A new campaign aims to draw attention to inter-parental conflict and its impact on children and young people’s mental health. 

The Sort It Out campaign has been launched by the APPG for Strengthening Couple Relationships to coincide with Healthy Relationships Week, and is supported by BACP and our organisational members Tavistock Relationships

Richard Meier, policy and projects manager at Tavistock Relationships, is a long-term campaigner in this area and a former policy adviser at YoungMinds and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Important campaign

He says it’s an important campaign which aims to stop children being harmed by conflict between warring parents.

Evidence shows parents engaging in frequent, poorly resolved and often persistent conflict put their children’s mental health at risk. 

And Richard says couples therapy is important when it comes to children’s mental health. 

Richard recently met Jo Holmes, our Children, Young People and Families Policy Lead, to talk about what needs to change. 

Their starting point, which forms part of the wider campaign ask, was to discuss inter-parental conflict becoming part of any assessment criteria when working with children and young people across the different sectors. 

This is not without its challenges.

Therapeutic services

Richard said: "Therapeutic services often operate in a siloed system where the divide between adult and children’s services is largely unbridgeable.

“Services are generally to the child or the parent.

“Yes, some parenting work does get delivered through CAMHS and children’s IAPT, but the research clearly shows that parenting work which does not address parental conflict is not effective. Very rarely does a referral result in working with first the child and then the significant adults.” 

Richard said that another challenge was the evidence base for working in this area is not developed although, arguably, the evidence base for couple therapy is strong.

Early indications from the government’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme are also positive in terms of the effectiveness of interventions being trialled.  

Richard said he hoped other services, such as CAMHS, will get on board with this agenda and commission direct work with parents, on the quality of their relationship – such as couple therapy or groupwork with parents in conflict – as part of their offer.

Pilot project

In one small scale study, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust’s CAMH service, ran a pilot project with a couple therapist working as part of its team over a two year period.

Dr Sarah Wynick, the psychiatrist leading the service, noted the huge contribution of this work, with the therapist delivering more than 250 sessions, resulting in many of the cases simply being closed.

Perhaps it is this finding, albeit in a small pilot study, which might make commissioners start to take note, said Jo Holmes. If you address the conflict between parents, many children and young people may not need specialist services themselves.

A further survey undertaken in Tower Hamlets CAMH service, in which nine clinicians reviewed more than 313 cases, revealed inter-parental conflict had contributed significantly to the mental health difficulties of the child or young person for nearly half of all cases; and that in more than half of these cases, the clinicians felt the children’s difficulties would continue if the conflict between parents went unaddressed.

In a sample of more than 42,000 children seen across 75 young people’s IAPT services, family relationships was cited by professionals in 52% of cases

Family relations are the second most common reason children and young people contact Childline. And within children and young people counselling, family relationship is often cited consistently within the top three issues presenting in therapy.

Interparental conflict affects 1.25 million children, according to Government figures. 

Couple conflict

Jo Holmes said: “Couple conflict is perhaps more prominent with people living closer and families spending more time together because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Things that were previously hidden are out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide. 

“We know issues are brought into the therapy room about relationships and how it impacts on children, whether parents are living together or apart. 

“A lot of the work as therapists often focuses on helping children to cope with parents who are persistently arguing causing huge levels of stress and worry, particularly when this conflict become toxic. This campaign ask is about taking a step aside from the child and investing in couple therapy so that ultimately everyone wins."

To find a relationship counsellor visit our Therapist directory.