Experiencing Life Events and Childhood Subjective Wellbeing: A Longitudinal Analysis of Growing Up in Scotland

The findings of this report are not valid due to an error in the analysis. If you require further information, please email the Growing Up in Scotland mailbox at: GUS@gov.scot.

Literature Review

Life Events

The literature on life events commonly classifies these as being either 'normative' or 'non-normative'. Normative events are expectable and often scheduled life changes whereas non-normative events occur unexpectedly, are often undesired, and are often associated with severe effects (McCubbin et al. 1980). While some events may be statistically normative at given ages, such as the illness or death of a person in later life, these are still considered to be non-normative as they are both negative and non-routine (McCubbin et al. 1980). The life events that this analysis explores - parental separation, bereavement and family accidents and illnesses - are all considered to be non-normative in nature due to being considered undesirable and being associated with negative outcomes.

Previous literature on children's outcomes has identified the ages of 6 to 14 as the optimal years of study to aid our understanding of children's outcomes. These years are considered to be a time of key developmental advances in which young people establish a sense of their own identity (Eccles 1999). During these years, preparation for adulthood occurs which can involve developing competence, self-awareness and involvement in society more generally. During this developmental stage, children are thought to make significant advances in their development of self-esteem and individuality, gaining an awareness of themselves within wider contexts which involves comparing themselves with peers (Eccles 1999). This is particularly important when using a self-reported outcome measure, as the process of self-rating requires making an evaluation of one's own circumstances relative to others. The development of young people's ability to do this is key.

The 'transitional events' model - developed to help understand children's adaptation following significant events - suggests that children's adjustment following a major stressful life event is heavily influenced by the events that follow. Therefore, reducing children's exposure to further stressful changes such as separation from family members or exposure to financial difficulties is recommended where possible to buffer the adverse effects of negative events (Haine et al. 2008). The model further recommends work to strengthen child and family protective resources such as self-esteem and coping skills. Previous longitudinal studies have evidenced a heightened vulnerability for girls following significant stressful life events that persists over time (Schmiege et al. 2006).

Children's Wellbeing

The concept of wellbeing has come to be widely used because of its perceived benefits over a traditional, individualistic medical model of health (Commission on the Social Determinants of Health 2008, Crawshaw 2008). Understanding wellbeing has the potential to draw attention to how children's wellbeing is shaped by the social contexts in which significant life events occur. Wellbeing is defined in this project as a concept which incorporates aspects of happiness, satisfaction with life, self-esteem, and morale (Bowling 2005).

While there is no fixed or universally agreed definition of the exact meaning and scope of children's wellbeing, it is widely acknowledged that there are many aspects to a child's life and an adequate understanding of children's wellbeing must be able to do justice to this multidimensionality (Ben-Arieh et al. 2014). The wellbeing of children concerns many elements of their lives and occurs at the intersection between individual agency and its cultural and social embeddedness (Schweiger and Graf 2015). Therefore, external factors such as household, social and economic factors are important to consider, as they may have an influence on subjective wellbeing.

Many argue that the perspectives of children themselves should be considered when studying their wellbeing outcomes (Alderson 2008). Judgements about children's wellbeing are often made without acknowledging the children themselves. Wellbeing demands that mental, physical and emotional needs are met which makes it likely that there is a degree of overlap between mental health, physical health and subjective wellbeing outcomes. Research findings indicate that stressful life events are associated with deficits in levels of satisfaction among young people in the form of lower positive affect and higher negative affect (McKnight et al. 2002). Positive affect refers to the frequency of positive emotions such as joy or affection in an individual whereas negative affect refers to the frequency of negative emotions such as sadness or anxiety (McKnight et al. 2002).

McKnight and colleagues (2002) argued that understanding children's wellbeing should not be achieved through studying the absence of negative psychological symptoms. Instead, it should emphasise what makes life good, how youth remain resilient during adverse experiences and what can be done to enhance the aspects of life that children find positive.

It is acknowledged that children's wellbeing is a highly subjective concept as it requires their perceptions and evaluations which could be subject to reporting bias. To substantiate the findings on children's outcomes, this project will apply a sensitivity analysis to explore the impact of life changes on children's physical and mental health to incorporate more objective measures of children's outcomes.

Parental Separation

Parental separation is linked to multiple negative health and wellbeing outcomes for children. This could be caused by two possible mechanisms. The first being a selection process through which negative outcomes are not a result of parental separation directly, rather they are due to other factors which also influence parents propensity to separate such as financial difficulties. Alternatively, this can occur through a causal relationship between parental separation and negative outcomes for children. The latter has been evidenced in longitudinal studies with study designs which control for additional confounding factors such as socio-economic factors (Seijo et al. 2016).

While it has been previously shown that children from married couple families have better outcomes on several domains including social and emotional wellbeing and physical health (Zinn 2010), it is assumed that children are affected by changes to family structure as much as, or more than, the type of family structures they experience. The disruption experienced by changes in family structure can undermine children's senses of security and trust, which can in turn affect their social and emotional development (Fomby and Cherlin 2007). The disruption in family structure has been identified as leading to several adverse effects (Behere et al. 2017). Greater emotional and behavioral problems have been observed in children whose families have been disrupted by parental separation than those who have experienced other significant events such as the loss of a parent (Behere et al. 2017). Some long-term consequences for children following parental separation include: adjusting to new living situations, dealing with ongoing parental conflict and experiencing feelings of alienation, all of which can have adverse effects on wellbeing (Cohen et al. 2016). Furthermore, children may also experience less effective parenting or limited contact with one parent (D'onofrio and Emery 2019) following separation which can also exacerbate negative outcomes.

