To help children, start first with the parents

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Families are ever more fragile. But new research shows when and how we can intervene to prevent the worst happening (2009)

In the final stages of the Divorce Law Reform Bill in 1969, Quintin Hogg (later the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham) reflected on the rise of divorce since he had entered Parliament: "Are we sure how much human happiness has increased during those 35 years?" he asked. According to the historian Laurence Stone, there was an uneasy silence among MPs, "for nobody really knew". Despite this, Leo Abse, the backbencher who had introduced the Bill, "confidently prophesied that in future there would be more, not fewer stable, legitimate happy households. On that optimistic note... the Bill was passed".

Abse's prophesy has not come true Forty years on, the number of marriages has halved, the number of divorces has doubled and births outside marriage are up fourfold. Britain has some of the lowest levels of child wellbeing in the world compared with its wealthy peers.

The 1971 Divorce Act was a blessed relief for spouses trapped in abusive and unhappy marriages. It also righted two long-standing injustices, by offering equal access to divorce for poor as well as rich couples and for wives as well as husbands.

Supporters of the reform believed that, once released from unhappy marriages, unhappy spouses would find a new partner and live happily ever after. Much of the pain of marital breakdown was believed to result from the social stigma of divorce. As separation and divorce became more commonplace, the stigma would lessen and, in time, the adverse effects on adults and children would diminish.

Forty years on, the stigma has indeed lessened, but a new research review that we publish today shows these adverse effects are as marked as ever and may be getting worse.

Modern parents seem to find the contrast between the freedom of life before children and parenthood more challenging than previous generations: satisfaction with their relationship plummets and the rows increase. Their relationships are more fragile, increasing the numbers of very young children whose parents split up. (Brain scans of babies deprived of love show just how vital it is for them to develop strong bonds with both their mothers and fathers early on). The more times parents take new partners, the more their children are affected. The impact is cumulative; and children become ever more troubled and troublesome.

It can end badly, but it won't end badly for everyone. The purpose of our review was to find the factors which make the difference. If we are concerned about the wellbeing of children, we must look first at how their parents are getting on. Distressed parents are distracted parents; preoccupied with their own troubles, less attuned to their children's needs. Helping families means helping parents as well as children.

So we need to help couples to strengthen and improve their relationships. What really matters is the way they handle their rows. If aggressive arguments or hostile silence are left unresolved, children pick up the tension. Counselling or classes might suit some families; others might be happy to use websites such as www.thecoupleconnection.net that offer advice and allow people to share experiences online; others might benefit more from individual support from social or health workers.

What we have also learnt is that the most effective time to get parents to look at their relationships and parenting is when they are having a baby. This is the beginning of life as a family and the motivation to get things right from the start is high. This is the moment when health visitors and others routinely in touch with new parents could offer more effective health.

But we need to help health visitors and social workers to help parents. We could make sure that they are trained in understanding adult relationships. At the moment, the focus is too narrowly on children. We know that a child's wellbeing is dependent on their parents' wellbeing and that includes the parents' relationship; it needs to be reflected more in the professional help that we give to parents.

Some might wonder, whether they would be better off staying single. They are probably wrong.

Couples have a protective effect on each other - each partner gains from social support, companionship and intimacy, but men particularly so. Between the ages of 30 and 50 single men have death rates about three times those of married men; for single women the ratio is double. Not any relationship will do - it is the quality that counts.

Our research shows that relationships can be strengthened and breakdown in some cases prevented. Good early interventions have been shown to decrease costs incurred later by schools, social services, health services, youth justice and the police, but to truly reap the rewards, they must be early. But it takes bold political will to spend now to save money later.

Forty years ago Quintin Hogg told Parliament: "I would like to know a little more from social surveys and statistical material about what the actual consequences of the availability of divorce may be thought to be." Now we know a lot more. Let's use that knowledge.

In 2009 - Penny Mansfield was director of OnePlusOne. The report she refers to is 'When Couples Part: Understanding the Consequences for Adults and Children' 2009.

Thursday 8th October 2009, The Times

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