Professor’s Philip and Carolyn Cowan reflect on their upcoming visit around England, visiting services and meeting with policy makers
Professor of the Graduate School at the University of Berkeley California, USA,. Professors Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan, Phil Cowan designed couples group interventions to strengthen family relationships, guided by a family systems model in which intergenerational attachment patterns and couple relationship quality provide the contexts in which effective parenting leads to positive cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes for children. They have worked with The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships for a number of years on these issues.
We’re really looking forward to visiting the UK again to see our friends at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, and to hear about progress being made with the Parents as Partners parenting groups which the charity is running based on our work over decades here in the U.S.
We have a very exciting and busy agenda once we arrive, involving trips to Manchester and Hartlepool to work with TCCR staff and local authority leaders who are delivering Parents as Partners groups. While back in London, we’ll be attending meetings in Parliament, as well as talking with Government officials about the importance of including a relationship focus in parenting approaches. We’ll also be talking to Department of Health officials, and we hope that these discussions can help build on the work that TCCR and other partners in the relationship support sector have been engaged in around getting the links between relationship health and mental health better understood. Results from the groupwork programmes we’ve run in the U.S. have clearly shown that that these two domains are inextricably linked, so we feel we’ve got something useful to say in this respect.
Over the past three years the Parents as Partners couples group programme, funded by the British government, and offered by the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships paired with Family Action, has provided a unique intervention for parents of young children. It combines aspects of couple relationship support for mothers and fathers together, help with effective parenting strategies, and encouragement for fathers to become and stay active in their children's lives.
The Growing Success of Parents as Partners
The development of Parents as Partners in the U.K. has been fascinating for us to witness. After all, in both the U.K. and the U.S., parenting programmes are primarily attended by mothers. A few other programmes offer couple relationship support but pay little attention to parenting or the couple's children. A few specialised programmes focus on attracting fathers and helping them to be more involved with their children, but all these programmes are planned and funded in different funding or programme delivery silos.
Parents as Partners therefore offers something different. Empirically based, it brings together voluminous evidence that improving couple/co-parenting relationships leads to more effective parenting and better outcomes for children's development, and the quality of the relationship between the parents - married, cohabiting, separated, or divorced - is the best predictor of whether fathers will be actively, positively involved with their children – which, in turn, leads to benefits for mothers, children, and the fathers themselves.
The Parents as Partners Programme has been working with couples in low-income, vulnerable families in five boroughs of London and has recently expanded to Manchester, Croydon, Stockport, Hartlepool and Gateshead. The programme offers parents an opportunity to participate in a small couples group that meets weekly for 16 weeks with two clinically trained facilitators (always male/female pairs). The participants come from many ethnic backgrounds and have children ranging from birth to teenage years, but based on the preventive goals of the programme in getting in early in the family-making period, all have at least one baby or young child.
US evidence supports the new move in UK policy
Parents as Partners is modeled on an evidence-based U.S. programme, Supporting Father Involvement which, over 10 years in California, included more than 800 Mexican American, African American, and European American low-income families with young children and produced positive shifts in the well-being of mothers, fathers, and their children. The early results of the Parents as Partners from the first five London boroughs are extremely promising as well. For example, after participating in these 16-week, 32 hour programmes, the programme has found significant reductions in depression and anxiety, parenting stress, violent problem solving strategies, harsh parenting, arguments between parents about the children - and fewer acting out/aggressive and withdrawn, depressed behaviours in the children. The first publication of those results for families in the U.K., led by Polly Casey, is in press as we write this blog.
It is immensely gratifying to us to discover that this approach is paying dividends when applied to a U.K. context. We are hopeful that the early benefits of the Parents as Partners programme will lead to long-lasting benefits for U.K. families, not least because long-term evaluations of the programmes we ran in the U.S. - in which parents worked in couples groups during their child's transition to nursery – have demonstrated positive benefits for the parents and the children which lasted for 10 years until the children were in high school. Furthermore, when the parents were doing better as individuals and as couples, their parenting strategies became more effective, their relationships as partners were more satisfying, and their children were doing better academically, socially, and emotionally than children in a control group as they all made their transitions to high school at age 14-15.
We get the sense that we are coming to the U.K. at a good time, not least given your Prime Minister’s announcement in January about the U.K. Government’s ambitions regarding normalising attendance at parental classes, as well as the forthcoming Life Chances Strategy.
Our main contention – that adults and children do much better if you focus on supporting the parents’ relationship than when you don’t – is one which we have over thirty years of data to support. While it does seem that this message is becoming more and more acknowledged within policy-making circles in the U.K., we are looking forward to doing whatever we can to make double sure that this kind of thinking becomes embedded at all levels of this fascinating and vital area of social policy.