It is well established that the type and quality of care a child receives from their parents is an important factor in their subsequent development. The focus of early research looked at how our interactions with our mothers as babies and small children can affect our outcomes later in life, as mothers were often viewed as a child’s primary caregiver. However this focus on mothers has meant that other important relationships within families were often overlooked. Relatively recently researchers have taken an expanded view of the family including a focus on the coparenting relationship. Coparenting is defined as the extent that two people support and coordinate care for a child of whom they are both responsible. This is usually the parents but can include grandparents, same-sex parents, parents who have separated and even a parent and their sibling.
Research has found that the quality of the coparenting relationship can have a substantial impact on a child’s development in a number of key areas. For example a child whose caregivers have a poor coparenting relationship are more likely to have behavioural problems, go on to develop depression and anxiety and exhibit higher levels of aggression. Interestingly studies have shown that coparenting behaviour can be enhanced through parenting programmes, however it has not yet been shown whether these changes in coparenting behaviour translate into outcomes for the child.
This is where my research comes in. I will be investigating whether an improvement in the caregivers’ coparenting relationship will result in better long-term outcomes for a child. To do this I will first establish the best way of assessing coparenting, through either adapting an existing measure or developing a new measure of coparenting behaviour. I will then validate the measure by applying it to data from a completed study (the Oxford Fathers Study).
I will then be looking at coparenting in conjunction with the Healthy Start, Happy Start Trial, a large randomised controlled trial led by Paul Ramchandani at Imperial College London. We will be recruiting 300 families, and offering them a home-based programme to help them with their child’s behaviour. This programme will be offered to both of the child’s caregivers (although one parent can take part without the other if they prefer). We will follow up with these families for two years after they finish the programme to see whether the programme has reduced children’s behavioural problems in the long term. I will then be looking to see whether there is a larger reduction in behavioural problems in the families where there has also been a positive change in the caregivers’ coparenting relationship.
This research will be one of the first studies to experimentally investigate how changes in the coparenting relationship will have a direct impact on the development of a child. We’re just about to begin recruiting participants in to the trial and we’re really excited to get started!