Thursday 12 June 2014

Now they are 7: what influences children's wellbeing?

The most recent findings from Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) explore the possible influences on children’s wellbeing and their behavioural and emotional difficulties. Lesley Kelly, GUS Dissemination Officer, outlines key findings.

GUS aims to find out about how the circumstances and experiences of children in Scotland are changing, and how early experiences influence later outcomes. The first group of children invited into the study are now 7 years old and for the first time they have answered questions themselves. This provides a really interesting aspect to the study as we find out about both mother and child perspectives.

This new research uses information collected from over 3,000 mothers and children, interviewed during 2012/13. Mothers were asked about their child’s emotional and behavioural difficulties using a behavioural screening tool called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The children were asked about their life satisfaction using a series of questions including ‘do you feel your life is going well?’ and ‘do you wish your life was different?’ (adapted from the Huebner Student Life Satisfaction Scale). 

Researchers were interested in learning about the role of child and family characteristics , parenting behaviours, school experiences, friendships, leisure activities and the importance of materialistic attitudes, ie having ‘expensive things’ on both child mental health and well-being. The researchers measured for behavioural and emotional problems as reported by the mother and low sense of well-being as reported by the child.

The numbers
  • This research suggests that 1 in 25 children in Scotland experience both mental health problems and low subjective well-being:
  • 11% of children in the study were classed as having high levels of behavioural and emotional problems, while 25% reported low life satisfaction. 4% of children experienced both.
  • 21% of children had low life satisfaction but no behavioural and emotional difficulties. 7% had a high level of difficulties but did not report low life satisfaction.
  • Children with high levels of difficulties were more likely to report low well-being (39%) than those with normal levels (24%).

The factors
Children who had both child mental health problems and low life satisfaction were more likely to experience: greater conflict in the mother-child relationship; lower parental knowledge of the child’s activities or relationships when not at school; difficulties adjusting to the learning or social environment at primary school; and poorer quality friendships with other children.
Economic factors and some other aspects of family life (including family structure and the child’s leisure activities) were not clearly associated with either measure of social and emotional well-being, after allowing for other influences. Materialistic values (the importance of ‘expensive things’ to the child) were not associated with their life satisfaction.
The research also found that family ‘stressors’ such as mother’s experiencing poor health, family mental health/ substance use problems and low levels of warmth in the mother-child relationship were associated with child mental health difficulties but not the child’s sense of well-being. Conversely, experiencing a recent bereavement, illness or accident in the family, and less positive parenting (defined as less positive reinforcement of good behaviour and less involvement in the child’s activities) did appear to affect children’s life satisfaction, irrespective of whether they experienced behavioural and emotional difficulties.
The implications
This research supports the idea that social relationships, involving parents, teachers and friends, are of key importance for children’s well-being. A holistic approach, which recognises the different components of well-being and the range of influencing factors, should be adopted. Approaches to promoting social and emotional well-being could be developed for use in both family and school settings.
These findings help to identify which children are at risk of low well-being and might benefit from some targeted support. Parents and children could be offered better access to professional and advice and support services to improve parent-child relationships and to effectively manage behavioural problems. Given the importance of adjustment to the learning and social environment at school, greater attention to the transition to school may be required for some children. Children who experience difficulties making friends might also be helped by initiatives designed to help build relationships within and outwith school. Finally, support for children and families experiencing ill health and/or bereavement is crucial. Good practice in these areas should be extended so that every child can access the support they need for their emotional health and wellbeing.
The full report ‘Growing Up in Scotland: Family and school influences on children’s social and emotional well-being’ by Alison Parkes, Helen Sweeting and Daniel Wight is available from the GUS website
GUS is funded by the Scottish Government and is carried out by ScotCen Social Research in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh and the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. 
Contact Lesley by email 

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