Improvement in child behaviour linked to better mother-father relationship

Photo: Morgan Rains. Creative Commons.

A test in Switzerland showed that a parenting education programme that improved children’s behaviour also improved the mother-father relationship, even though the programme did not specifically address their relationship.

Most research on how children’s behaviour affects the relationship between parents has focused on clinical conditions, such as a attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For example, parents of children with ADHD are more likely to get divorced. This study focused on situations where neither children nor parents were diagnosed with a clinical problem.

Martina Zemp and her team at Zurich University measured children’s behaviour and parents’ relationships among 100 parents of at least one child aged 2 to 12 years. Half of the parents were randomly assigned to a parenting training programme called Triple P. These parents attended four 2.5-hour workshop sessions covering issues like supporting children’s learning and managing behaviour.

They then measured the parents’ relationship, parenting behaviour and children’s behaviour by means of questionnaires completed by the parents before the parenting programme, two weeks after it and then again 6 months and 1 year later. At the same time they asked parents who had not attended the programme to complete the same questionnaires.

The researchers found two key results:

  • When mothers reported improvement in their children’s behaviour, both they and the fathers were more likely to assess their own relationship more positively one year later. This was not the case when fathers reported improvement in children’s behaviour.
  • When fathers reported improvement in their parenting practices, both mothers and fathers were more likely to report an improved interparental relationship. This was not the case when mothers reported improved parenting practices.

The authors offer some possible explanations for the gender differences.

Could it be that mothers react more to poor child behaviour than fathers do, because they tend to be more involved in caring for the children and spend more time with them? Perhaps poor child behaviour troubles them more than it does fathers, on average? Perhaps poor child behaviour depletes mothers’ emotional resources more than fathers’.

In relation to the second finding – that fathers’ but not mothers’ reports show a correlation between their own parenting practice and relationship quality – could it be that mothers are more able to separate their parenting role from the couple relationship? As prior research has found, fathers’ parenting role is still less culturally defined and may thus be more affected by the relationship with the mother.

The fact that when fathers report better parenting practice mothers are more likely to rate the interparental relationship as more satisfying could suggest that mothers tend to feel better about their relationship when their partner is a more effective parent, something that other research has found.

Zemp M, Milek A, Davies PT, Bodemann G, Improved child problem behavior enhances the parents’ relationship quality: A randomized trial, Journal of Family Psychology, April 2016. doi: 10.1037/fam0000212