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Social and emotional wellbeing

Happiness

Happiness, or subjective wellbeing, refers to how content or satisfied young people are with their lives. Research shows that happy people tend to have better relationships, be more actively engaged in the community and live longer. Although quality of life has become a focus of health promotion efforts for adults, it is just beginning to be recognised as an important health component for children and adolescents.

Happiness serves a greater advantage than just feeling good: young people with a positive, friendly outlook are more likely to attract positive attention from peers and adults, thus broadening and strengthening their social resources. Having positive experiences to refer to also allows young people to cope better when negative experiences occur.

Life experiences influence overall happiness, but overall happiness influences decisions young people make that will in turn determine their future experiences.

Risks associated with low happiness/life satisfaction include depression, social rejection, aggression and substance abuse.

Optimism

Optimism refers to the mindset of having positive expectations for the future. Decades of research have publicised the health benefits of thinking positively and scientists are now gaining insight as to why this may be the case.

Optimism predicts a range of long-term health and life benefits including greater success in school and work, less likelihood of depression and anxiety, greater satisfaction in relationships, better physical health, and longer life. It is also a strong predictor of resilience in young people who face adversity.

Optimism may lead to positive life outcomes because it changes behaviour. Optimistic people are more likely to believe that if they try, they will succeed. These beliefs lead more optimistic people to persist longer at tasks and take better care of their health, increasing their chance of success and thus reinforcing their positive beliefs.

Studies have shown that optimism is partly genetic and partly learned through experiences with parents, teachers, peers, and community [1]. Internationally, a number of young people’s programs are now teaching optimism in the early years in order to promote constructive thinking patterns that will benefit them throughout their lives. Such programs include the Penn Resilience Program and use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy [1].

Perseverance

Perseverance refers to having the tenacity to stick with things and pursue a goal, despite any challenges that occur. It is the ability to pursue one’s goals to completion in the face of difficulty and delay.

Both non-cognitive and cognitive attributes of young people have long lasting effects into adulthood. Non-cognitive outcomes such as perseverance and social competencies are the strongest predictors of future human capital.

Perseverance shows that young people tend to stick to tasks, plan well, finish what they begin and as a result have better life outcomes.

Self-disciplined individuals are motivated to complete tasks that they begin and are not easily discouraged when they face challenges.

Perseverance involves an attentional component where young people need to be able to attend to stimuli for a prolonged period of time to be able to complete a task, and an emotional component where young people need to be able to stay calm and on track when they face challenges and frustrations in completing a task. As such, perseverance is related to concepts such as self-regulation, self-control, task attentiveness, effortful control, emotional regulation and executive functioning.

Similar concepts are a core component of both temperament and personality theories. Within temperament research, the term persistence is used to describe whether the child works on an activity for long periods of time or tends to lose interest quickly, and differences in this trait can be observed very early in life.

Childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending. Because of this link, interventions addressing self-control may reduce social costs for both individuals and society [2].

Emotion regulation

Emotional regulation is a fundamental skill that young people need to master in order to develop and maintain social relationships with other young people and adults. Their ability to regulate both positive and negative emotional outbursts such as excitement, crying or anger is also essential for success within a classroom setting.

Emotion regulation plays a key role in conflict resolution with the ability to regulate anger and frustration essential to resolving conflicts with friends, teachers, and family.

Poor emotion regulation, particularly anger, plays a key role in a range of broadly impacting social issues including domestic violence, road rage, and drunken assaults. Of chief importance here, is the fact that this skill is established in childhood and further developed during adolescence and into early adulthood.

People regulate their emotions using a range of different strategies from avoiding or modifying emotion provoking situations, to consciously suppressing their emotions, to using cognitive strategies to change their perspective about a situation in order to shift their emotional response. While each of the strategies can be useful in specific situations, some are clearly more adaptive than others.

Sadness and worries

It is important to recognise and prevent poor mental health and promote positive coping before adulthood.

Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health concern among both children and adults. It is estimated that anxiety affects 5-10% of children and young people with onset starting as early as 6 years old. Although it is one of the most prevalent mental health issues, international studies have found that up to 80% of youths with anxiety do not use health services.

Depression is estimated to affect 3.7% of young people in Australia at any one time. It has a later onset than anxiety, usually beginning around the time of puberty. Depression affects young people’s ability to concentrate and also limits their ability to experience enjoyment or pleasure in things.

An Australian study of child and adolescent mental wellbeing conducted in 2000 found that 14% of children and adolescents in Australia have mental health problems, yet only 25% of young persons with mental health problems access professional help for these problems. Almost 1 in 5 young people have experienced one or more mental, emotional or behavioural disorders at any given time. Among adults, half of all mental, emotional or behavioural disorders were first diagnosed by age 14.

Anxiety and depression are more commonly reported among young people from affluent backgrounds than young people from less affluent backgrounds [3].

Anxiety and depression often co-occur. Over half of those who experience depression also experience symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, one can lead to the onset of the other [4] [5].

Helping students

The survey is a population-level health tool and does not identify individual young people or teachers nor does it diagnose young people with specific learning difficulties. If you suspect a child or student may be struggling with a social or emotional health issue, please inform the child’s school counsellor or regional support staff.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression in children

Childhood anxiety symptoms include:

  • fear of being separated from a parent/carer
  • fear of social situations (eg recess, lunch)
  • generalised fears about the future
  • experiencing frequent aches and pains.

Childhood depression symptoms include:

  • feeling anxious and/or empty inside
  • not feeling like eating
  • difficulty with sleep or having difficulty staying awake
  • feeling irritable or annoyed by the things people do or say.

Kids Helpline links

Contact

Project team

Phone: 8226 0452 
Emaildecd.mdi [at] sa.gov.au