Screening can help identify first-time parents likely to experience difficulties

Screening expectant parents can help to identify those likely to experience relationship difficulties and allow for the provision of targeted support, according to research being presented at the APS Annual Conference in Perth this week.

APS psychologist Dr Jemima Petch, the Project Manager for the study, said there was a general awareness that the transition to parenthood could be difficult. Less widely understood was the extent to which many couples would struggle, the potential negative effects on their relationship and how long such problems would last.

The study — undertaken as part of a wider randomised-controlled trial by Griffith University and the University of Queensland — involved 125 expectant couples who reported being happy prior to the birth of their first child.

Their risk of developing adjustment difficulties was assessed based on the presence of identified relationship risk factors, examined individually and cumulatively, and over multiple timepoints, with follow up interviews at the four, 16 and 28-month mark measuring their levels of relationship satisfaction.  

“We identified eight risk factors for relationship distress and we found that the greater number of risk factors a couple had, the more likely they were to report a decline in their relationship satisfaction across the first two and half years of parenthood,” Dr Petch said.

She said the screening tool developed, the Cumulative Risk Index, was easy to administer and could be used to identify couples at risk who may benefit from support before and after birth.

Dr Petch explained: “Previous research has shown that appropriate psychological support and  programs such as Couple CARE and Couple CARE for Parents — which are short programs — can halve the number of people who will go on to experience declining relationship satisfaction after becoming parents.”

She said the research demonstrated that the focus of ante-natal and post-natal care needed to be broader, moving beyond just baby care to focus on the couple relationship.

“First-time parenting can be very stressful; it is a significant transition but with the right support we can assist people to protect their relationships. When the couple relationship is working really well, this helps each parent to have the energy and time to parent sensitively, and develop that special bond with their child,” Dr Petch said.

People seeking psychological support for a parenting or relationship issue can locate a psychologist in private practice through the APS Find A Psychologist service on 1800 333 497 or by visiting www.psychology.org.au. For more information about CoupleCARE, visit: www.couplecare.info

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Dr Jemima Petch MAPS is presenting her research on Thursday 27 September at the 47th APS Annual Conference in Perth.

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The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,500 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.