Unhappy childhoods afflict one in 10 youngsters, finds Children’s Society

Survey of 30,000 children aged eight to 16 pinpoints family relationships and ‘materialistic traps’ behind low well-being

Almost one in 10 children over the age of eight are unhappy, according to a landmark survey by the Children’s Society, which questioned more than 30,000 youngsters aged eight to 16 in the UK.

The charity’s researchers found that family had the biggest impact on children’s happiness. Relationships within a household rather than the family “structure” most affected the emotional wellbeing of young people, they found.

The Children’s Society said its evidence showed that “at any one time, one in 11 (9%) eight- to 15-year-olds had low levels of subjective well-being”. Across the population, that equated to just over 500,000 having low levels of subjective well-being on any one day.

Almost a quarter of children who had moved home more than once over 12 months had low levels of well-being, compared to the average of about 10% in the survey.

And the study showed that unhappiness increased dramatically with age; the number of those saying they felt “low” doubling from the age of 10 (7%) to the age of 15 (14%).

The prime minister has already made a commitment to broadening the nation’s understanding of quality of life, saying memorably that it was time “we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing”.

However, material wealth does appear to affect a child’s happiness, a finding that echoes a recent Unicef report that claimed that British children were caught in a “materialistic trap”.

The charity said that children as young as eight were “aware of the financial issues their families face”. It added: “Children who do not have clothes to ‘fit in’ with peers are more than three times likely to have low well-being than those that do. Around a quarter say they often worry about the way they look. Unhappiness with appearance increases with age and is greater among girls.”

School also brings many children down. One in 10 children, says the report, are unhappy about their relationships with teachers, and one in six are unhappy about the amount they feel they are being listened to at school.

In a foreword to the society’s report, the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, described the discovery of 500,000 unhappy children as “a wake-up call to us all”. He writes: “An analysis of the subjective well-being of children is not simply a question of how well our children are doing, but an acid test for our society.”

The charity says there are six priorities – concerned with positive relationships and safe environments – that would be required for a happy childhood.

Elaine Hindal, director of the Campaign for Childhood at the Children’s Society, said: “We are calling for a radical new approach to childhood, placing their wellbeing at the heart of everything we do. Our research has exposed that how children feel really matters. We know that, right now, half a million children are unhappy. We have discovered the key reasons for this unhappiness and what we can do to make it better. We want our country to be the best place for our children to grow up. Yet unless we act now we risk becoming one of the worst and creating a lost future generation.”

Lord Layard, the economist, said: “This important research reveals the true picture of children’s wellbeing in the UK today. The Children’s Society has used its extensive research and deep experience in this area to help us view childhood in a fresh and significant way. Everybody involved in shaping children’s lives should sit up and take note of this report.”