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.


7.1 Main findings

7.1.1 How prevalent are the significant events and which families are most at risk?

Approximately one in ten children (11%) experienced parental separation in the first five years of their lives. In some 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 (up to four years). Families at higher risk of 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. Among all the families that separated in the first five years, separation was most prevalent in the early years following the birth.

Moving house was a much more common event, with 40% of GUS children experiencing at least one move in the first five years of their lives; nine per cent moving twice or more. Families most likely to move, and move more frequently, include those with a younger mother, private renters and those in 'other' 13 accommodation. Families living in rural areas, with good maternal-infant attachment and families with children older than the cohort child are less likely to move house. In the latter case it may be that the need to move to bigger and more suitable accommodation is more pronounced or prevalent after the birth of the firstborn child.

Three-quarters of couple families (75%) 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. Couple families at higher risk of a sustained job loss include families in social rented accommodation and income poor families. In addition, families with other children, older than the study child, are less likely to experience a job loss. This may imply that among couple families a family-level job loss is more likely following the birth of the firstborn child, if the mother takes a career break when starting a family. Conversely, if the mother did not take a career break between the births of her children the likelihood of doing so after the birth of a subsequent child may be reduced.

However, the situation for couple families and lone parents is very different, with just one fifth (20%) of lone parents being in stable employment (compared with 75% of couple families) and 14% of lone parents experiencing a job loss from which their work intensity did not 'recover' during the period (compared with six per cent of couple families) 14 . This finding is in line with earlier analysis of the first sweep of GUS which showed that lone parents where less likely to be in work than parents in couple families (Anderson et al., 2007), and our findings show that this is sustained over the early years of the child's life. Lone mothers at higher risk of a sustained job loss include younger mothers, mothers with more than one child and mothers with poorer physical health. Lone parents living in small towns are less likely to experience job loss than lone mothers in large urban cities.

The rarest event discussed in this report involved the mother developing a persistent limiting health problem, which occurred in two per cent of families, while 84% of mothers remained in good health throughout the period. Mothers more likely to develop persistent limiting health problems include those living in households where neither she nor her partner (if present) has ever worked and mothers with previous poor mental health or worse physical health.

In the majority of cases these selected significant events did not co-occur. The majority (56%) of families who could have experienced all events 15 did not experience any of the events at all; some 41% experienced one event while just three per cent experienced two or more events.

7.1.2 What happens to families who experience an event?

This research has identified events which can impact on a number of drivers of child outcomes. All four of the significant events investigated in this report are associated with income poverty, while none of them are associated with low warmth in the parent-child relationship. Other associations existed too; parental separation and house moves are both associated with poor maternal mental health, a parent losing a job or substantially reducing their working hours is associated with a high level of home chaos and conflict in the parent-child relationship. The mother developing a persistent limiting health problem is also associated with a high level of home chaos and conflict in the parent-child relationship as well as poor maternal mental health.

7.2 Implications for policy

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

One important finding to emerge from this research is that events that happen to parents can have implications for the whole family, including young children. For example, job loss is associated with high conflict in the parent-child relationship. 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. In many cases, it may be helpful for an umbrella of services to be activated so that not just the individual who has experienced an event such as job loss, but the effects on, and needs of, the rest of the family are taken into account at such a potentially stressful time. This would not necessarily require new service provision, as numerous services and projects for families and children already exist, but rather a coordination service to signpost families to useful support and join up service provision in a more holistic manner. If the suggestion in the Deacon report to develop children's centres across Scotland is implemented (Deacon, 2011), this function could potentially be filled by these centres, providing a place for peer-support by other families as well contact with staff who can provide signposting, referral and outreach services to ensure those families which need more formal support have access to it.

By definition, a significant event in childhood as presented in this report is likely to have an impact on the family. As a result families are likely to come into contact with services that focused on the fallout of the event in a reactive manner. However, even at such crisis points, there are opportunities to intervene to prevent situations from deepening and widening. Even better are having services that can spot problems early, focusing on recognising early warning signs which could prevent situations from escalating. Both the UK and the Scottish Governments have expressed a commitment to early intervention (although the Deacon report (2011) pointed out this commitment has not consistently been translated into adequate resource allocation). Below we discuss in more detail some of the policy areas relevant to the findings of our research.


Our research has shown that a substantial proportion of children experience a house move in the first five years of their lives, that private renters are particularly likely to move and that house moves are associated with subsequent income poverty and poor maternal mental health.

A house move may well be necessary and desirable following a change to the family composition. This is especially likely to be the case following the birth of a couple's first child as many couples may not be able to move into accommodation suitable for a family prior to the birth of the child, particularly if the pregnancy was unplanned. Our analysis was not able to include information on the reasons for moves. It is thus unknown whether the higher prevalence of moving among private tenants is due to families being able to take advantage of a more flexible housing market to meet their changing needs or whether it is because of involuntary moves due to a less secure housing situation. However, negative outcomes that can be associated with house moves highlighted in this report indicate that either more support is needed for families to avoid unwanted or frequent house moves, perhaps through better protection for private tenants, or that additional support is needed for families around the time of moving house.

