Detailed introduction for Getting It Right For Children When Parents Part Course
This document provides more information about the programme. Please also see the Frequently Asked Questions page if your questions are not answered below. After outlining some headline figures, we will show how children can be affected by their parents’ separation, whether children are likely to experience these effects, the role of conflict and disagreements between parents, the benefits of internet programmes (such as this one), and how the content of the programme can help improve outcomes for children.
The breakdown of relationships has become a common feature of today’s society. The latest available reports are that 119,589 divorces occurred in England and Wales during 2010 (ONS, 2011). It is also estimated that 45% of marriages will end up in divorce (Wilson and Smallwood, 2008). Although national-level data on cohabiting relationships are difficult to obtain, there is evidence to suggest that these relationships are more prone to breakdown than married ones (Wilson and Stuchbury, 2010).
Of the relationships that do breakdown, many of them involve children. For example, of the couples who divorced in England and Wales in 2008, most (85%) had one or two children (ONS, 2010). In 2010, there were 104,364 children under 16 who experienced the divorce of their parents (ONS, 2011). The number of children affected by divorce is likely to be substantially higher as these figures refer only to those reported at the time of divorce in each year (not to the total number of children within England and Wales who have experienced parental divorce). Note also that these figures do not reflect the numbers of children affected by the separation of cohabiting parents, as it is difficult to report these numbers.
The possible impacts of parental separation on children
Evidence from extensive reviews of other studies has reported strong associations between couple relationship breakdown and poor child outcomes (Coleman and Glenn, 1999). These include: poverty and socio-economic disadvantage, physical ill-health, psychological ill-health, lower educational achievement, substance misuse and other health-damaging behaviours, and behavioural problems including conduct disorder, anti-social behaviour and crime (for example, Ahrons, 2007; Amato & Cheadle, 2005; Elliot & Vaitilingam, 2008; Formby & Cherlin, 2007; Gregg & Machin, 1998; Gruber, 2004; Herberth et al., 2008; Hope et al., 1998; Kiernan & Mensah, 2010; Mooney et al., 2009; Murphy, 2007; Smyth & Maclachlan, 2004; Strohschein, 2005; Strohschein, 2007).
Longitudinal, cohort studies (that collect information from people on an ongoing, for example, annual basis) have shown that these effects may be long-term for some children. These effects include socio-economic disadvantage in later life, cohabitation or marriage at an early age, teenage pregnancy, and increased risk of their own marital breakdown (for example, Amato & Cheadle, 2005; Booth & Amato, 2001; Gruber, 2004). Moreover, although divorce and separation is more common nowadays, there is evidence to suggest that the adverse outcomes for children are still equally apparent (Ely et al., 1999; Gruber, 2004; Sigle-Rushton et al., 2005). This contradicts the argument that increasing divorce and separation rates reduce the negative impacts in line with less stigma and greater acceptance of relationship breakdown. Also, these negative outcomes have the potential to impact on children of all ages, from babies to older teenagers.
What affects whether children experience these consequences of their parental separation?
These negative impacts of relationship breakdown on children, however, are far from universal (Flowerdew & Neale, 2003; Formby & Cherlin, 2007; Hawthorne et al., 2003; Maclean, 2004; Mooney et al., 2009). The majority of children are able to adjust to a changing situation after a period of instability whilst others are less fortunate with negative impacts extending into adulthood.
There are several factors that moderate the impact of parental separation which explain why, for some, the impacts are worse than for others. For children, these include: parenting quality, financial resources, maternal mental health, multiple family transitions, child’s relationship with both parents after separation (where appropriate, and supportive family members (Dunn, 2008; Hawthorne et al., 2003; Flowerdew & Neale, 2003; Mooney et al., 2009).
When considering the (moderating) factors that may influence how much children are affected by relationship breakdown, there is a strong case for all being mediated, at least to some extent, through the parent-child relationship (Hawthorne et al., 2003; Mooney et al., 2009). As a recent review paper (Sigal et al., 2011) indicates “(the) one factor that researchers have found to have a powerful impact on children from divorced families, (is) parenting by the mother and father following divorce” (p.120).
Therefore, good, warm authoritative and effective parenting, supported by a good relationship between both parents, may be one of the most potent means of reducing the negative impacts on children. Indeed, with the unequivocal link between couple relationship satisfaction and supportive parenting (Feinberg & Kan, 2008; Hawthorne et al., 2003; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Strohschein, 2005), the importance of strengthening an amicable, ‘business-like’ relationship between separated parents in order to minimise the impacts on children is clear.
