New ESRI research, based on Growing Up in Ireland, shows that strong relationships with parents, peers and teachers enhance child and adolescent wellbeing

New ESRI research funded by HSE Health and Wellbeing, published today (8th December 2021), examines the risk and protective factors for mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland ’08 Cohort at 9 years of age and the ’98 Cohort at 17 years of age, the research examined both positive (life satisfaction) and negative (socio-emotional difficulties) aspects of mental health and wellbeing. Socio-emotional difficulties refer to difficulties of an emotional nature (e.g., feeling unhappy, downhearted or tearful) or with peers (e.g., picked on or bullied).

Key Findings:

  • Overall, there were high levels of life satisfaction and low levels of socio-emotional difficulties among children and young people in Ireland.
  • However, socio-emotional difficulties were found to increase between three and nine years of age, before falling slightly between nine and 13. Between 13 and 17 years of age, levels remained stable for males but increased very significantly for females.
  • At the age of 17, young women also tended to have slightly lower levels of life satisfaction than young men.
  • Socio-emotional difficulties were found to vary by family background, with higher levels found among more socio-economically disadvantaged families and among those who lived in lone-parent families. In contrast, life satisfaction varied less markedly by socio-economic background, but was lower in lone-parent families.
  • For both age-groups, positive parent-child relationships were associated with lower socio-emotional difficulties. On the other hand, children had greater socio-emotional difficulties where they experienced a conflictual or hostile relationship with their parents.
  • Friendships played a particularly important role in the wellbeing of the 17-year-olds, reflecting the growing importance of peers at this phase of young people’s lives.
  • The quality of relationships with teachers emerged as an important factor. For younger children, conflict with teachers was associated with more socio-emotional difficulties. For young adults, positive interaction with teachers in the form of praise or positive feedback was linked to fewer socio-emotional difficulties and greater life satisfaction.

Policy Implications:

  • Young women experienced a steeper decline in socio-emotional wellbeing as they aged through adolescence than young men. While the Framework for Junior Cycle has designated wellbeing as an area of learning at junior cycle, there is currently a gap in curricular provision for wellbeing at senior cycle level, a life stage identified as a pressure point for young people in this research.
  • Experience of financial strain in the family (i.e., ‘difficulty making ends meet’) was strongly linked to poorer mental health and wellbeing, highlighting the importance of poverty reduction policies in supporting families of children and young people.
  • The study findings point to the key role of the relationships and networks within which children and young people are embedded in supporting their health and wellbeing. Children and young people had fewer socio-emotional difficulties where they had close relationships with their parents, with low levels of conflict. As children became older, the quality of peer relationships emerged as an important protective factor for mental health.

Anne Nolan, one of the authors of the report, commented: “This research was based on data collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequent data from special COVID surveys of the ’98 and ’08 cohorts in December 2020 showed reduced interaction with friends, deteriorating mental health, poorer diet and significantly reduced participation in sport and cultural activities for many children and young people during the pandemic. The wide-ranging effects of the pandemic on children and young people make it all the more important to be able to identify protective factors which will help enhance young people’s wellbeing in the years ahead.”

HSE Health and Wellbeing funded this research as part of their work to promote health under the Healthy Ireland Framework. Helen Deely, Interim Programme Lead for HSE Health and Wellbeing said: “Behaviours that cause chronic illness, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and unhealthy eating patterns often begin in adolescence, as young people try to cope with emotional distress and lack of connection in their relationships at home, in school and/or among their peers.  This research programme, which involved three sets of data analysis, is telling us when children and young people experience warm positive relationships at home and/or in school, they are less likely to experience social and emotional difficulties, as they have social support to help them to cope with life’s challenges.   Coping with life’s challenges through social support, rather than engaging in unhealthy behaviours, enhances wellbeing and reduces the lifetime risk of chronic illness. 

Policy and practice is moving in the right direction; the HSE is making significant investments to support parents, through parenting programmes, which are being rolled out as a priority in 19 of the most socio-economically deprived communities in Ireland through the Sláintecare Healthy Communities Initiative.  The Department of Education is working on the implementation of the Wellbeing Framework for Practice, which prioritises the importance of positive teacher/student relationships and a positive social climate in schools.  These initiatives are evidence-based, are being implemented at scale, and aim to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and young people.  The impact of the pandemic on children and young people gives these developments an increased urgency.”