Consistent parenting: supporting parents

Marion Laird discusses the findings from a recent youth consultation and their implications for working with parents to reduce conflict.

In 2010, Scottish Marriage Care consulted over 450 young people in the east end of Glasgow about their emotional health and wellbeing. This was a significant sample of 10-19-year-olds in the population. We found that one in three was struggling with emotional issues which were the direct result of poor relationships within their families. Most said they were stressed, frightened, sad and/or angry; many felt like this most or all of the time. Nearly half (48%) split their time living between more than one home; a quarter said drugs and alcohol were a problem for their parents; and a quarter worried about their parents' mental health.

These young people are the parents of the future.

The importance of stability

Along with food and shelter, children need love and trust, hope and autonomy. They need safe relationships which can foster friendships and commitment. They need loving support and self-confidence, the faith in themselves and their world, all of which build resilience (Grothberg 1995: 10).

Children with stable, caring families have better health and emotional wellbeing, which helps them reach their potential. There is compelling evidence on the importance of stable family relationships for the emotional, physical, socio-economic and educational well-being of children (Mansfield 2005; Strohschein 2005; Dunn 2008). However, there are multiple pressures on parents: from the natural life transitions which put additional stress on the parental relationship to other pressures from the environment, addiction, poverty and so on. The gap between a family coping with everyday challenges and becoming vulnerable is small, and families can become vulnerable at any stage of life.

Relationship difficulties can affect any parent. So there needs to be universal support for parents. This is because parents affected by relationship difficulties, especially those characterised by destructive conflict, show poorer parenting, poor quality parent-child relationships with consequent poor long-term emotional, social and educational outcomes for children (Harold et al. 2007).

This means that minimising conflict is crucial. For children, minimising the effect of parental conflict is the key outcome of couple interventions (Cowan and Cowan 1992).

The impact of parental conflict on children

Parental conflict can negatively affect children in different ways. It is a key factor in behavioural difficulties in children. Children may adjust to it by externalising problems through aggressive, hostile, anti-social, non-compliant behaviour, delinquency or vandalism. A significant proportion of children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder experience significant conflict in their family homes. It is associated with emotional problems in children such as depression, anxiety and withdrawal. Emotional problems can exist alongside behavioural problems or on their own (Harold et al. 2001).

It can affect children's attachment and social competence. Relationship difficulties can interfere with parents' ability to provide the warmth, security and care that children need. Parents who experience relationship difficulties may be less able to develop secure bonds with their children. As a consequence, children may also find it difficult to establish good relationships with others (Harold et al. 2001).

Children experiencing parental discord tend to perform worse in school. They are more likely to be disruptive and have poorer cognitive competence (Harold et al. 2001).

It also affects their health. Maternal stress arising from relationship problems during pregnancy is associated with behavioural and anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity in children (Bergman et al. 2007). Children's health behaviours (such as drinking and smoking) can be influenced by their experience of parental discord. Children tend to adopt behaviours that pose a threat to good health if they experience a neglectful rather than supportive family environment (Harold et al. 2001).

The need for consistent parenting

Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer, states in his Annual Report 2009, that a healthy start equips children for healthier lives, physically and mentally. He identifies consistent parenting as important; that nurturing children and developing their sense of control over their lives will give them the resources they need to look after themselves; and that chronic stress has a long-term impact. Given almost a third of young people in our consultation said that they are stressed, the national parenting strategy needs to establish relationship education for children and young people to help them work through the impact of chronic stress on their emotional wellbeing.

Loving homes and secure attachments

Relationship support needs to be available to all families so they can find support when they need it, rather than neglecting problems until they reach crisis. Together with this, taking an early intervention/preventative approach will help to:

  • Reduce the amount of stress to which children are exposed in family life
  • Increase the ability of children to cope resiliently with stressful families
  • Reduce the emotional and behavioural problems among children

Supporting parents to improve their couple relationship and thus reduce the risk of relationship breakdown will have a direct bearing on improving what happens to children in adulthood. We need to recognise that relationship difficulties are part of everyday life and that it is OK to ask for help. Parents need accessible and appropriate relationship support to enable them to provide the best conditions for children.

About the author

Marion Laird is head of services at SMC responsible for the delivery of relationship counselling services across Scotland, REACT Young People's Service, FOCCUS and the Relationship Helpline. Marion has a background in counselling services, locally and nationally and is involved in several government initiatives. She is a member of COSCA children and young people's group.