Table 2; Fig. 1 show the difficult situations and feelings reported by participants in each of the three groups at any timepoint.
As can be seen in Table 2; Fig. 1, comparatively high proportions of participants across the three groups reported experiencing feelings of sadness and anxiety, as well as experiences of being bullied at any timepoint. However, Group C contained the highest proportions of participants who reported experiencing difficulties with anger, self-harm, arguments with parents and/or siblings, parental abuse, parental mental health issues (such as depression), getting into trouble at school, and arguments with peers. By contrast, the highest proportion of participants who reported lacking in confidence and self-esteem could be seen in Group A. Groups B and C contained the highest proportions of participants who reported experiencing some form of family or parental stress (such as animosity between parents or family financial difficulties) at any timepoint.
Table 3; Fig. 2 present the coping strategies and sources of support (organised in terms of individual-, family-, and environment-level protective factors and processes) that participants across the three groups reported drawing on at two or more timepoints to manage difficulties in life. Reports at two or more timepoints was considered a proxy for participants’ consistency in usage of specific coping strategies and sources of support over time. Previous quantitative longitudinal research has identified stability in adolescents’ reports of using particular coping strategies over at least a two-year period (Valiente, Eisenberg, Fabes, Spinrad, & Sulik, 2015).
Individual-level Factors and Processes
Engaging in Activities
Participants described engaging in different activities (e.g., playing video games, drawing, and playing football) to take their mind off their problems, have fun, or relax: “When I’m thinking about the worries and when I’m, like, drawing, it’s, like, makes me a lot, like, do you know, thinking about the worries, it makes them go somewhere else” (Group A, Time 2). The prevalence of this theme, in terms of references at two or more timepoints, was higher in Groups B (73%) and C (75%) than Group A (50%).
However, participants in Groups B and C also reported that engaging in activities did not always help. Reasons for this included that some problems (such as a grandparent dying) can make you feel so sad that engaging in an activity does not help, some activities (e.g., boxing) can make you feel angrier instead of calmer, and some activities (e.g., eating comfort food) are not necessarily good for you: “I realised me doing boxing has made me more angry and then, then when people are annoying me, then I know that I have the power to do something” (Group C, Time 3).
Participants described using different techniques or specific strategies (e.g., deep breathing techniques, stress balls, and counting to 10), sometimes suggested by a professional, to try to regulate their emotions: “When I was clicking my fingers I always… I just, when I got nervous or I got angry or something like that, I feel like that calmed me down” (Group C, Time 3). The prevalence of this theme, in terms of references at two or more timepoints, was higher in Groups B (55%) and C (67%) than Group A (N = 13%).
Yet, participants in Groups B and C also reported limitations in the efficacy of strategies, such as forgetting to take deep breaths to manage their anger in the heat of the moment. Participants in Groups B (18%) and C (33%) also mentioned engaging in self-harm as a coping strategy at various points in their lives. However, self-harm was only identified as a current coping strategy by the third timepoint by participants in Group C: “[My sister] just tells me I’m an idiot, (chuckles) and I need to stop doing it” (Group C, Time 3).
Disengaging from Difficulties
Almost all participants across the three groups described instances at two or more timepoints when they had dealt with problems by deliberately disengaging from them, such as through distracting themselves, forgetting problems, choosing to put problems out of their mind, or ignoring the existence of problems and individuals who were upsetting them (e.g., bullies): “I just try my best to not listen to them and just ignore them” (Group A, Time 2).
Participants described engaging in positive thinking in the face of difficulty, including trying to see the positive side of difficult situations, thinking positive thoughts to cheer themselves up, and persevering and not giving up: “Make something happy out of it or just think about generally something that makes you happy and then like… sort of like post the angry feelings out with the happy feelings” (Group B, Time 1). The prevalence of this theme, in terms of references at two or more timepoints, was highest in Group A (75%), as compared to Groups B (45%) and C (33%).