More research on the reasons for moving house, and subsequent family outcomes, would be useful to inform the implementation of Scottish Government's strategy and action plan for housing (Scottish Government, 2011). The strategy aims, in part through the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill, to create a more focused regulatory system for the private renting sector, more flexibility and stability and better quality housing and tenancy management for private renters while expanding this housing sector.

In our research, families in social rented accommodation were not more likely than owner occupiers to move house. However, with the UK Government's proposed forthcoming changes to social housing rents and shorter-term tenancies, it is unknown how families in social housing will be affected in the future.

In addition, it is noteworthy that low-income families are more likely to move and have multiple moves. This suggests that their financial circumstances make their position on the housing market less stable or secure and requires them to move more often. Analysis of MCS data has indicated that frequent house moves is associated with lower uptake of immunisations for children (Pearce et al., 2008; cited in Ketende et al., 2010). In this study we have found house moves were associated with a higher risk of low income (controlling for prior income) and poor maternal mental health. Both of these factors have in other research been linked with behavioural problems in children (Bradshaw and Tipping, 2010; Kelly and Bartley, 2010; Marryat & Martin, 2010) so efforts aimed at reducing low income families' need to move house could well have some positive effect on children, or at least help prevent negative outcomes.

Poverty and employment

All four of the selected events were associated with a higher risk of income poverty. The Scottish Government discussion paper in support of the child poverty strategy 16 (Scottish Government, 2010) puts parents' employment and employability at the centre of the government's approach.

Being without work is clearly a key cause of poverty. Losing a job or significantly reducing hours worked can signal a decline into poverty for many families. Combining work with looking after young children is a challenging prospect for many families, and it is commonplace for family working patterns to be disrupted, especially for those with very young children. Being able to plan for these disruptions can help many families, for example by saving beforehand or reducing outgoings. But these options are not available for all families.

Job loss or a reduction in working hours that is not planned, particularly relevant during times of recession, can have very different consequences. Dealing with the shock of losing work, coupled with the need to provide for a young family, can have knock-on consequences, both economic and social. Our previous research on job loss during a recession found that both job loss and job insecurity were associated with an increased risk of depression and financial stress (Barnes et al., 2009). Hence it is imperative that policy aims to prevent and reduce social disadvantage, in addition to containing the purely economic problems that can arise during tough economic times.

Families still need to make ends meet, and hence a reduction in hours worked by one parent can mean the other parent looks to work longer hours. Again, this is a difficult balancing act to get right in times of recession, and increased work hours for one parent can mean less time to spend with the family, and the relevant stresses that brings. Spreading the workload between parents may be the best option for some families, but this is not always possible given that there is a high number of lone parent families where this is unfeasible and the UK has a particularly wide gender pay gap, minimal paternity leave and high costs of childcare.

The UK Government has announced the extension in the right to request flexible working, to cover all parents with children under the age of 18 from April 2011, and plans for the Universal Credit (subject to the Welfare Reform Bill 2011) aiming to ensure that work always pays more than being on benefits, which could help more parents combine employment with family responsibilities. 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. Analysis indicates that while there are those who benefit and those who lose out from the introduction of the Universal Credit across all family types, on average, lone parents will lose out in the long run (Brewer et al., 2011).

Of course the issues surrounding employment and family responsibilities are often exacerbated for single parent families. Lone parents have to fit work around childcare, meaning working sufficient hours and finding adequate and affordable childcare is paramount. Losing a job or having to reduce hours worked can have a huge impact on household income. As can ensuring the non-resident parent contributes to household income. Furthermore we should not forget that many working families, lone parent and couple families alike, experience poverty despite being 'in work' (Parekh et al., 2010; Barnes et al., 2010).

Some recent benefit changes particularly affect lone parents. Until recently lone parents have been able to claim Income Support while bringing up dependent children but recent legislation means that for those with school-aged children benefit receipt is conditional on them looking for work and being available for a minimum of 16 hours of work a week. Parents with a youngest child aged 12 were put on to the new system in 2008, those with a youngest child aged 7 were moved last October and it is proposed that those with a youngest child aged 5 will be moved in 2012 (subject to the Welfare Reform Bill 2011 being enacted). Key to the success of this policy is immediate high-quality and tailored job-search support, access to suitable and affordable childcare, improved availability of jobs with flexible working hours from the start and the perception of being better off in work.

Counselling and support services

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, parents living with health problems or even services for adults more generally where the service user is a parent.

For example, the association between job loss and higher parent-child conflict implies a need for extra support for unemployed parents, or the whole family, over and above the employment support available to jobseekers. However, further research could shed more light on this finding. The GUS parent-child relationship measure is effectively a measure of the mother-child relationship. We do not have measures of the father-child relationship, nor does our family level work intensity ratio indicate whether the job loss or reduction in working hours affected the mother or the father.

