Guest blog from Lesley Kelly, GUS Dissemination Officer, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR), University of Edinburgh
Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) is the longitudinal research study tracking the lives of thousands of children from birth, through childhood and beyond. The study aims to find out about how the circumstances and experiences of children in Scotland are changing. It also aims to investigate how early experiences influence later outcomes.
A new project using data from GUS explores the possible influences on children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties, and on their subjective well-being. It uses information collected from over 3,000 mothers and children, interviewed during 2012/13 when the children were seven years old.
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).
Using this data, researchers explored the role of child, maternal and household characteristics, parenting behaviours, school experiences, friendships, leisure activities and materialistic attitudes on both child mental health (high levels of behavioural and emotional problems) and low subjective well-being (low life satisfaction).
11% of children were classed as having high levels of behavioural and emotional problems, while 25% reported low life satisfaction. 4% of children experienced both. This suggests that one in twenty-five children in Scotland experience both mental health problems and low subjective well-being.
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 associated with both child mental health problems and low subjective well-being were: greater conflict in the mother-child relationship; lower parental knowledge of the child’s activities or relationships when not at school; the child having difficulties adjusting to the learning or social environment at primary school; and the child having 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.
Family ‘stressors’ such as mothers 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 child subjective well-being. 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) were associated with children’s subjective well-being, irrespective of levels of behavioural and emotional difficulties.
These findings support 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 based on both the family and school context.
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 www.growingupinscotland.org.uk
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.