Participants described how over time they had become used to difficult situations or had simply accepted the existence of particular aspects of life that they found hard, which could eventually make such situations less stressful and easier to handle: “I was really shy, and like, I was scared to talk to other people, I kind of got used to it and, like, I’m not as shy anymore” (Group A, Time 3). This theme also included participants’ references to waiting for problems or difficult feelings to pass or ‘blow over’. The prevalence of this theme, in terms of references at two or more timepoints, was higher in Groups A (50%) and B (27%) than Group C (N = 8%).
Participants described situations (principally arguments with friends, family members, or teachers) at two or more timepoints that in their view required them to challenge unwanted behaviour from others or defend themselves (verbally or physically): “I ain’t just going to stand there and have everyone call me a wimp when they hit me, and I don’t hit them back. I’m just going to stand there and hit them back” (Group B, Time 1). The prevalence of this theme was higher in Groups B (64%) and C (58%) than Group A (38%).
Family-level Factors and Processes
Parents as a Source of Comfort and Advice
Participants in Group A often referred to both of their parents (63%) as being a supportive presence in their lives: “The first people I would go to are my parents if there was a problem. Which is really good, and they would give me their honest opinion” (Group A, Time 2). This included feeling able to and wanting to talk to their parents about their problems, with reference to their parents making them feel better, giving them advice, or helping them to see another perspective or reach a solution. Similarly, 45% of participants in Group B described both of their parents, at two or more timepoints, as being a source of support, comfort, and advice in difficult situations. A higher proportion of participants in Group C identified one of their parents (58%), usually their mother, as being a supportive presence in their lives, as opposed to both parents (17%). This parent was described as being a source of advice and comfort.
Parents at Arms-length
Only a minority (25%) of Group A participants perceived one parent as being a more prominent source of support than the other at two or more timepoints. Both of these participants self-identified as female and described feeling more able to talk to their mothers about problems than their fathers, who they felt may not understand their problems to the same degree that their mothers would: “If it’s to do with girls or problems at school, I probably wouldn’t necessarily speak to [my dad] about it but sometimes, I do” (Group A, Time 2). Similarly, participants in Group B (36%) who described one parent as being a more prominent source of support than the other indicated that they had a closer relationship with one parent (usually their mother). By contrast, the other parent for participants in Group C was often seen as being a source of difficulty in their lives or as less available to talk to (such as because they were busy or they did not live with them), and so was considered to be a less suitable source of support for these reasons.
Participants in Group B also described instances of not always feeling able to, not always wanting to, or hesitating to talk to their parents about their problems. For instance, if they thought that they might worry or upset their parents, if their parents were not available to talk to, if they thought that a problem was not major enough to warrant talking to their parents about, or if, in general, they preferred trying to resolve problems on their own first. Similarly, participants in Group C described finding it hard to speak to their parents about some issues, such as feeling sad or having low self-esteem, because, for example, they felt that their parents did not understand what they were going through.
My mum is always like, ‘Toughen up’. I literally can’t and like I don’t know what to say to my mum when she says to me, ‘Toughen up’, when she’s like, ‘You need to stop crying, you need to grow up’, and I don’t know if I can. (Group C, Time 3)
Other Family Members as a Supportive Presence
Participants also described drawing on support from other members of their families. The prevalence of this theme, in terms of references at two or more timepoints, was higher in Group B (73%) than Groups A (38%) and C (33%). There were participants in all three groups who saw their siblings (and also, in a small number of cases, their cousins) as ‘having their back’ and as being someone to talk to about problems and seek advice from because, for example, they had had similar experiences to each other: “If there’s any problems with me, like, s- I, I could talk to [my sister]. And like, she’ll listen. Like, I’ll, I can trust her […] she won’t, like, tell my mum if I don’t want her to” (Group B, Time 2). In terms of support from extended family, participants across the three groups most often referred to their grandmother as a source of support, describing them as another person to talk to about problems and seek advice from, in the absence of or in addition to parental support. Participants in Groups B and C also described their pets as being a source of comfort and as cheering them up when they were feeling sad, worried, or angry.
