Relationship Education and Child Outcomes: Seeing Beyond Couple Effects

By Sarah Hokanson & Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-Line First: Does the impact of relationship education programs go beyond the couple and actually impact parenting and children’s behavior? Nearly 30 studies have looked at this question and document that children benefit from their parents’ involvement in relationship education.

Policies to promote relationship education (RE) have the ultimate aim of making the world better for children. If RE programs are producing positive outcomes for children, they are doing what policy makers intend them to do. Most of the time, however, we target and measure couple-level outcomes, such as relationship quality and happiness. We assume – as good research suggests – that stronger relationships will create more stable families and better parenting that will improve the lives of children.

If you think back to your college classes, you may remember family systems theory. This theory tells us that families are inter-connected and we should expect that a change in one family member or one part of the family system will impact other family members or other parts of the system. When we apply this theory to relationship education, we can understand that education focused towards one member or subsystem of the family is likely to impact the rest of the family and all family relationships.

Hundreds of studies have documented the positive effects of RE on couple relationships. But what do we know about how these positive effects translate to children’s well-being? In recent years, a considerable number of studies have looked at the impact of relationship education on parenting and children’s well-being. We looked at 29 of these studies and have complied the results to see what patterns we can find.

Relationship Education Approaches

There are various types of relationship education that focus on different aspects of family relationships and emphasize different approaches.

  • Couple Education. Education at this level is focused on helping the couple system by strengthening relationship skills, increasing understanding, etc.
  • Co-parenting Education. Education at this level is focused on teaching parents to work well together in their parenting efforts. This type of education often is emphasized for divorcing couples or unmarried couples who may have a less certain future together. But it is also valuable for committed couples raising children together.
  • Parenting Education. Education at this level focuses on teaching skills and concepts that relate to parenting to improve attitudes, involvement, and parenting practices.

Some educational programs blend these approaches and aims while others focus on just one. Regardless, each can have influences on child outcomes. The assumption of RE programs is that strengthening any of these systems – couple, co-parenting, or parenting – will create a spillover effect impacting not only the couple but their interactions with their children and the children’s own outcomes.

Outcomes of Relationship Education

  • Co-parenting outcomes. Of the studies reviewed, 11 specifically measured co-parenting outcomes including co-parenting agreement and co-parenting conflict. In nine of these studies, significant, positive effects were found for those who participated in the RE course.
  • Parenting outcomes. Twenty-four studies measured parenting outcomes, 19 of which found significant, positive outcomes. Parenting outcomes varied from study to study, but included parenting attitudes, parenting efficacy, and father involvement.
  • Child outcomes. Of 18 studies looking at child outcomes, 13 found significant, positive effects. These outcomes included child internalizing (e.g. less anxiety), externalizing behaviors (e.g. less aggression), and child adjustment.

Comparative Studies

Several studies compared the outcomes of different types of relationship education.

  • One study[1] compared a couple-focused education program and a parenting-focused education program and measured parenting and child outcomes. There were small but significant effects for the couple-focused group, but no significant differences were found for the parenting-focused groups.
  • Another study[2] compared a couple education program and a parenting education program. For both programs, there were significant findings in relation to child outcomes.
  • Another study[3] looked at a group receiving co-parenting education and another group receiving couple education. In both groups, improved co-parenting outcomes were reported.
  • A final study[4] compared a couple-focused education and parenting-focused education group. Both groups showed positive effects and child outcomes, but the parenting-focused education group showed significantly stronger effects compared to the couple-focused group.

Good News

We see a positive “spillover” effect in these RE programs. Like a waterfall, relationship education impacts all the systems below it: couple education improves the couple relationship, but we see positive effects as well on parenting, co-parenting, and child outcomes.

One study actually tested this pathway.[5] The study used the Supporting Father Involvement intervention and found that participating in the intervention (that included couple, co-parenting, and parenting curriculum) lead to less couple conflict, which in turn lead to reduced anxious and harsh parenting, which in turn lead to better child outcomes.

Implications

As suggested in one of the articles,3 the lack of major differences in outcomes between different forms of RE suggests that the programs people are most interested in will be the most beneficial. Each approach to RE can have impacts on parenting and children, so maybe it is not so much a concern of getting couples to the right class but getting them to participate in a class.