Parental conflict and disagreements
The degree of conflict between parents after separation has a strong influence on child outcomes. This conflict can occur before separation, during separation, and beyond separation especially when trying to establish contact arrangements over the child/children. More specifically, there is well accepted evidence highlighting the detrimental impact of adult relationship conflict and distress on children (for example, Cummings & Davies, 2002; Cummings et al., 2008; Margolin et al., 2001; McIntosh, 2003; Mooney et al., 2009). However, research also indicates that it is not necessarily whether parents are in conflict that is key, but how this conflict occurs and is managed. For example, ‘destructive’ conflict (e.g. physical violence) can be particularly harmful to children, although ‘constructive’ conflict (e.g. mild conflict effectively resolved) can be important for children in learning how to resolve disputes in an effective manner (Cummings et al., 2008). Similarly, unresolved conflict between separated parents, and that which involves children as messengers or recipients of negative information, is particularly harmful (Hawthorne et al., 2003). During this difficult transition period of divorce or separation, children’s needs are often overlooked by parents, especially where entrenched conflict reduces the likelihood of communicating to each other about child contact or other arrangements (Gillard & Seymour, 2005; Amato 2005).
The existing marital conflict literature provides important insights into how, why and when conflict between separated parents adversely affects children. Couples who are in the midst of divorce or separation may be more likely to use destructive forms of conflict behavior. As the child is the key which still binds separated parents together, it is not surprising that the topic of their conflict is often related to the child. Conflicts where children are put, or made to feel, ‘in the middle’ of their parents are particularly problematic. Indeed, children’s appraisal of their parent’s conflict appears to play an important role in their adjustment (Harold & Murch, 2005). These effects of children being ‘caught in the middle’ are highlighted by Professor Paul Amato who has published extensively in this area:
“Conflict between nonresident parents appears to be particularly harmful when children feel that they are caught in the middle, as when one parent denigrates the other parent in front of the child, when children are asked to transmit critical or emotionally negative messages from one parent to the other, and when one parent attempts to recruit the child as an ally against the other. Interparental conflict is a direct stressor for children, and it can also interfere with their attachments to parents, resulting in feelings of emotional insecurity.” (Amato, 2005, p.84).
In contrast to where the relationship between ex-partners is poor, high quality relationships between separated parents have been shown to be beneficial to children (for example, Feinberg & Kan, 2008; Hawthorne et al., 2003; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).
Based on the research evidence, this online programme ‘Getting it right for children when parents part’ aims to help protect children from negative outcomes that may occur following parental separation. It will achieve this by helping you to grasp some specific skills: how to control your emotions when under stress, how to listen carefully, how to communicate clearly and calmly, how to problem solve and how to manage conflict and to negotiate effectively.
The online approach
The negative impacts that can occur among children following parental separation highlights the need for this programme. With the impacts of post-separation parenting playing such a key role in children’s outcomes, the number of programmes such as this has escalated in the last 10-15 years. However, much of the development (and evaluation) of prevention programmes attempting to minimise the harmful effects of parental separation on children has been generated in the US, and may not reflect the ‘culture’ of UK parents. Also, most of these programmes require people meeting in a face-to-face setting (which can be inconvenient for some).
An international review of divorce education programmes makes the distinction between basic information provision and communication skills enhancement programmes (Blaisure & Geasler, 2000). The basic information level can reach a larger number of people in little time, at lower cost. Although information provision is relatively cost-effective, there is often the frustration that these programmes do not give people the skills to put this learning into practice (for example by discussing contact arrangements with an ex-partner). By contrast, the communication skills training, although more costly (if face-to-face) and more lengthy, is able to focus more on the behaviours to open up dialogue between parents entrenched in conflict following a separation. The online delivery of this skills-based programme, ‘Getting it right for children when parents part’ essentially helps to provide these skills to a wider number of parents.
Indeed, the growing access to internet resources increases the potential uptake of such programmes. For example, 73% of households in the UK have an internet connection, and 60% of adults in the UK access the internet on a daily basis (ONS, 2010). These online programmes allow content to be tailored to people’s needs, provide ease of access (cost, available at any time), permit the possibility of repeating material and thus adjusting delivery to suit an individual’s pace, and offer a safe learning environment.
