"Well-being is more than just what is not going well"

View of the city of Rotterdam from above
Man walks across Erasmus Bridge with pram.
Jelte Lagendijk

How do children grow up to be happy and healthy adults? Ildeniz Arslan (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences) researched this for her PhD thesis. Using questionnaires, she followed the same young people over a 16-year period. Children who are busy and aggressive have more behavioural or psychological problems later on, her research shows.

What did you research in your thesis?

"How do children grow up to be happy and healthy adults is the central question in my thesis. I looked at how individual and contextual factors are related to functioning from childhood to young adulthood. As I delved into the literature, I noticed that the main focus is on where things go wrong in children and adolescents. On the one hand, I can understand this focus, because it gives more starting points for practitioners or interventions. Yet I think you should also look at positive qualities or protective traits."

Arjen-Jan Stada

Why is that so important?

"Our well-being consists of much more than just what is not going well. When you want to help someone with symptoms of depression, it is more effective to also look at what is going well and use that to help someone better. In the last decade, fortunately, you see more and more research where there is room for both aspects of wellbeing, but in the pedagogical development literature this had been applied even less. That has really become the sticking point of my research."

You looked at how behaviour in childhood is related to well-being in young adults. How were you able to investigate that?

"What makes this study so unique is that we have data from the same children, who are therefore now adults, over a 16-year period. Their parents filled in questionnaires when the children were, on average, six years old and they themselves filled it in some 16 years later as young adults. So these are the same respondents and there are very few studies that manage to do that."

And what connection did you find?

"Children who are rowdy and aggressive have more behavioural or psychological problems later on. For instance, they show more aggressive behaviour and are also more likely to have social problems. They are also less satisfied with their own health.

In another study, I looked at personality traits in adolescence and whether this correlates with their well-being later on. In particular, emotional stability, resourcefulness and extraversion were found to be important for well-being later on. When young people scored low on these traits, they are unhappier later and more likely to suffer from burnout. What is further interesting to mention is that how these personality traits develop is also a predictor. Consider extraversion, for example. In adolescence, extraversion declines, but if it is lower than average, these young people do better later on."

''Interestingly, young people also have an impact on their parents' parenting behaviour, creating a kind of chain reaction''

Ildeniz Arslan

PhD Candidate

You also looked at the relationship between adolescents (aged 14) and their parents. What did you see there?

"The degree of conflict between parents and adolescents, affects emotional well-being. More conflict predicts more negative emotions in adolescents three months later. Interestingly, young people also influence their parents' parenting behaviour, creating a kind of chain reaction. It was long thought that parenting is more or less a one-way street, but partly thanks to new statistical models, we have shown that young people's behaviour also influences parenting behaviour."

What does this suggest to you?

"My thesis endorses that it pays to be involved early on and that it is important to focus on prevention. Especially with increasing concerns about the mental health of young people and students in recent years. I haven't done any practical research, but my research does provide guidance, for instance when developing prevention programmes. For me, it is important not only to focus on what is not going well, but also to make room for rediscovering and promoting young people's positive qualities and strengths."

Youngsters in Delfshaven
Eric Fecken

You now work at the Verwey-Jonker Institute. What is it exactly that you do there?

"I am mainly doing practical research here now on young people's mental well-being. For example, we look at the effectiveness of existing prevention programmes and interventions, but we also study the development of new programmes. I take a lot from my thesis and it's great fun to test my findings in practice now."

PhD student
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