Growing up in Scotland: change in early childhood and the impact of significant events

Reports on children experiencing parental separation, moving house, parental job-loss and maternal health problems and how these events relate to factors that are known drivers of child outcomes.


This study uses five years of Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) data to investigate four significant events in early childhood:

  • parental separation;
  • moving house;
  • parental unemployment; and
  • the onset of maternal health problems.

The research is built around three research questions:

1. How prevalent are the events in the first five years of children's lives?

2. Which families are most likely to experience these events?

3. How are these events associated with known drivers o f poor child outcomes?

GUS contains information on a range of factors that other research has identified as 'drivers' of child outcomes. The four drivers that we examine in this research are:

  • home chaos;
  • low income;
  • maternal mental health; and
  • parent-child relationship (warmth and conflict).

How prevalent are these events in the first five years of children's lives?

Approximately one in ten children (11%) experienced parental separation in the first five years of their lives. For two-thirds of these families, the separation marked a transition into a relatively sustained period of lone parenthood, lasting at least for the remainder of the period studied.

Moving house is the most common event studied in this report. Forty per cent of children experienced at least one move in the first five years of their lives and nine per cent moved twice or more.

The majority of couple families (82%) experienced a high level of employment throughout the five-year period, with only six per cent of families experiencing a sustained job loss or substantial reduction in hours. However, the situation for lone parents is very different. Just 20% of lone parents were in stable employment throughout while 14% experienced a job loss with no return to work during the period.

The onset of persistent maternal physical health problems is the rarest event discussed in this report. This occurred in two per cent of families, while 84% of mothers remained in good health throughout the period.

Which families are most likely to experience these events?

Families most likely to experience parental separation include those with cohabiting rather than married parents, families living in income poverty and families where the birth of the child was unplanned.

Families most likely to experience moving, and moving more frequently, include those with a younger mother and private renters. Families living in rural areas, with good maternal-infant attachment and families with children older than the study child are less likely to move house.

Lone mothers most likely to experience a sustained job loss include younger mothers, mothers with more than one child and mothers with poorer physical health. Couple families most likely to experience a sustained job loss include families in social rented accommodation and families living on low income. In addition, couple families with other children, older than the study child, are less likely to experience a job loss.

Mothers most likely to experience onset of persistent maternal health problems include those living in workless households and mothers with previous poor mental or physical health.

How are these events associated with drivers of poor child outcomes?

The statistical models in this report adjust for the level of the driver of poor child outcomes before the event occurred when investigating whether the driver was exacerbated after the event. For example, the finding that parental separation is associated with later relative low income takes into account the fact that low income couples are more likely to separate in the first place. Thus, irrespective of prior income level separated families are more likely than intact families to experience income poverty.

All four of the significant events investigated in this report are associated with income poverty. For example, compared with 31% of study families overall, low income was experienced by:

  • 55% of separated families;
  • 47% of families who moved twice or more;
  • 47% of couple families, and 81% of lone parent families, that experienced job loss; and
  • 55% of families experiencing the onset of maternal health problems.

Being without work is clearly a key cause of poverty. Losing a job, or significantly reducing hours worked can signal a fall into poverty for many families. The findings further suggest that a parent losing a job or substantially reducing their working hours is also associated with a high level of home chaos and conflict in the parent-child relationship.

House moves are also associated with poor maternal mental health, in addition to low income. This suggests that either more support or better protection is needed for families to avoid unwanted or frequent house moves, especially for low-income families and private renters who are at particular risk of moving.

Findings suggest that the mother developing a persistent limiting health problem is associated with a high level of home chaos, conflict in the parent-child relationship, and poor maternal mental health, as well as low income.


The findings from this research have implications for a number of areas of policy and practice, including housing policy, benefits and services for families with children, and local counselling and support services aimed at couples, families, jobseekers or those living with health problems.

For example, combining work with looking after young children is a challenging prospect for many families and the availability of suitable and affordable childcare is often key to enabling parents to work. However, support for childcare costs through the childcare element of Working Tax Credits is being reduced from April 2011, and as yet there are no details on whether and how this support will be replaced under the Universal Credit.

One important finding to emerge from this research is that events that happen to parents can have implications for the whole family, possibly with knock-on effects on young children. This suggests that services need to take into account the needs of the whole family, not just those who the event is perceived to affect directly. The findings on separation, maternal health problems, maternal mental health, and conflicted parent-child relationship have implications for funding and provision of different services aimed at supporting families generally or parents living with health problems. Whole family support services are likely to work best.

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