy to assume that if the quality of the parental relationship changes for better or worse, children will respond accordingly. This is the key principle promoted by the likes of Early Intervention Foundation and Relate and that underpins what passes for government policy on the family.
Yet there are two big and largely untested assumptions here.
- The first assumption is that the direction of influence is from parents to children.
It could equally be the other way round. How many couples have had problems with their children – a nasty illness, bolshy behaviour, messing around at school – that have caused a difference in opinion in how best to deal with it? Mum thinks one thing, dad another. Problems with the children lead to tension between parents. The parents argue and don’t get on. Their decline in relationship quality then reinforces the child’s insecurity or bad behaviour.
So which came first? Is it down to good relationships? Do parents who get on well produce better-adjusted children? Or is it down to the luck of the draw? Do naturally better-adjusted children simply make it easier for parents to get on well?
- The second assumption is that if parents change for the better, then so will their children.
But that’s not what most – if not all – of the research to date actually shows. Most research studies are conducted ‘between-family‘. This means they contrast the group of families where the parents are happier, or communicate better, or fight less, and whose children also tend to do pretty well, with the group of families where the parents get on less well and also have children who tend to do less well. The difference ‘between-family‘ demonstrates a link between parents and children.
But what research doesn’t show is the ‘within-family‘ effect, which shows the direction of travel over time. Where the quality of the parent relationship changes ‘within-family‘, for better or worse, this difference also leads to a corresponding change in the children.
A fascinating new study by Kayla Knopp and colleagues at the University of Denver, published in the April Journal of Marriage and Family, looked at both ‘between-family‘ and ‘within-family‘ effects. What happens to children when couples change?
Their study followed 528 US army families who had participated in a trial of the relationship programme PREP over a period of 19 months. Some had done the programme, some not. Some relationships had got worse, some better.
All of the familiar ‘between-family‘ findings were confirmed.
- The group of parents who were either happier, communicated better, or fought less, also had children who tended to show fewer internal problems – such as moodiness – and fewer external problems – such as disobedience at home.
All good so far.
However the ‘within-family‘ findings were the really interesting new bit, if a little more complicated.
- If the parents’ level of communication improved during this time, their children showed fewer internal problems – ie became less moody.
- If the parents’ level of conflict reduced during this time, their children showed fewer external problems – ie became less disobedient.
- If the parents’ level of marital happiness changed for better or worse, it didn’t seem to affect the children at all.
In other words, what this study suggests is that children are not especially bothered by the ups and downs of their parents marriage. But they do notice changes in the way their parents treat one another. It’s not so much how parents feel about their marriage that matters, it’s what children see parents do about it that really affects them.
For policy-makers, this is compelling new evidence in support of relationship education programmes – such as the Marriage Course and Let’s Stick Together, or courses run by Care for the Family, Family Life, Time for Marriage or Marriage Care – that aim to help couples communicate better and deal with conflict better.
But remember that this only applies for couples who remain intact.