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What is the Parents as Partners programme?

The Parents as Partners Programme is an evaluated, group work programme for parents who are struggling with conflict and stress in their parenting and relationships. This transformative programme, funded by the Department for Work and Pensions and operated in the UK by the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships with support from Family Action, is designed to support couples as they resolve relationship issues that affect their ability to parent their children effectively.

Despite a strong evidence base in support of the pivotal role of high quality, positive couple relationships in a range of outcomes for the whole family, very few family interventions include a focus on the couple relationship, and fewer still are designed for both mothers and fathers to attend together.

The Parents as Partners programme is based on the pioneering work of Professors Philip and Carolyn Cowan in the US (Cowan et al., 2005; Cowan et al., 2009; Cowan et al., 2011). Conducting longitudinal studies with families for over a decade, the Cowans have consistently demonstrated the value of including couple-focused content in preventative interventions to enhance children’s wellbeing.

Here, under the guidance of the Cowans, we have adapted their successful Supporting Father Involvement (SFI) model for delivery to parents in the UK. Long-term evaluation of the SFI programme with low-income Mexican American and European American families has shown that parents who attended couples’ groups reported sustained improvements in terms of fathers’ engagement and children’s problems, as well as stable levels of relationship satisfaction and a decline in parenting stress over a period of 18 months (Cowan et al., 2009).

Longitudinal outcomes from the Cowans’ programmes point to the added and lasting value of including couple relationship content in family interventions, and highlight the importance of involving both parents in interventions aimed at strengthening families and relationships.

What are the results so far of the Parents as Partners programme?

The latest analysis of TCCR’s Parents as Partners programme is based on 97 couples who attended the first 18 Parents as Partners groups. Sixteen groups took place across 6 London boroughs (Camden, Islington, Lewisham, Southwark, Hackney, and Westminster), and 2 groups took place in Manchester.

The results continue to be extremely encouraging, with parents reporting improvements on a host of family dimensions after attending group sessions. The latest findings are not only in line with emerging trends reported previously, but also with longitudinal findings from the Supporting Father Involvement programme (see above). Importantly, the results suggest that the Parents as Partners programme is having greatest impact on those most in need of support.

As expected, parents attending the Parents as Partners groups represent a vulnerable population. Questionnaire data collected before the start of group sessions shows that a significant proportion of parents report clinically relevant levels of general psychological distress, depression, and stress in relation to parenting. In addition, parents report poor quality couple relationships and levels of child emotional and behavioural difficulties above that which would be expected in the general population.


Domains in which Parents as Partners programme has produced improvements

  • quality of the couple relationship – greatest improvements in poor quality, high conflict relationships;
  • reduction in couple conflict (including disagreements about money, the children, time spent together) – greatest improvements in poor quality, high conflict relationships;
  • reduction in violent problem-solving;
  • improvements in psychological wellbeing;
  • reduction in children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties;
  • most striking improvements seen in children with the most problematic behaviours.

Statistical analysis comparing pre-group data with data collected at the end of group sessions (that is, after 16 weeks) indicates promising improvements on a number of indices. First, there were positive intervention effects with respect to parents’ relationship with one another. Both mothers and fathers reported an improvement in the quality of the couple relationship and mothers also reported a reduction in the amount of couple conflict (including disagreements about money, the children, time spent together). This is noteworthy given the well-documented decline in couple relationship quality over time. Furthermore, both mothers and fathers reported a significant decrease in the frequency of violent problem solving.

Additional analysis showed that it was the parents in poor quality, high conflict relationships - arguably the most difficult to work with - that reported the greatest improvements in these areas. Parents entering the programme in relatively high quality, harmonious relationships were able to sustain this.

Parents in relationships characterised by a high use of violence during disagreements before beginning the programme reported the most striking reductions in this respect, but of particular interest is the finding that even parents who reported relatively little use of violence had nonetheless managed to reduce the frequency of behaviours.  

Second, both parents reported improvements with respect to their psychological wellbeing after having attended the programme. This included reductions in global psychological distress and stress in relation to parenting (for mothers in particular). Parents considered to be displaying clinical levels of distress and parenting stress reported the greatest improvements in wellbeing after having attending Parents as Partners groups.

Finally, and importantly, both mothers and fathers rated their child as displaying fewer emotional and behavioural difficulties after having attended the programme, as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. This finding held for both parents of boys and girls. Once again, the programme appeared to have the most significant impact on those in greatest need of support; parents of children categorised as having an ‘abnormal’ or ‘borderline’ level of difficulties based on SDQ total scores (in comparison to parents of children with difficulties with the expected range for that age group) reported the most striking improvements in their children’s behaviours.1

These findings from Parents as Partners in the UK are particularly timely given the Prime Minister’s announcement in January this year regarding parenting as a key intervention for improving children’s outcomes. Parents as Partners is a programme which - in uniquely bringing together parenting, couple relationships and mental health to produce demonstrable improvements in those factors which we know impinge on children’s life chances - speaks to the heart of this vital agenda.

Footnote

1 Without a control group for comparison it is not possible to attribute these positive changes to the impact of the intervention alone. However, the above findings are nonetheless encouraging given the consistent pattern, and parallels between these findings and those of the SFI intervention in the US. We are continually collecting follow-up data and look forward to amassing more and more data at six months after parents’ last group session in order to explore whether positive intervention effects have been sustained.

References

Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Ablow, J., Johnson, V., & Measelle, J. (Eds.). (2005). The Family Context of Parenting in Children's Adaptation to School. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cowan, P. A. & Cowan, C. P. (2002). Interventions as tests of family systems theories: Marital and family relationships in children’s development and psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 731-759.

Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M., Pruett, K., and Wong, J.J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(3), 663-679.