How this programme can help – ‘Getting it right for children when parents part’
As noted earlier, there has been a growing number of parental separation programmes. These programmes, mainly from the US, include KIDS (Kids in Divorce and Separation); Children in the Middle; KIDS Turn; the New Beginnings Program; the Collaborative Divorce Project; and the Parenting Information Programme (PIP). The evaluation of these programmes, together with evidence from online programmes that address other family well-being issues, has helped us to be sure that this online programme really can have benefits for parents and children. One such family well-being study, focusing on stepfamilies, has been particularly influential in shaping the design of this programme for separated parents (Gelatt et al., 2010). Gelatt et al (2010) reported an evaluation from an Interactive Multi-Media programme that used Behaviour Modelling Training.
From a Randomised Control Trial, an intervention and delayed access control group, Gellat et al (2010) conclude that relatively brief exposure (a minimum of three weekly visits) to an online behavioural stepparent-training programme had a positive impact on family and parenting functioning. Specifically, stepparents who completed the programme showed greater ‘family adjustment’, ‘harmony’ and ‘life satisfaction’ and less parent-child conflict, compared to step-parents who had not completed the course. A 60-day follow up also indicated that the course improved aspects of the couple relationship and parenting. Critically, this study also identified a number of features of online programmes (more generally) that could be seen as influencing the positive results, as follows:
- Theoretical base to the programme – Behavior Modelling Training (BMT) – defined in this paper as “(visual demonstrations of behaviours) to promote knowledge acquisition and improvement in attitudes, intentions and self-efficacy” (p.574).
- Range of modules to suit different needs.
- Videos of ineffective and effective solutions / responses.
- User watches a video, followed by a reflection sequence – hearing perceptions and feelings of those involved.
- On-screen questions.
- Supportive text and literature.
Underpinning the Gellat et al (2010) stepfamilies programme are the principles of Behaviour Modelling Training (BMT). BMT uses visual demonstrations of behaviours to promote knowledge acquisition and improvement in attitudes, intentions and self-efficacy. The foundation of BMT is Bandura’s (1977) Social Learning Theory. According to this, a change in belief about one’s ability to execute successfully a given behavior will mediate the demonstrated behavior and the initiation and maintenance of that behavior. Taylor et al (2005 – see next) describe Social Learning Theory as having four core components:
- Attentional (modeling stimuli);
- Retentional (symbolic coding and symbolic rehearsal);
- Reproduction (behavioural rehearsal and skill practice);
- Motivational (transfer the training to the post training environment through reinforcements) processes.
To assess the merits of this approach, a further influential paper was published by Taylor et al (2005). Their paper details a meta analysis of 117 published and unpublished studies (a total of 279 effect sizes) of adult training programmes that used BMT. They concluded that BMT was effective in producing sustainable skill improvement and post training behavior change as follows:
“The body of published and unpublished evaluation research on BMT reviewed here has demonstrated the approach to be an effective, psychologically based training intervention that has been used to produce sustainable improvements in a diverse range of skills and posttraining behavior.” (Taylor et al., 2005, p.706)
Taylor et al (2005) illustrate the valuable learning points from their review as follows:
- First, the BMT studies tended to show that although knowledge appears to decay after training, the effects on implementation of the newly learned skills tend to be sustained or even increase through time. The authors explain this noteworthy finding through the opportunities to practise that are available.
- Second, and in relation, the number of hours of training (linked to the opportunities to practise) was positively associated with larger training effects on the development of procedural knowledge-skills. Clearly this signifies the importance of users being able to repeat (and ‘rewind’) and control the amount of exposure to the video sequences as desired.
- Third, the review also provides a case for mixed models (showing less and more effective solutions to typical scenarios) over those that are positive only (they showed greater changes in behaviour than positive only models).
- Fourth, the review showed that the use of symbolic rehearsal of skills before the behavioural rehearsal was associated with higher levels of skill development.
BMT is the theoretical basis of the ‘Getting it right for children when parent part’ and the evidence shown above proves it can have a beneficial affect for those in receipt of the programme. Introducing you to the five key skills outlined in the programme, in this manner, is the best possible way to help improve outcomes for children when their parents separate.
Finally, we would like this programme to help many families. To help us improve things, we really value your say in what you think about the programme – good and bad things! It is for this reason the programme has a few questions where we would like to find out your views: only in that way can we help to constantly update and improve it.
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