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.


1.1 Background

There is a growing body of research which identifies significant events in children's lives that can have an impact on current and later outcomes. For example, recent research of Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS), the Millennium Cohort Study ( MCS) and other sources has shown that changes to parental relationships can impact on child behaviour (Bradshaw and Tipping, 2010; Keirnan and Mensah, 2010) and that parents' transitions into and out of employment can impact on both family income and parent-child interaction (Millar and Ridge, 2008; McQuaid et al., 2010). This report will extend previous research by looking at a wider set of events that can happen during early childhood, namely moving house, parental separation, unemployment and maternal health problems.

The research will look at the association between these significant events and factors which other research, including GUS, has shown to be related to child outcomes. These 'drivers' of child outcomes include income poverty (Barnes et al., 2010), maternal mental health (Marryat and Martin, 2010) and strained parent-child relationship (Hobcraft and Kiernan, 2010).

The events this research focuses on are relevant to a number of current Scottish policy areas, including the Early Years Framework, Equally Well and Achieving our Potential.

In addition, unemployment and maternal health problems relate to the recent and forthcoming changes to the benefit system and the emphasis on reducing inactivity benefits by moving people off both Income Support and Incapacity Benefit and into work. Following the social security theme, any effects of residential moves on family life will also be very topical with the announced changes to Housing Benefit. The research will also be of interest to those providing support services to parents with relationship problems or going through separation.

1.2 Adding to the evidence base

This research focuses on identifying key events that happen during childhood and examining whether families who experience these events disproportionately face a higher risk of drivers of negative child outcomes. Prior research (see below) has shown that the four events that we focus on (parental separation, moving house, parental job loss and the onset of maternal health problems) can potentially have significant impacts on family life and children's later outcomes.

Research indicates that relationship breakdown is associated with poor maternal mental health (Coleman and Glenn, 2010), while experiencing parental separation is linked with poorer long-term outcomes, including lower educational attainment. Nevertheless for most children with good parent-child relationships and good communication between the parents the negative outcomes following parental separation can be relatively short-term and limited to a transitional period of adjustment (Coleman and Glenn, 2010; Mooney et al., 2009). However, analysis has also indicated that the experience of living in a lone parent family in early childhood (under the age of 5), compared with later childhood, is especially linked with long-term negative outcomes including psychological distress and economic inactivity (Ermisch et al., 2004).

In turn, maternal health problems have been identified as a significant factor associated with child outcomes, including behaviour difficulties (Barnes et al., 2010; Kelly and Bartley, 2010). While it is quite common for families with young children to move house (Ketende et al., 2010) there is mixed evidence on the outcomes for children and a traumatic move can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children (Steele and Sheppard, 2003).

Unemployment is a well-documented factor associated with family poverty, but also with other negative outcomes for both adults and their children. Analysis of British Household Panel Survey ( BHPS) data has linked job loss with psychological distress in adults and poorer long-term outcomes for children. A movement from employment into unemployment is associated with psychological distress for both men and women without prior psychological problems, as is a movement from employment to family care for women. In both cases, the association was partly explained by the individual's perceived increased financial difficulties (Thomas et al., 2007). Parental unemployment is related to lower educational attainment and higher probability of economic inactivity, psychological distress and smoking among young adults, with the experience of parental worklessness in early childhood (aged 0-5) having the strongest influences on later educational attainment and economic inactivity (Ermisch, 2004).

This report adds to the current evidence base by using data from a large-scale longitudinal social survey designed to examine the characteristics, circumstances and behaviours of children from birth to late adolescence. GUS provides crucial evidence for the long-term monitoring and evaluation of policies for children, with a specific focus on the early years. This study uses the breadth of GUS data to look across not just several significant events, but also multiple family outcomes for each event.

GUS is an important data source in studying this area because it collects information on the same children over time. GUS began in 2005/06, and annual interviews have been carried out with the families since; with the latest sweep of data collection thus far taking place in 2009/10 (sweep 5). This report uses data from the babies (the 'birth cohort'), of which 3,833 took part in the 2009/10 study and 3,621 took part in all five years of the study. Some families who initially took part in GUS did not do so for all of the subsequent sweeps. There are a number of reasons why respondents drop out from longitudinal surveys and such attrition is not random. However, we use the longitudinal weights supplied with the GUS dataset in our analysis to adjust for this 1 .

1.3 Research questions

The research is built around three research questions:

1. How prevalent are (selected) 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 of poor child outcomes?

Figure 1.1 illustrates how these research questions will be tackled. We make good use of the longitudinal element of GUS, using data from all five years (2005/06 to 2009/10) to identify an event that children have experienced during the first years of childhood (research question 1). Data from the first year (2005/06) is used to explore which children are most likely to experience an event (research question 2). Data from the last year (2009/10) is used to explore whether children who experienced an event are more likely to be at an increased risk of drivers of child outcomes (research question 3). Part of this analysis will explore the variation in the driver at year 5 for those children that did, and those that did not, experience each of the events. For example, the analysis will compare the likelihood of income poverty for those children whose parents separated with that of the children whose parents stayed together.

This report stops short of looking at actual child outcomes as it is well established that the drivers of child outcomes investigated are linked with poor child outcomes.

Figure 1.1 Analytical model

Figure 1.1 Analytical model

This research will look at four events that can occur during early childhood:

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

The four drivers that we examine in this research are:

  • home chaos;
  • low income;
  • maternal mental health; and
  • parent-child relationship.

These events and drivers are discussed further in the next chapter.

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