Environment-level Factors and Processes
Support from Close and Trustworthy Friends
Similar proportions of participants across Groups A (75%), B (73%), and C (67%) described at two or more timepoints how their friends (including, for a minority, boyfriends or girlfriends) were a source of support in times of difficulty. Friends were referred to as cheering you up, standing up for you in arguments or against bullies, and being someone to talk to and receive relatable advice from, for example for problems that your parents would not understand. However, while trust in family members was more implicit, there were participants across all three groups who mentioned having specific or close friends whom they trusted more than others to keep their problems confidential: “I have one friend […] she’s like really… we talk about everything. When I told, when I say something to her, it then doesn’t come out anyone’s mouth” (Group B, Time 3).
School Staff as a Double-edged Sword
Higher proportions of participants in Groups B (55%) and C (58%), as compared to Group A (38%), reported drawing on or being given support, when needed, from school staff (teachers and/or pastoral care staff) at two or more timepoints. Participants in Group A primarily described school staff as mediating in situations of bullying or arguments with peers, and felt that particular school staff members were supportive or were there for them to talk to if they needed to. However, Group A participants also reported that generally they felt more comfortable seeking support from family and friends, although they would consider talking to a school staff member if a problem was really serious: “If we’re talking about like school, no, not really, because um I just feel like that’s, that’s not what I do, that’s not how I deal with things. Like, I, I, I’d rather go to my friends or my mum” (Group A, Time 3).
Participants in Group B similarly described school staff as intervening in difficult situations with peers, and also described seeking support from specific school staff members if they were upset or if they wanted someone to talk to. However, Group B participants also mentioned times when school staff had not always been able to provide effective support. For instance, school staff were not always available to talk to about problems, they did not always listen or take action, or they could not always be trusted to keep problems confidential. Talking to a teacher about issues with peers could also result in you being labelled as a ‘snitch’, which was not helpful: “If I do tell on the people who do it, they w- they will A, start calling me a snitch, and B, start making fun of [me] even more” (Group B, Time 1).
Participants in Group C described having arguments with and feeling blamed by teachers, but also described instances when they had been given support by particular members of school staff, including seeing them as someone to speak to about difficult family situations, bullying, or managing anger. However, Group C participants also described times when they had struggled to trust school staff, including having an awareness that there may be consequences of speaking to school staff (such as an investigation happening), worries about teachers forming an opinion of you, and experiences of or anticipation of not feeling understood by school staff: “I find it a bit difficult to tell teachers because I know that their policy is obviously they can’t tell pupils, but they can tell like people if it’s a major problem like anyone [is] in danger” (Group C, Time 3).
Varying Trajectories of HeadStart and Other Professional Support
Group C contained the highest proportion of participants who reported receiving targeted support from HeadStart at any timepoint (75%), followed by Group A (63%) and Group B (45%). On the other hand, Group B contained the highest proportion of participants who reported receiving current or historic support from other professionals (outside of HeadStart) at any timepoint (73%), followed by Group C (58%) and Group A (N = 0).
At Time 1, four participants in Group A reported meeting with a peer mentor (an older student at school). They described the positive impact of this type of HeadStart support, including learning coping strategies, having someone relatable to talk to, and boosting their confidence. At Time 2, none of these participants reported still being in receipt of peer mentoring. Three had been offered additional HeadStart support (such as involvement in co-producing their area’s programme). However, one had decided not to take part as none of her friends had signed up this year, another’s support had stopped because of school staff strikes, and the other participant’s support had never begun. One participant in Group A mentioned receiving HeadStart support for the first time at Time 2 (counselling). At Time 3, no participants in Group A reported receiving any HeadStart support: “I just stopped it because I didn’t think I’d need it anymore” (Group A, Time 3).
At Time 1, four participants in Group B reported receiving HeadStart support, including one-to-one (peer mentoring or counselling) and small group-based support (psychoeducational sessions or co-production meetings). They described receiving useful advice about coping with being bullied and handling difficult feelings (such as anger and anxiety), enjoying being involved in HeadStart, and finding it helpful to have someone to speak to about their worries.
