Family conflict significantly harms children’s happiness, says groundbreaking study

27 January 2010

Children’s well-being is far more strongly influenced by levels of family conflict than by family structure, according to new research by The Children’s Society into what makes young people happy.

Young people who felt that their family got along well together had much higher average levels of well-being than those who did not, irrespective of the family structure they lived in.

In the first comprehensive investigation of childhood well-being – or happiness - from a young person’s point of view thousands of pupils* were asked to respond to statements such as ‘My family gets along well together' and 'Members of my family talk nicely to one another' scoring themselves on a scale ranging from 'strongly disagree' to 'strongly agree.' They were also asked questions exploring the impact on well-being of family structure, such as living in a lone or step parent family.

The difference between a young person's family getting along - and not - explained 20% of the variation in overall happiness with life, whereas differences in family structure only explained 2%.

The power of family conflict to undermine children’s lives is just one of many findings in the groundbreaking new study, Understanding Children’s Well-being: A National Survey of Young People’s Well-Being, conducted by The Children’s Society in collaboration with the University of York and research organisation Ipsos MORI.

In the two-year study, a team of researchers put around 100 questions to just under 7,000 children aged 10 to 15, including just over 4,700 from secondary schools. They were asked to rate how happy they were on a scale from 0 to 10 with many aspects of their lives. This is a pioneering approach because previous surveys have tended to focus on problems seen by adults as measures of well-being, rather than the views of young people, as in this survey.

The aim of the research was to develop a more precise understanding of the factors that make young people happy and to create a benchmark “well-being index.” The Children’s Society plans to use the index to measure how the well-being of UK children changes at two-year intervals. Today’s launch reveals the main findings on overall wellbeing and we plan to publish more results from the rest of the very detailed survey in a series of forthcoming reports.

Other key findings include:

· An average of two children in every class surveyed were unhappy: The researchers interviewed 6,744 young people in years 6, 8 and 10. A large majority placed themselves above the mid-point on the happiness measure. But 7% were significantly unhappy, which equates to 140,000 of the 1.8 million children in these 3 year groups.

· Children are least happy with their appearance and confidence: 17.5% said that they were unhappy with their appearance, and 16% were unhappy with their confidence. Almost twice as many girls (21%) were unhappy with their appearance as boys (12%). Young Black African / Caribbean and Pakistani / Bangladeshi children were significantly happier with their appearance than white children.

· After appearance and confidence the aspects that children were least happy with were their local area (14%) and school work (12%).

· Other areas where more than 10% of children were unhappy were the amount of freedom and choice they had in life and expectations about the future. The study highlights the importance of a sense of autonomy as a fundamental ingredient of a good childhood.

· Recent changes in family structure had a small but significant association with lower well-being among secondary school pupils. The average well-being of young people who had experienced a change in the adults they lived with over the last year was 6.8 out of 10, compared to the average of 7.5 for this age group.

· As young people get older, they tend to become less happy with their lives. Average well-being fell from around 8.0 out of 10 in the last year of primary school to around 7.4 for young people aged 14 to 15. Between these age groups, happiness with many aspects of life such as family relationships and school also fell, but happiness with friendships remained stable.

· Boys tended to be happier than girls, although the differences were not that large. However the gap in well-being increased with age. Amongst the 14 to 15 age group, girls’ average well-being was 7.2 out of 10, compared to 7.6 for boys.

The survey’s co-author, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University
of York, said: “This survey makes a major contribution to our understanding of children's subjective well-being in England and the factors that contribute to it. It also establishes a valuable benchmark that we can use to track changes in well-being over time.’’

Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: ‘’This groundbreaking study is a major step forward in our efforts to understand and enhance the well-being of young people.  It shows the vast majority of our children are happy, but it is a major concern that two children in every classroom are unhappy, and that so many are insecure about their appearance and confidence.

'Family conflict emerges in this study as a major cause of childhood unhappiness, and so it is vital that families can get the sort of family mediation and counselling The Children’s Society offers to help them resolve and avoid conflicts.  This report is a stark reminder that our actions as adults can have a profound impact on our children's well-being – and the importance of listening to what children are telling us."

ENDS

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact: The Children’s Society’s Media Team, Tel: 020 7841 4422 Email: ple@childsoc.org.uk, mobile: 07810 796 508.

NOTES TO EDITORS

· The Children’s Society is a leading children’s charity committed to making childhood better for all children in the UK; www.childrenssociety.org.uk

· This initial report provides only a short introduction to some of the main topics covered by the well-being survey. It will be followed by a series of more detailed reports over the next year. The Children’s Society plans to launch a ‘’Well-Being Index’’ that will act as a baseline for future repeat surveys to measure changes in young people’s well-being and ensure the issue never falls down the political agenda.

· ’A Good Childhood: searching for values in a competitive age’ was published by Penguin on 5 February 2009, priced at £9.99.

*METHODOLOGY:

The survey was carried out for The Children’s Society by Ipsos MORI in April to July 2008.

It looked at three school years - Year 6, the last year of primary school, which generally consists of young people aged 10 and 11, and Years 8 and 10 in secondary school, consisting of age bands 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 respectively. Children from a total of 287 different classes took part in the survey. The size of the final sample was 6,744 young people, 2,071 from Year 6, 2,619 from Year 8 and 2,054 from Year 10.

Females (51.5%) and males (48.5%) were represented roughly equally in the survey.

The schools’ samples were stratified by government office region in order to give a nationally representative sample of geographically spread schools in England.