Family instability and changes in family composition (through parental separation or re-partnering) has been associated with behavioural problems in young children (Kiernan and Mensah, 2010) and this and other research (see for example Coleman and Glenn, 2010 for a review) has shown that parental separation is associated with poor maternal mental health. In addition, the quality of the parents' relationships has been associated with both parenting and child outcomes. Parents who felt their couple relationship was of a poorer quality were not as involved with their children and used harsher discipline while mothers who felt their relationship was of a better quality had children with better cognitive abilities and less behavioural problems (Jones, 2010).

Coleman and Glenn (2010) reviewed evidence that suggested that family breakdown is not inevitable; couple relationships can be strengthened and relationship breakdown can be prevented with support. Support for couple relationships may well be best targeted at unmarried parents, income poor parents and couples who are expecting or have recently had a new baby. The transition to parenthood is a particularly stressful time for couples, and represents an opportune time point for early intervention and prevention. There is some evidence of positive outcomes for both intervention programmes aimed at this time point and training for ante-natal and post-natal health practitioners to identify couples for referral to counselling (Barrett et al., 2010). In addition, mediation and counselling services following family breakdown can help reduce the post-separation stress and conflict between the parents.

In the UK, couple relationship support is generally available through voluntary sector provision (Barrett et al., 2010) such as Relationships Scotland. The UK Government recently announced a commitment of annual funding for relationship support organisations in the order of £7.5 million per year. However, most relationship support services charge parents a fee which has been identified as a barrier to take-up (Barrett et al., 2010). A more costly, but perhaps more effective way of reaching families in need of such support might have been making relationship or family counselling free at the point of contact for families experiencing difficulties, for example through health visitor referral. Counselling on the NHS is currently generally limited to diagnosed mental health problems such as anxiety or depression or coming to terms with long-term illness and available on GP referral.

Other barriers to take-up of relationship counselling include lack of information about available services, denial of the gravity of problems and difficulties accessing services due to waiting lists and limited appointment times or lack of availability in the local area. In addition, a general perception of counselling as a last resort means that many couples who do seek help often do so at too late a stage when the problems have become entrenched and possibly irreversible, contributing to the relatively low success rate of couples counselling (Barrett et al., 2010). Professionals working with families and children, such as health visitors, can (with appropriate training) provide screening and out-reach services to offer help to those families facing relationship conflict at an earlier stage.

Such professionals could also help identify parental mental health problems and provide information about the services available through GP referral. As noted by Marryat and Martin (2010) such screening and intervention beyond the early post-natal period and throughout children's early years could help improve mental health or prevent recurrence of problems, possibly resulting in positive child outcomes (or prevention of negative outcomes).

In many families, informal support from extended family (including grandparents) and peers for both parents and children is sufficient to get through the difficulties of parental separation or to cope with poor parental mental health. However, where such informal support is not available, or in situations when family members require more formal support, a whole-family approach to address the emotional, health and care needs of both parents and children has shown the most encouraging results (Barrett et al., 2010). For example, an event that impacts on a mother's mental health is also likely to have negative connotations for other members of the family. Here services need to support the mother directly but also take into account the distinct needs of the other family members; her partner (if present) and the emotional, physical and educational needs of her children especially. This may mean offering emotional support to the whole family, helping parents to build confidence in their parenting role whilst also helping children to develop a better understanding of their parent's mental health problems.

7.3 Further research

Clearly there is scope for further research into these issues. The lack of information on fathers has meant we have been unable to provide a rounded view of the circumstances of couple families. Given that many policy recommendations suggest more of an equal responsibility between mothers and fathers, having a greater insight into how their lives interact, with each other and with their children, is paramount. The lack of focus on fathers also means we know less about some of the problems which are likely to have quite serious implications for the family, such as fathers' physical and mental health.

Understanding the timing of events ( e.g. when house moves are most likely to take place), and their consequences, throughout childhood would also help plan the intervention and availability of services. Equally as important is understanding whether significant events are linked; so whether families that experience one event are more likely to experience other events - not necessarily concurrently but within relatively short timescales. Dealing with one significant event is difficult enough, but having to deal with another, soon after, may have compounding effects on the family. If these events are more commonplace for certain sub-groups of the population, more focused data collection, whether quantitative or qualitative may be required.

Being able to differentiate events is also important. Some families may be resilient to significant events, and hence face very different consequences of the event, but for others it may be the intensity of the event, the timing of the event or the amount of control over the event that has most impact. For example, some house moves and employment transitions are voluntary, and some separations are desirable as they end abusive or otherwise harmful relationships, and may be a generally positive experience accompanied by improvements in 'outcomes'. Involuntary events may have very different consequences. Including more context to the event in large-scale surveys such as GUS can only enable researchers, policy makers and practitioners to understand these events in more detail.

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