They give some really good ad- advice, like when we was learning about worrying and stress, there was like some stuff that we can do to like help deal with that, and then things that we do, like, that are maybe bad and like how we can stop that like happening, and like a better way to cope with it. (Group B, Time 1)
At Times 2 and 3, only one participant in Group B was still receiving HeadStart support. This participant reported feeling more confident and less anxious as a result, but also felt that some of their group sessions had been disrupted by other students misbehaving. Two participants in Group B did not feel at Times 2 and 3 that they needed support from HeadStart anymore, as they were feeling better. However, two other participants (one of whom also described receiving ongoing support from a professional at CAMHS to manage her anxiety across Times 1, 2, and 3, and the other of whom mentioned seeing a school counsellor at Time 2) stated that they would like to receive support from HeadStart again at Time 2. One of these participants still felt the same at Time 3, whereas the other felt that they did not need any support from HeadStart by Time 3.
Two participants did not report receiving support from HeadStart at any timepoint, but did mention taking medication to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) across Times 1, 2, and 3. Five participants also described historic contact with social services, counselling, and/or therapy to manage such issues as school-related stress or difficult family situations. Four of these participants identified aspects of this support that had been unhelpful, such as finding it boring, finding it hard to talk about difficult feelings or situations, or having their trust betrayed. Only one of these participants stated that his therapy had had a positive impact on his levels of worry and stress at the time. However, he also said that he would not necessarily want to receive therapy again.
Nobody wants to be the person who’s, like, gone to therapy three years in a row. And um ‘cause I don’t want to miss school as well because last time I had to go to therapy I, I, I missed a lot of school. (Group B, Time 2)
At Time 1, five participants in Group C reported receiving one-to-one (peer mentoring) or small group-based HeadStart support (psychoeducational sessions or co-production meetings). Participants described getting things off their chests through talking to others about their problems, and learning how to manage their worries and anger. One of these participants also reported receiving ongoing small group and one-to-one support from HeadStart support workers across Times 2 and 3. However, the other four participants reported no longer receiving HeadStart support at Time 2 because it had ended or because they had not found it helpful.
Of the latter four participants, one participant did not report receiving any HeadStart support at Time 3 either. Another reported receiving HeadStart support again at Time 3 in the form of co-production meetings, as well as having contact with social care and a school counsellor, which he described as limited in its utility. The remaining two participants described receiving support from statutory CAMHS, social care, and/or a counsellor instead of HeadStart at Time 2. Both felt that this support was more helpful. By Time 3, one of these participants was still receiving ongoing counselling, and the other had stopped receiving support from statutory CAMHS, but had been referred to another form of small group-based HeadStart support at school.
Why do you think the CAMHS course has been more helpful than [HeadStart]? They explained it more in detail and like, I don’t know. Talking to like other people with ADHD and stuff and I found than better than. ‘Cause like not really much people has ADHD in this school. (Group C, Time 2)
Two participants in Group C reported receiving HeadStart support for the first time at Time 2 (counselling). For one of these participants, this support had continued at Time 3, although with a new counsellor, as her previous counsellor at Time 2 had not managed to help her. For the other participant, this support (which had also included therapeutic work with her parents) had ended by Time 3. However, both of these participants also mentioned receiving support from statutory CAMHS in relation to feelings of anxiety, depression, and self-harm at Time 3.
[My previous counsellor] couldn’t cope with the situation. It was too hard for her to deal with because, she, she, she was too young […] like, she couldn’t help, she didn’t know what to do with it. Um, and that’s why we had to go with a different person. (Group C, Time 2)
Two participants in Group C reported receiving HeadStart support (e.g., online counselling) for the first time at Time 3. One of these participants also mentioned receiving professional support at Time 1 for ADHD. The other participant mentioned historic contact with social care at Time 2 and current support from social care at Time 3. This participant described having recently been referred to a youth worker by her social worker for additional emotional support, which she felt had been helpful.