Parents as Partners Programme
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The Cowans Blog: Success of Parenting & Relationship Support

(Part 2 of 2) The development of Parents as Partners in the U.K. has been fascinating for us to witness. We’ve found that in both the U.K. and the U.S., parenting programmes are typically attended by mothers, with little attention paid to fathers or the relationship between the parents.

There are several other programmes that 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 they pay little attention to the relationship between the parents as partners or co-parents. Keeping all this separate is the fact that all these programmes are planned and funded in different funding or programme delivery silos, making it difficult or impossible for policy makers or parents themselves to appreciate how strain in different aspects of the larger family system may be contributing to their challenges.

Parents as Partners offers something unique. 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 that the quality of the relationship between the parents, whether married, cohabiting, separated, or divorced is a key factor in family well-being. In fact, the quality of the relationship between the children’s key parenting figures is the best predictor of whether fathers will be actively, positively involved with their children, how satisfied mothers and fathers will be with their relationship, and how their children will fare in their development.

The Parents as Partners Programme began working with U.K. couples in low-income, vulnerable families in five boroughs of London, expanded first to Manchester, Croydon, Stockport, Hartlepool, and Gateshead, and most recently to Swansea, Medway, and Luton.  The programme offers parents an opportunity to participate in a small couples group that meets weekly for 16 weeks with two clinically trained facilitators – a male/female pair trained to deliver the programme. The participants come from many ethnic backgrounds and have children ranging from birth to teenage years, but based on the preventive goal of the programme to get in early in the family-making period, all families recruited 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 Involvementwhich was funded by the California state government over 10 years and included more than 800 Mexican American, African American, and European American low-income families with young children. By following these families over time, we were able to show that the programme produced positive shifts in the well-being of mothers, fathers, and their children. Compared to comparable couples who were not offered the programme, the parents who attended the 16-week groups reported less stress as parents, more active involvement in the care of the children by fathers, no decline in satisfaction with their relationships as couples, which the control group parents showed, and fewer acting out, aggressive or withdrawn, depressed behaviours in their children.  

We are excited to find that the parents in the U.K. couples groups are showing very similar positive results after attending the Parents as Partners group programme. Under the talented stewardship of Lucy Draper, who directs the Parents as Partners programme in the U.K., and is responsible for training new staff to facilitate the couples groups, the project has engaged a large number of parents who have at least one young child between birth and 11 years. Many of the U.K. parents, and a substantial number of their children entered the programme with serious mental health and behavioural difficulties. The Parents as Partners programme found a significant reduction in those problems in the parents and the children.  The parents report fewer symptoms of psychological distress and less stress about their relationships with their children. They also report using a less harsh parenting style, and fewer violent problem-solving strategies as couples and co-parents when they confront serious challenges in their lives. A significant number of their children are moving out of the clinical range of behaviour problems and becoming more able to meet the challenges in their lives. It is also moving to witness a new hopefulness in many of the parents regarding their effectiveness as parents and as partners; they say that the relationships they are establishing with their group facilitators and other group members over the months of meeting in the groups show them that they are not the only ones who feel challenged, which leads them to feel less stigmatized for being poor, stressed as parents, or otherwise troubled.

We are hopeful that these early benefits of the Parents as Partners programme will lead to long-lasting benefits for U.K. families. In our programmes in the U.S., with funding to follow the families for a longer time, we were able to show in a programme for expectant couples that the early positive results lasted for 6 years from pregnancy to the children having made their transition to primary school, and in another programme for parents whose first children were 4-5 years old and about to embark on their school careers, that the benefits lasted for 10 years from pre-kindergarten to the children having made the transition to high school. Not surprisingly, 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 comparable control group once they had made the transitions to high school at age 14-15.

We are encouraged too by new trials of Parents as Partners for adoptive, separated, and gay and lesbian parents that have been offered in the past year at Tavistock Relationships. Plans are underway to recruit more families expecting a baby, again on the premise that helping families as they are forming rather than later when their challenges feel overwhelming, will be most effective in the long run.

We get the sense that we are coming to the U.K. at an auspicious time; there is still much concern about the health of Britain’s families, and new government staff members must decide on how to carry out the government’s ambitions about how best to support families with young children and their communities.

We now have more than 30 years of data from U.S., Canada, and the U.K. that adults and children do much better if we offer caring support for strengthening the parents’ relationships as parents and as partners. While it seems that this message is becoming more acknowledged within policy-making circles in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., we are looking forward to doing whatever we can to make sure that this kind of thinking becomes embedded at all levels of this fascinating and vital area of social policy.

Professors Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan, University of California, Berkeley