Research into the mechanisms of change between parenting interventions and couple relationship quality suggests that improvements in parenting skills and child behaviour lead to better relationships between parents.
The study, by University of Zurich researchers published in the Journal of Family Psychology, also found that when fathers feel more confident and engaged in parenting, both partners were likely to feel their relationship had improved.
With family breakdown regarded as one of the most central causes of poverty, the research adds to growing evidence that parenting programs have much to offer across a number of policy settings aimed at reducing income inequality and its effects.
Led by Martina Zemp at the School of Psychology at The University of Zurich, the study used data from research published in 2008 to test whether improvements in children’s behaviour after their parents participated in a parenting program could predict better relationship quality for their parents above and beyond the development of better parenting skills.
In the original study, led by Guy Bodenmann from the Institute for Family Research and Counseling at The University of Fribourg, 50 couples were randomly assigned to participate either in Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET), Group Triple P or a control group. The research was conducted in Zurich with families of children aged from 2 – 12 years. Researchers followed up with the families a year later.
The original 2008 study found that mothers in the Triple P group showed significant improvements in parenting, parenting self-esteem and a decrease in stressors related to parenting. They also reported significantly lower rates of child misbehaviour than the other two conditions. However, only a few significant results were found for fathers and overall, positive effects of relationship training were somewhat lower than those for Triple P.
In the 2016 study, the authors re-analysed the original data to investigate whether improvements in children’s behaviour were related to better couple relationships for parents.
Links between improved child behaviour and better relationships
The researchers found that mothers who reported improved child problem behaviour a year after participating in Triple P also reported improved couple relationship quality.
“Among fathers, however, it was not their evaluations of improved child problem behaviour, but rather their self-reported improvement of parenting skills which significantly predicted both fathers’ and mothers’ relationship quality at the 1-year follow-up,’’ the authors write.
“None of these effects were apparent in the control group, indicating that the reported findings may not be considered natural processes but likely occurred as a result of parents’ participation in Triple P.’’
So the role of parenting appears to have important implications for the quality of couple relationships, with both parents reporting better relationships when fathers are more actively engaged in child rearing.
In the discussion, lead author Martina Zemp and colleagues explore the idea that fathers may be less sensitive to child problem behaviours than mothers because they spend comparatively less time with their children.
“Studies have generally found that fathers report fewer problem behaviours in children than mothers (Bornstein, 2014),’’ they write. “This circumstance may also contribute to our finding that improvement in child problems did not directly affect fathers’ relationship quality.’’
Parents working together as a team
However, a New Zealand randomised controlled trial which set out to enhance father engagement in Group Triple found that both mothers and fathers reported improvements in disruptive behaviour in their children following the intervention.
Writing in Behaviour Therapy, Tenille Frank and colleagues explain that they decided to involve both parents in the design of the study because of previous findings that improvements in child behaviour are more likely to be maintained over time when both parents take part in a program.
“One reason for these findings is that as both parents get the same message about child behavior management strategies they may be able to support and help each other, leading to greater interparental consistency and lower conflict (Bagner & Eyberg, 2003; Webster-Stratton, 1985),’’ the authors explain.
“Children’s positive adjustment has been associated with high-quality co-parenting behaviors, such as teamwork and support for the other parent, lack of conflict over child-rearing, and agreement on child-related topics (Teubert & Pinquart, 2010).’’
So, while children benefit from parents working together as a team, as Frank et al. discovered in the New Zealand trial, it is also evident that “parents who are able to work constructively together as a team on parenting issues are also more satisfied in their close relationship’’ as the Zurich authors write.
As Zemp et al. note in their conclusion: “First they (our findings) suggest that children’s problem behavior may affect the parents’ relationship quality over time. Second, the findings also highlight the possibility that prevention programs that are designed to reduce child problem behaviour may have added value in strengthening the couple’s relationship quality.’’