How we are using couples therapy approaches, along with funded programmes to help parents and children

Honor Rhodes

By Honor Rhodes

I am interested in what it takes to raise a confident, kind, courageous child, capable of loving and being loved, how hard can that be?

I am equally interested in the things that attack the possibility.

We are dealing with Maslow’s hierarchy – all the way from the basic needs at the base to the ideas of self-fulfilment at top.

We are looking for some luck, to be the adult capable of loving and being loved, it really helps to be born here in the UK. Choose graduate parents, with secure employment and fulfilling jobs, a warm and respectful couple relationship (or a good co-parenting one if they are separated) but most importantly of all pick parents who have been really well parented themselves

How is your score on that front?

Mine is lamentable, actually, and I will not be alone, this world is full of folk who have had less than the best start in life and yet, here we are. That says something about temperament, a fortuitous relationship with someone somewhere who gave us enough to know that there could be more, that there were alternatives, that there could be hope and, better still, joy and peace.

Some of you will have done the Adverse Childhood Experiences/ACE questionnaire – and you will have experienced the sheer brutality of those really important questions, we are thinking about generating evidence and they come from the generation of evidence. They come from a desire to know more about what will kill us, not individually but on a population wide basis, a big public health epidemiological enquiry.

But it is plainly true that a poor quality environment in which to grow up attacks us and our capacity to grow into the person our potential offers. This is in any sense a wicked waste. I get very vexed about this as amongst these children who don’t get to medical school because they could not study as well as they needed to is the one who was going to save my life – I am entirely selfish about this.

The head and the heart – evidence is emphatically on our side

There is a large body of research on the effects of poor parenting, abuse and family stress, The Early Intervention Foundation have it as do lots of others, we do KNOW what happens when children are raised in environments that don’t meet their needs, somewhat or at all, we know there are outliers and oddities, and that there is good, bad and indifferent research.

What we have been reluctant, seemingly, to study is the one relationship that really matters to family stability, the one that creates the most harm but more importantly the one that can generate the most good. I say most importantly as the vast majority of children are going to be brought up in their own families, with one or two parents present, these parents may be theirs by birth, adoption, or the bringing together of new families. We can be interested in them all.

Enquiring into the nature and effects of the co-parenting or parental couple relationship does not mean that we are no longer interested in other relationships; it just means that a significant and largely unstudied one is taking its rightful place as a site of useful, powerful research and the gathering of evidence.

We just need to tolerate the discomfort that wondering about this relationship gives us

What can practitioners do?

The acronym for reducing parental conflict –RPC - stands for removing practitioner collywobbles maybe? What are the collywobbles about? “I’d never ever ask….” We need to be brave enough to acknowledge that this relationship is different to other family relationships. It contains, or can contain, sex and intimacy, as communication and care giving and taking. That makes it different to others and more complicated to enquire about.  

I talked to a health visitor who always asked people how they were finding sex after having the baby. She told me that it was not the mechanics of sex she was interested in but whether the parents had decided to return for a moment to their own relationship and to attend to it.     

A big question remains, is this relationship researchable though? With its intricacies and social expectations, our desire to avoid talking about it and parents feelings of shame and loneliness? “We thought that we were the only people in the world who felt like this…”

Of course it is. It is there to be sensitively, ethically, generously and helpfully enquired about and we certainly need to know a whole lot more about what is going to work best for whom and when. And then we’ll need to match our evidence with workforce training plans and build services that do not signpost people onto other places but feel utterly able to have a relationship quality conversation. I don’t think that is SO hard, we ask people across a range of services about who they are, how they parent, how much money they have to feed their children. In my past work I’ve looked in people’s fridges and at bathrooms and kitchens as have many of you.

Asking “how are things between the two of you?” will scarcely ever produce the answer we fear…that goes along the lines of, “bog off and mind your own business”. We ask not because we are prurient and nosy, we ask because this is the emotional environment in which children are being raised; a silent hostile corrosive relationship scalds a child, a child living in heated acrimony, like a war zone, is a child whose life chances are being damaged.

Government programmes and policy is trying to help

Of course we need to be interested, so hurrah to the Department of Work & Pensions for piloting the programmes they have chosen, it is hugely important but even more important is the idea that this relationship – the one closest to our own lives where the veil that divides ‘us from them’ is at its thinnest – is the one we all need to be thinking about, asking about and holding in mind, along with the children and its impact on them.

Freud said that the purpose of human life was to love and to work. The two are intimately related, our couple relationships support good mental health together with generous thoughtful parenting, good mental health supports employability. Employment supports our mental health and so on

So let’s have more love and more work for all those who need it.

Tavistock Relationships delivers programmes to reduce parental conflict in partnership with central and local Government, using our mentalization-based couple therapy treatment. You can find out more here.