This guest article was co-authored by Dr Ruth Sellers, Amelia Smith and Professor Gordon Harold, all of the University of Sussex.
They say “what goes around, comes around”. Ordinarily this refers to the expectation (or prediction) that one set of experiences will lead to another consequential set of experiences (whether good or bad) for one person or a group of individuals (e.g. peers, family relatives etc). While this might be a well-recognised colloquial phrase, it also serves the basis of an established scientific body of evidence that aims to explain why certain patterns of behaviour move in cycles, particularly cycles of behaviour that cross generations. Specifically relevant to the area of youth crime and criminal justice is the area of intergenerational transmission of youth psychopathology – how problem behaviours seen in one generation transmit or transfer to the next generation. It is this question specific to patterns of youth crime, conduct problems and criminality that we will focus on here.
What may explain how behaviours seen in one generation transfer to the next generation? Evidence highlights that both genetic (i.e. genes passed on from parents to children) and environmental risks (e.g. inter-parental conflict, negative parenting practices) influence youth behaviour, including conduct problems and criminality. Rearing environments that have been examined in relation to impacts on children have primarily focused on parenting, particularly the mother-child relationship. However, family environments impact on children beyond the mother-child relationship: relationships between parents (the inter-parental relationship) and the father-child relationship are also important for child well-being.
Historically, research examining the role of inter-parental relationships on child outcomes has predominantly considered divorce and domestic violence. More recently, studies indicate that children who witness conflict between parents that is frequent, intense, child focused and poorly resolved (but do not necessarily attain levels of physical or verbal violence) are also at increased risk for a range negative outcomes, including depression, aggression, antisocial behaviour, and criminality. It is the quality of the inter-parental relationship, rather than the status of the inter-parental relationship (e.g. divorced or not; exposed to domestic violence or not), that is increasingly recognised as important for child outcomes.
Children are affected in different ways as a result of hostile inter-parental conflict. It is therefore important to understand the processes through which some, but not all, children are affected. Disruptions in the parent-child relationship are recognised as one of the primary mechanisms through which inter-parental conflict impacts child outcomes: emotions from the couple relationship ‘spillover’ to the parent-child relationship, which in turn impacts on youth mental health. Whilst most research has predominantly examined such processes in relation to the mother-child relationship, it is increasingly recognised that inter-parental conflict can impact on the father-child relationship, with some evidence suggesting that the effects of inter-parental conflict on the father-child relationship may be stronger than effects on the mother-child relationship. A second mechanism through which inter-parental conflict can impact on child outcomes is via child attributions or their understanding of the causes and possible consequences of their parents’ conflicts. For example, children who perceive conflict as threatening or who feel unable to cope are more likely to experience problems such as aggression and conduct problems which in turn can lead to poor outcomes, including criminality.
Whilst it is recognised that early environmental experiences impact on long-term child outcomes, there are challenges to past research that we are now in a position to address to help us understand the importance of the family environment for youth mental health and criminality. One of the key challenges for research examining family process impacts on youth mental health is that genes that are shared between parents and children may be associated with the child’s behaviours more so than the environment the parent provides. Previous research has primarily been conducted with genetically related parents and children and therefore it is not possible to disentangle whether associations between family factors and child behaviours are due to shared genes, or whether they represent environmental risks. To address this issue, novel research designs (e.g. adoption at birth studies; children born via assisted reproductive technologies) allow us to disentangle genetic and environmental factors. Evidence from such studies demonstrate the importance of the rearing environment for child development, whether children are genetically related to their rearing parents or not. We are now more confident of the impact of inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices on child outcomes, as a result of these and other studies. A second limitation of past research is the focus on the mother-child relationship, to the relative neglect of the father-child relationship. The role of fathers for child development is being increasingly recognised. Inter-parental conflict may also differentially impact parenting for mothers and fathers, and outcomes for boys and girls. However, much more research needs to be done to better-understand gender differences in relation to inter-parental conflict and other related processes and child outcomes.
The importance of the inter-parental relationship (whether parents are genetically related or not, whether parents are living together or not) for child adjustment is increasingly recognised (see report by Harold, Acquah, Sellers & Chowdry, 2016).
What does this mean for policy and practice? The evidence highlights the importance of targeting the couple relationship, where inter-parental conflict is a feature of that relationship to support positive outcomes for children. An important next step is to build capacity among front-line practitioners that work with parents and youth to develop skills and confidence to allow the effective implementation of programmes that target couple relationship supports. It is also essential to train practitioners in the use of standardised assessments to profile parents and families where interparental conflict poses a risk for youth outcomes, with the aim of aligning specific intervention programmes to specific family needs. Training in the use of standardised assessments also provides the opportunity to examine the efficacy of interventions (e.g. by using pre- and post-programme assessments). It is also important to ensure that practitioners understand that the mechanisms/processes that impact on youth conduct problems and criminality can operate as a cascade of risks: Family conflict can impact on parenting which in turn impacts on youth depression/aggression. This in turn can impact on youth substance misuse and criminality. A recent evidence resource outlines how a range of disadvantage factors (including inter-parental conflict) can influence children across development. Given this cascade of risk, intervention early in the course of a problem can reduce the risk of later negative outcomes: this highlights the necessity for early prevention (in addition to supporting intervention strategies).
In summary, the quality of the inter-parental (couple) relationship (whether parents are living together or not, or whether they are genetically related to their child or not), plays a significant role in affecting children’s long-term outcomes. International evidence indicates that where inter-parental relationships are supported, positive impacts on related processes (e.g. parenting and co-parenting), and child outcomes are evident. Intervention evidence in the UK is currently at an early stage of development, with relatively limited past investment (and robust evaluation). However, to facilitate the development and evaluation of relationship support programmes in the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recently announced a commitment to reduce inter-parental conflict to improve youth outcomes via evidenced-based supports (policy_document). Such investment provides the opportunity to improve outcomes for today’s generation of children, thereby promoting more positive outcomes for tomorrow’s generation of parents.
Dr Ruth Sellers is an ESRC Future Research Leader Fellow, Miss Amelia F. Smith is a Doctoral Researcher, and Professor Gordon Harold is Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental health in the School of Psychology and the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice at the University of Sussex.