Surprisingly perhaps, researchers know less about what makes young children feel unhappy than what they know about the causes of children’s behavioural and emotional problems. Most existing studies of children’s views of happiness are for those aged ten and older, and few have taken account of a wide range of influences on happiness.
We looked at Scottish seven-year-olds in our new study, “Growing up in Scotland: family and school influences on children’s social and emotional wellbeing”. We explored why some children felt unhappy, as well as why some had behavioural and/or emotional problems, interviewing children and their mothers from around 3200 families.
Children were asked five questions about life satisfaction (Do you… feel that your life is going well, wish your life was different, feel that your life is just right, feel you have what you want in life, feel you have a good life?). As many as 20% of children gave less favourable responses to these questions, suggesting low life satisfaction or unhappiness.
We asked mothers about whether their child had behavioural and emotional problems. This included feeling sad or anxious, fighting, being disobedient, restless, having a short concentration span, feeling shy or being bullied. As many as 11% of the children had high levels of these sorts of problems.
It is worth saying at this point that while we don’t know how these findings compare with the rest of the UK, there have been indications in the past that Scotland does not fare too badly. In a study by our sister agency NatCen in 2008, Scotland reported the highest proportion of seven-year-olds in the UK’s four nations claiming never to be worried. Of those claiming never to be unhappy, Scotland had the second-highest proportion after Northern Ireland.
In our study, the proportion of children who reported low life satisfaction whose mothers also reported they had behavioural and emotional problems was very low: just 4%.
Some factors appeared to influence both these negative categories. Among the parenting factors, they included high levels of mother-child conflict and parents not being much aware of what their child was doing. Other factors that affected both categories included the child not enjoying school; difficulties with school work; and feeling less happy about friendships with other children. For example only 14% of children with good friendships reported low life satisfaction, compared to 41% whose friendships were poor.
Then there were factors that influenced one category but not the other. Low life satisfaction seemed to be most linked to negative experiences such as a recent illness, accident or death in the family; and less positive parenting, such as not giving praise for good behaviour or participating in activities together such as play or homework.
Behavioural and emotional problems were more closely tied to family-related causes of stresses often associated with deprivation. These included poorer child health, broken sleep and developmental problems; poorer maternal health, low maternal education and family mental health/substance use problems; and a less warm mother-child relationship.
Developmental problems was a particularly striking category, with only 12% of children who found the pace of work in school “about right” exhibiting behavioural/emotional problems, compared to 31% of those who found the pace “too fast”
As you would expect, young children’s relationships with parents, teachers and friends are of key importance for their social and emotional well-being. This was equally true of boys and girls, whose well-being was broadly influenced by the same things.
Possibly more surprising were the factors that did not seem to affect well-being directly. These included the parents’ relationship, family income and the child’s leisure activities. Saying that, it is possible that these may become more important as children get older.
We can’t be sure that all the associations found in this study do influence well-being. Genetic and early-life influences may be partly responsible for some associations, for example.
Sometimes the relationship between an apparent risk factor and well-being is probably complex. For instance, parent-child conflict may be a result of low well-being, as well as contributing to it. Further research is needed to clarify how factors affect well-being, and to look at how low social and emotional well-being affects children’s later development.
What the study does do is to underline that both school and the home play a part in young children’s well-being. It means that families should be able to get help for their children’s behavioural and emotional problems via parenting programmes and improved specialist services. The results also point to a need to address wider issues, such as parents’ mental health problems.
And positive parenting can not only help with children’s behavioural and emotional problems. It may also improve their happiness. Equally, there are clearly benefits in providing support to children to cope with a distressing family event.
As for schools, the study reinforces the importance of creating conditions for positive learning, successful relationships and preventing bullying and violence. To help children make friends, schools should possibly offer training in social skills such as sharing; and help teachers develop strategies to reduce behaviour that alienates other children, such as anger or bossiness. The importance of children making friends is something for parents and other child-friendly venues to bear in mind too.