In addition, blending parenting and couple education could create better outcomes for everyone. Couples seeking relationship education often want to strengthen their own relationships while also helping their children. The results of these 29 studies support the idea that this is possible. Having programs that touch both on couple relationship issues and parenting issues may entice more couples to participate in RE, positively impacting the whole family system.

Here is a table for those who want more detail about these studies:

Educational Approaches Significant Outcomes
Full Study Citation
Randomized Control Group?
Couple Relationship
Co-Parenting
Parenting
Co-Parenting
Parenting
Child
Notes
Adler‐Baeder, F., Calligas, A., Skuban, E., Keiley, M., Ketring, S., & Smith, T. (2013). Linking changes in couple functioning and parenting among couple relationship education participants. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 62(2), 284-297. doi:10.1111/fare.12006 X X X
Adler‐Baeder, F., Garneau, C., Vaughn, B., McGill, J., Harcourt, K. T., Ketring, S., & Smith, T. (2018). The effects of mother participation in relationship education on coparenting, parenting, and child social competence: Modeling spillover effects for Low‐Income minority preschool children. Family Process, 57(1), 113-130. doi:10.1111/famp.12267 X X X
Barden, S. M., Carlson, R. G., Daire, A. P., Finnell, L. R., Christopher, K., & Young, E. (2015). Investigating the influence of relationship education on parental attitudes. Marriage & Family Review, 51(3), 246-263. doi:10.1080/01494929.2015.1031422 X X X
Bodenmann, G., Cina, A., Ledermann, T., & Sanders, M. R. (2008). The efficacy of the Triple P‐positive parenting program in improving parenting and child behavior: A comparison with two other treatment conditions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(4), 411– 427. http://doi.org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1016/j.brat.2008.01.001 X X X X X one group parenting education, one group couple education
Casey, P., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Draper, L., Mwamba, N., & Hewison, D. (2017). Parents as partners: A U.K. Trial of a U.S. couples‐based parenting intervention for at‐risk low‐income families. Family Process, 56(3), 589– 606. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/famp.12289 X X X
Clark, C., Young, M. S., & Dow, M. G. (2013). Can strengthening parenting couples’ relationships reduce at-risk parenting attitudes? Family Journal, 21(3), 306-312. doi:10.1177/1066480713476841 X X
Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., & Barry, J. (2011). Couples’ groups for parents of preschoolers: Ten-year outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 240–250 X X X One group was assigned to couple educated, another group was assigned to parenting education
Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663 – 679. X X X
Cowan, P., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Gillette, P. (2014). Evaluating a couples group to enhance father involvement in low‐income families using a benchmark comparison. Family Relations, 63(3), 356– 370. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12073 X X X X
Cox, R., & Shirer, K. (2009). Caring for my family: A pilot study of a relationship and marriage education program for low-income unmarried parents. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 8(4), 343-364. doi:10.1080/15332690903246127 X X X X
Cummings, E. M., Faircloth, W. B., Mitchell, P. M., Cummings, J. S., & Schermerhorn, A. C. (2008). Evaluating a brief prevention program for improving marital conflict in community families. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 193–202 X X X X
Doherty, W. J., Erickson, M. F., & LaRossa, R. (2006). An intervention to increase father involvement and skills with infants during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(3), 438– 447. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/0893‐3200.20.3.439 X X X X
Doss, B. D., Cicila, L. N., Morrison, K. R., Hsueh, A. C., & Carhart, K. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of brief coparenting and relationship interventions during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(4), 483-494. doi:10.1037/a0037311 X X X X one group only couple education, one group only co-parenting education
Faircloth, W., Schermerhorn, A., Mitchell, P., Cummings, J., & Cummings, E. M. (2011). Testing the long-term efficacy of a prevention program for improving marital conflict in community families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32, 189–197. X X X X
Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., & Kan, M. L. (2010). Effects of family foundations on parents and children: 3.5 years after baseline. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 532–542. doi: 10.1037/a0020837 X X X X X X
Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., Hostetler, M. L., Roettger, M. E., Paul, I. M., & Ehrenthal, D. B. (2016). Couple-focused prevention at the transition to parenthood, a randomized trial: Effects on co-parenting, parenting, family violence, and parent and child adjustment. Prevention Science, 17(6), 751–764. X X X X X X
Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., Roettger, M. E., Solmeyer, A., & Hostetler, M. L. (2014). Long‐term follow‐up of a randomized trial of family foundations: Effects on children’s emotional, behavioral, and school adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(6), 821. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/fam0000037 X X X
Garneau, C. L., & Adler-Baeder, F. (2015). Changes in stepparents’ coparenting and parenting following participation in a community-based relationship education program. Family Process, 54, 590–599. doi:10.1111/ famp.12133 X X X
Hawkins, A. J., Lovejoy, K. R., Holmes, E. K., Blanchard, V. L., & Fawcett, E. (2008). Increasing fathers’ involvement in child care with a couple-focused intervention during the transition to parenthood. Family Relations, 57(1), 49–59. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00482.x X X X
Kirkland, C. L., Skuban, E. M., Adler-Baeder, F., Ketring, S. A., Bradford, A., Smith, T., & Lucier-Greer, M. (2011). Effects of Relationship/Marriage Education on Co-Parenting and Children’s Social Skills: Examining Rural Minority Parents’ Experiences. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 13(2), n2. X X X X
Lucier‐Greer, M., Adler‐Baeder, F., Harcourt, K. T., & Gregson, K. D. (2014). Relationship education for stepcouples reporting relationship instability—evaluation of the Smart Steps: Embrace the Journey curriculum. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 40(4), 454–469. doi: 10.1111/jmft.12069 X X X X
Petch, J. F., Halford, W. K., Creedy, D. K., & Gamble, J. (2012). A randomized controlled trial of a couple relationship and coparentin program (couple CARE for parents) for high- and low-risk new parent. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 80(4), 662-673. doi:10.1037/a0028781 X X X X
Pruett, M. K., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Gillette, P., & Pruett, K. D. (2019). Supporting father involvement: An intervention with community and child welfare–referred couples. Family Relations, 68(1), 51–67. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12352 X X X X X
Rienks, S. L., Wadsworth, M. E., Markman, H. J., Einhorn, L., & Etter, E. M. (2011). Father involvement in urban low‐income fathers: Baseline associations and changes resulting from preventive intervention. Family Relations, 60, 191– 204. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/j.1741‐3729.2010.00642.x X X X X
Sandler, I., Gunn, H., Mazza, G., Tein, J.‐Y., Wolchik, S., Berkel, C., … Porter, M. (2018). Effects of a program to promote high quality parenting by divorced and separated fathers. Prevention Science. 9, 538– 548. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1007/s11121‐017‐0841‐x X X X X
Solmeyer, A. R., Feinberg, M. E., Coffman, D. L., & Jones, D. E. (2014). The effects of the Family Foundations Prevention Program on co-parenting and child adjustment: A mediation analysis. Prevention Science, 15(2), 213–23. doi: 10.1007/s11121-013-0366-x X X X X X
Solmeyer, A. R., Feinberg, M. E., Coffman, D. L., & Jones, D. E. (2014). The effects of the Family Foundations Prevention Program on co-parenting and child adjustment: A mediation analysis. Prevention Science, 15(2), 213–23. doi: 10.1007/s11121-013-0366-x X X X X
Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Killewald, A. (2014). The long-term effects of building strong families: A program for unmarried parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 446–463 X X X
Zemp, M., Milek, A., Cummings, E. M., Cina, A., & Bodenmann, G. (2016). How couple- and parenting-focused programs affect child behavioral problems: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(3), 798-810. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0260-1 X X X X couple education for one group, parenting education for another group

 

Endnotes:

[1] Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., & Barry, J. (2011). Couples’ groups for parents of preschoolers: Ten-year outcomes of a randomized trial. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 240–250

[2] Zemp, M., Milek, A., Cummings, E. M., Cina, A., & Bodenmann, G. (2016). How couple- and parenting-focused programs affect child behavioral problems: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(3), 798-810. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0260-1

[3] Doss, B. D., Cicila, L. N., Morrison, K. R., Hsueh, A. C., & Carhart, K. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of brief coparenting and relationship interventions during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(4), 483-494. doi:10.1037/a0037311

[4] Bodenmann, G., Cina, A., Ledermann, T., & Sanders, M. R. (2008). The efficacy of the Triple P‐positive parenting program in improving parenting and child behavior: A comparison with two other treatment conditions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46( 4), 411– 427. http://doi.org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1016/j.brat.2008.01.001

[5] Pruett, M. K., Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Gillette, P., & Pruett, K. D. (2019). Supporting father involvement: An intervention with community and child welfare–referred couples. Family Relations, 68(1), 51–67. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1111/fare.12352