Dutch teenagers are the happiest in the world – and this is why
In stark contrast, teenagers on our shores are more and more prone to struggle with anxiety, stress and even depression, with a Unicef report from last year claiming we have an issue with teenage mental health here in Ireland.
In fact, according to Unicef's international report on child wellbeing, Ireland’s teenage suicide rate is the fourth highest among high-income countries, while one in five Irish children aged 11-15 years say they experience two or more psychological symptoms, such as feeling low, irritable or nervous, or having sleeping difficulties, more than once a week.
In the Netherlands, things look a little different, howver, with report after report placing the country ahead of most other OECD countries for high life satisfaction among its young people. And this year, after researchers finished this year’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, they found that Dutch children’s happiness scores are up again.
So what are they doing differently? How come their teens feel happy and optimistic about their lives and futures while ours feel sad, anxious and worried?
“I think Dutch children have generally positive interactions in all their social surroundings,” says De Roos. “They have a supportive environment at home, with friends and also at school. Dutch parents give a lot of support and have mild control. There’s an egalitarian climate, teachers are not authoritarian but accept the feelings of pupils, and pupils trust teachers.”
Other stats from the report showed that young people in the Netherlands were also in the top five for eating breakfast on weekdays, watching more than two hours of weekday television, having kind and helpful classmates – and in the bottom five for being overweight, having sex before 15, and feeling pressure from schoolwork. They find it easy to talk to their parents and were less likely than average to experience bullying and.
The HBSC data supports this: 86% of Dutch teenagers say their classmates are kind and helpful, putting the country top of the tables at 13 and 15. Sex education starts at four, and Saffron says her boyfriend is accepted by her friends and parents. Meanwhile a poster on her school’s wall encouraging people of all sexualities to “come out” reaffirms that openness is OK. The rate of teenage pregnancies in the Netherlands is also the lowest in the EU.
All public school system and less pressure to succeed
“If you look across Europe, the Dutch and the Danes are the most lenient and focus more on developing autonomy than giving priority to obedience – and that fits the society,” he says. “Children are more free to do what they want, and in doing what they want, develop an idea of what they really like and social skills. A happy boy may be sometimes not a very good boy.”
The Dutch school system – almost entirely public –incorporates major exams at about the age of 12 and three levels of secondary education from practical to the most academic.