Responding to the rise in parental conflict during lockdown

By Virginia Ghiara | 08 September 2020

The Early Intervention Foundation recently surveyed 42 local authorities and 13 intervention developers and providers to find out how COVID-19 has impacted upon their ability to provide relationship support to families.

The results of our survey show that COVID-19 has likely increased parental conflict. Almost three-quarters (74%) of those surveyed from local authorities believe parental conflict has increased to at least some extent since COVID-19 and the lockdown. This result is alarming: although conflict between parents is a normal part of relationships, when children are exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved parental conflict, this can have a damaging and long-term impact on them. This kind of non-abusive destructive conflict can range from intense quarrels to verbal or physical aggression, including conflicts that are about or involve the children, the ‘silent’ treatment, lack of respect and emotional control, and a lack of resolution.

Our analysis shows that it’s difficult to develop a clear understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on referrals to parental conflict support services, as local authorities have had differing experiences, with some seeing a fall in referrals at the start of lockdown and others experiencing a steep increase.

Such differing experiences are reflected in how local authorities responded to our survey: 37% said that referrals to parental conflict support has increased, 13% said decreased and 10% said they have not changed. The rest were either unsure or responded that the type of referral has changed. In an unprecedented situation it’s perhaps not surprising at this stage to see a variation in the experiences of differing local areas.

Despite this divergence in referrals, in the face of this challenging environment, our research found that collectively local authorities are responding dynamically to deliver services. Survey respondents suggested that positive changes have emerged as a result of COVID-19, which should be retained in the future, including improved partnership working within local systems and an increase in parental help-seeking behaviour. These findings are in line with what we found through our qualitative research on the impact of COVID-19 on early intervention services.

Other findings from our research include:

  • The vast majority of local authorities and intervention developers and providers have adapted their provision to be available virtually or digitally. Prior to the lockdown in March 2020, many responding local authorities (63%) and intervention developers and providers (eight out of 13, or 62%) didn’t offer virtual and digital interventions to support parents’ relationships. By July, however, three months after lockdown began, almost all – 89% and 93% respectively – had adapted their provision to ensure continued support.
  • There have been many challenges faced by the sector in delivering virtual and digital interventions, including difficulties in identifying escalating risk with limited home visits and face-to-face contact, a lack of funding to quickly adapt services, and difficulties maintaining privacy and confidentiality.
  • Despite these challenges, among the responding local authorities, there is a strong sense that this period of rapid adaptation could pave the way for a cultural change in normalising discussions around parental conflict which needs to be pushed further.
  • The vast majority of local authorities are already signposting parents to specific online support to reduce parental conflict and/or improve the quality of parents’ relationships. 74% of the local authorities surveyed created or identified bespoke online services such as relationship support helplines, websites, online hubs and interactive tools to adapt to the new digital reality.
  • Most of the pre-existing virtual and digital interventions targeting parents’ relationships have yet to show robust evidence that they can improve outcomes for children. Of the 12 virtual and digital interventions on which we conducted a preliminary assessment, most were found to either have no or limited evidence or preliminary evidence of improving child outcomes, with only one intervention found to have robust evidence. While there is little evidence to suggest that virtual and digital interventions are more effective than traditional face-to-face approaches, studies comparing these two approaches have found that interventions delivered using virtual and digital methods can be as effective as those delivered face-to-face.

One other interesting, positive, finding from the survey was that 83% of the local authorities we surveyed intend to evaluate the impact of their adapted provision. This suggests to us that the sector is interested in using the current situation to test their adapted provision; however, they are likely to need support.

As the UK evidence on ‘what works’ to effectively address parental conflict and improve outcomes for children is still at an early stage, it’s encouraging to that the sector is interested in using the current situation as an opportunity to test and learn, with a view to improving the evidence base of virtual and digital interventions going forward.

Virginia Ghiara is research officer at the Early Intervention Foundation

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