The future of parent support: teach co-parenting?

A randomised controlled trial has compared two very different ways of supporting parents: one a programme focusing on couples’ communication and stress management called Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET) and the other a programme focusing on parenting skills called Triple P. Both involved group sessions for couples – an 8-hour session all in one weekend in the case of CCET, and 4 separate 2-hour sessions in the case of Triple P.

The researchers, lead by Martina Zemp of the Department of Psychology at the University of Zurich, measured parents’ perceptions of relationship quality, parenting quality and child behaviour in 150 couples – 50 who participated in CCET, 50 who participated in Triple P and 50 who did neither (untreated control group).

The researchers found that each programme yielded positive effects for child behaviours for participating mothers. In the case of CCET, this came about through improvement in the mother-father relationship, and in the case of Triple P through improvement in the quality of parenting. The authors suggest some mechanisms why improvement in the mother-father relationship might reduce child behaviour problems in the mothers’ perspective, although the answers will have to wait for further research. Could the influence be direct – the child flourishes in a more harmonious atmosphere? Or could it be that when the relationship is good, parents are more consistent with each other in how they rear the child?

The pattern for fathers was different from that for mothers. In the fathers’ case, improved parenting rather than an improved relationship explained the CCET programme’s benefits for children’s behaviour.

The authors discuss why this difference might exist. Prior research has found that fathers’ parenting is more susceptible to couple conflict than the parenting of mothers. This could explain why the couple-focused program reduced child behaviour problems via improved paternal parenting.

Much research shows that couple conflict has adverse effects on children, and it is perhaps surprising that parenting programmes take so little account of this (as we have reported earlier on the Child and Family Blog). Earlier research has shown that introducing a couple focus into parenting may enhance the programmes’ efficacy and that couple relationship programmes often improve children’s behaviour, too.

The authors conclude that all this provides further evidence that the most effective method of supporting mothers and fathers together may be to focus on parenting and relationship skills. Growing evidence suggests that “co-parenting”—that is, how parents cooperate in parenting, support each other in their parenting efforts, and manage conflict regarding child-rearing—is a big factor in family functioning and children’s well-being. They quote a number of other studies that suggest that a focus on co-parenting in prevention and intervention programmes is an effective way forward.

Zemp M, Milek A, Cummings EM, Cina A, Bodenmann G, How couple- and parenting-focused programs affect child behavioural problems: a randomized controlled trial, Journal of Child and Family Studies 25, 2016. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0260-1