Studies have found that following parental divorce, girls are more likely to experience poor parent-child relationships (Caspi and Elder 1988). Children from more socio-economically advantaged families have been found to experience a two-times larger 'separation penalty' than the children of less advantaged parents which is thought to be dueto a larger decline in household income when parents separate (Martin 2012). This contrasts with what studies have shown in terms of children's outcomes following life events in general, with those from more advantaged backgrounds often being less affected (Bernardi 2014). While more advantaged families often have greater economic resources following separation, having high pre-separation resources can result in large absolute losses when parents separate (Martin 2012). Highly educated parents have been found to be more likely to re-partner and to be in conflict more frequently post-separation (Kalil et al. 2011), both of which can be worse for the psychological wellbeing of children involved (Martin 2012). While parental separation is considered to be a major public health problem to some, it can also be seen as positive in cases where children have been exposed to high levels of parental conflict and tension pre-separation as wellbeing outcomes could improve following the separation (D'onofrio and Emery 2019).


Bereavement is one of a range of difficult life events that children may face which can have adverse effects on a variety of key outcomes. Several studies on the influence of bereavement (Dowdney, 2000, Haine et al. 2008) report that children experience a wide range of emotional and behavioural symptoms following the loss of a parent. Children often experience an increase in anxiety with a focus on concerns about further loss as well as depressive symptoms which have been found to persist for at least a year (Ackerman and Statham 2011).

Multiple studies have found bereaved children to be at risk of adverse mental health outcomes in both the near and long term (Melhem et al. 2008). The effects of early losses in life such as a brother or sister can have a profound and long-term impact on the surviving sibling (Porterfield et al. 2003). Many aspects of this impact are normal manifestations of grief, some can be disruptive to a child's wellbeing, while others can be positive in nature (Koehler 2010), for example, as many bereaved children demonstrate resilience and stress-related growth (Christ 2010). Children from the lowest income households are known to be at the greatest risk of being bereaved of a parent or sibling (Paul and Vaswani 2020). Furthermore, experiencing a bereavement may add to family stress, instability, inequality and disadvantage, with those who are already vulnerable experiencing most of the bereavement burden (Paul and Vaswani 2020).

The death of a grandparent is often the first death experience that a child experiences (Ens & Bonds, 2005). Fewer children experience the death of a parent or sibling which has been found to place children at risk of many negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, peer isolation and lower self-esteem (Christ 2010, Haine et al. 2008, Koehler 2010). Although familial interactions and obligations are thought to occur primarily in the nuclear family, children and their grandparents may play important roles in one another's lives (Ens & Bonds, 2005). Experiencing the death of a household member, or someone who has a caring role, may have a more severe or long-term effect than another family member such as one who lives elsewhere (Paul and Vaswani 2020).

Accident or illness within the family

Family routines, family dynamics and future plans can all be affected when someone in the family suffers an accident or becomes ill (Lummer-Aikey and Goldstein 2020). This can influence children's daily routines and alter the pre-determined roles within the family which can cause distress. Research that has examined the effects of parental illness on youth suggests that these children are at greater risk of negative mental health outcomes compared with the children of 'healthy' parents (Pakenham and Cox 2014). Children of parents with a mental illness are more likely to experience difficulties in other aspects of their lives, for instance peer relationships, school performance, social interaction and day-to-day living (Singleton 2007). A challenge of having an injured or ill parent is dealing with changes within interpersonal relationships between the child and the parent, as well as with the non-injured or ill parent, as their time may become preoccupied with caring roles (Dawes et al. 2022). The other parent may struggle to adjust and therefore may not be well equipped to provide their child with support (Dawes et al. 2022). Poor family coping has been linked to poorer rehabilitation and recovery which can have adverse effects on parenting and children's adjustment (Dawes et al. 2022). Additionally, children with an unwell or injured family member may be reluctant to ask for support for fear of burdening family members (Rohleder et al. 2017).

Despite the growing evidence baseon the adjustment of children in cases of ill parents or other family members, it remains relatively small and suffers from several limitations such as small sample sizes, a reliance on parent reporting of children's outcomes and a lack of comparison with the outcomes of the children of 'healthy' parents (Pakenham and Cox 2014). Furthermore, there is currently a lack of research which extends beyond parents to examine cases where a non-parent family member is ill (Pakenham and Cox 2014). Sibling illness can also have adverse effects as challenges in adjustment can involve impaired psychological functioning and cognitive development as well as behavioural difficulties (Bellin and Kovacs 2006).

The link between socio-economic factors and youth outcomes when a family member has experienced, or is experiencing, an accident or illness has not been widely examined. However it is widely acknowledged that lower socio-economic status often offers fewer resources for coping with the challenges associated with family accidents and illnesses (Pakenham and Cox 2014). Sieh et al.(2010) found that lower socio-economic status was associated with greater emotional problems for children who experienced the illness of a parent. Further to this, being from a single parent family was identified as a risk factor for youth behavioural and emotional problems in the context of parental illness.

Some factors have been identified as protective of children's outcomes following the illness or accident of a family member such as family support (Saetes et al. 2017). While the adverse effects of experiencing an illness or accident within the family are well established, the potential positive outcomes for children are less well researched (Lummer-Aikey and Goldstein 2020). Lummer-Aikey and Goldstein (2020) highlighted that experiencing the illness or accident of a family member can also provide opportunities for socio-emotional growth and can facilitate the development of empathy, compassion, and maturity. It has been found that children require early and ongoing support to assist them in regaining control following disruption to their family routines (Dawes et al. 2022).


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