Family-Based Interventions Can Reduce Conflict, Improve Coparenting, And Promote Child Well-Being

The transition to parenthood is a critical moment in a relationship. Some research indicates that couples become less satisfied with their marriage after they have children. Parenthood often means more conflicts and disagreements and less leisure time, communication and intimacy. These changes can be long-lasting. 1-3 Programs that help couples cope successfully with the arrival of a child have the potential to improve marital quality and child outcomes.

A number of recent family-based interventions have shown mixed success in improving parental and child outcomes. Parenting Together, an 8-session group-oriented program, improved fathers’ caregiving skills and increased their involvement. 4Welcome Baby, a home visitation program designed to improve marital quality, failed to produce measurable effects on couples’ relationships. It did, however, increase fathers’ involvement with their newborns. 5

The Family Foundations program is a series of 8 classes covering communication, problem-solving, and conflict management skills. The program led to more positive parenting, more supportive coparenting, and less maternal depression and anxiety. As a result, children showed positive changes in temperament and behavior throughout their first three years. 6

Interventions geared specifically toward decreasing marital conflict have also shown positive results. One three-hour classroom-based program educated new parents about the harmful effects of frequent conflict on children and taught them how to reduce hostility and improve problem-solving in their relationships. The program succeeded in reducing conflict and improving parenting skills. 7 A similar 4-session program demonstrated long-term positive effects on children’s emotional adjustment and parents’ marital satisfaction. 8

Smart Poli​cies Also Benefit Unmarried Parents and Their Children

The birth of a child is also a window of opportunity for improving parenting in unmarried, low-income couples. Unmarried fathers and mothers are likely to be romantically involved at the time of their child’s birth, although fathers tend to have less contact as the child grows older. 9 Mutually supportive parenting in unmarried couples promotes continued father involvement and improves father-child relationships. 10 The months before and after a child’s birth may provide an entry point for policies that engage both parents in programs to improve coparenting, father involvement, and children’s well-being.

The Building Strong Families program serves romantically involved but unmarried parents. Around the time of their child’s birth, couples participate in a 30-40-hour program that teaches relationship skills and provides individual support and appropriate referrals. The effects of the program varied widely among program sites due in part to differences in implementation and client demographics. However, the preliminary results indicate that the program can have positive effects on relationship quality, parenting skills, and conflict management. 11

Programs like those outlined above show that many aspects of family functioning appear to be improved by well-designed interventions. What remains unclear is the cost of expanding such programs to serve more families. Typically no information on costs is included in such studies, but most programs involved highly-trained staff, numerous services, and long time frames. It is reasonable, then, to expect that the costs of expanding them in their current form may be prohibitive. Further research is needed to determine how such programs can be modified to serve more families at a manageable cost. 12

  1. Crohan SE. Marital quality and conflict across the transition to parenthood in African-American and white couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 1996; 58: 933-944.
  2. Doss BD, Rhoades GK, Stanley SM, et al. The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: An eight-year prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2009; 96: 601-619.
  3. Twenge JM, Campbell WK, Foster CA. Parenthood and marital satisfaction: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 2003; 65: 574-583.
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  9. Carlson M, McLanahan S. Shared parenting in fragile families. 2001. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Working Paper #01-16-FF. Available at:  Accessed February 10, 2011.
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  11. Wood RG,  McConnell S, Moore Q, et al. The Building Strong Families Project: Strengthening Unmarried Parents’ Relationships: The Early Impacts of Building Strong Families. 2010. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Available at:  Accessed February 10, 2011.
  12. Cowan PA, Cowan CP, Knox V. Marriage and fatherhood programs. The Future of Children. 2010; 20(2): 205-230.