Parents’ Top Concerns Sending Kids Back to School

Experts share simple ways to help manage the top concerns before things get too out of control after that first bell rings.

At least once a week, my 11-year-old daughter asks me to explain why her junior high is totally resistant to school shootings

‘Well,’ I tell her, trying to remember all the lies I told her the previous week, ‘Your school is completely bullet-proof, starting with the front door, which has a special coating that won’t let the bad guys inside.’ 

It’s a far cry from the reassurances my mother gave me when I was 11: That if my Tamagotchi happened to die, it wouldn’t have been my fault or that if I said “Bloody Mary” into the mirror three times, nothing bad would happen.

At the start of this new school year, there is so much on parents’ minds, ranging from school shootings to deteriorating mental health and bullying. So, we spoke with parenting experts and therapists to learn more about these big worries — and what to do about them.

Mental health

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This is a top concern for parents today, with 40 percent reporting that they are extremely or very worried that their children are struggling with anxiety or depression and another 36 percent feeling somewhat worried, according to Pew Research Center’s Parenting 2023 survey. 

Parents are more concerned about mental health than they are about teen pregnancy (16% are extremely worried about this) or even drug or alcohol problems (23%). 

The ongoing impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health plays a big role in the mental health epidemic, says Sapna Radhakrishnan, the author of “Yelling to Zenning”.

Parents have reasons to be concerned — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in five children has a mental disorder but only 20 percent of these kids receive the appropriate mental health care. 

In addition to advocating for more mental health resources at school, parents can teach their children practical tools to alleviate their anxiety, says Melissa Jones, a teacher, parent educator and the founder of Girls Positivity Club, an empowerment organization. These include breathing techniques, journaling and movement. 

Simply checking in with your children about their mental health is also very crucial, Jones says. 

Friendships 

Elsa Yee, a mom of two, is shocked by the level of drama that’s involved in friendships these days. Often, her 13-year-old daughter will become very upset, crying, distracting herself with endless TikTok videos and eventually exploding at her parents (because why wouldn’t you explode at your parents when you’re angry at your friends?). 

Parents worry that their children won’t have healthy friendships, aka those that positively impact their self-esteem and life outlook, Jones says. “I hear from parents about friends excluding someone, breaking their child’s trust, feeling rejected in a friend group, gossiping or rumors, and avoiding hard conversations with friends due to fear of the friends abandoning them,” she says.

Parents can help by having healthy conversations with their children. This means listening more than advising, not stepping in to solve the problem for them or calling the friend’s parents. 

Jones also advises parents to be empathetic witnesses by validating their child’s feelings and letting them know that you understand. Avoid saying things like “‘It’s no big deal,’ or ‘You will get over it in time,’” Jones says.

Often asking what your child thinks is the best solution, and offering to brainstorm possible positive answers is the best way to support them. 

Yee says she’s found that simply listening to her daughters without trying to fix anything really helps. She also reminds her children that they can choose to ignore or change the subject when their friends are angry, or they can choose to move to another friend group.

Academic performance 

There’s increased competition in college admissions, thanks to students applying to many more schools than they ever did in the past. That leaves parents concerned with their children’s academic success and readiness for college. 

As parents, encourage good study habits, provide support and resources for academic growth, and find tutors or extracurricular activities to enrich your child’s learning experience, says Amy Smith, a parenting expert, mother of a teen and writer at amyandrose.com. 

Over-scheduling

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Perhaps this one goes hand-in-hand with academic performance. You put your children into after-school activities to increase the odds of getting them into college. But then they’re over-scheduled and don’t have time to do their schoolwork. And playtime? Forget about it. Tracy, a dad of two who asked that his full name not be disclosed for privacy because he is also a junior high basketball coach, says over-scheduling is his biggest concern. 

“Some kids actually told me that their parents are pushing them to do multiple things, and it is affecting their schoolwork,” Tracy says. 

Try letting your kids take the lead: Ask them what their favorite after-school activity is and cut the rest of them. You’ll all feel better. 

School shootings 

These pose a serious threat to the safety and well-being of children while they’re at school — and outside of school. The changes schools are making, such as drills and added security, are also concerning, as parents worry about the psychological effects on a child’s learning environment, says Ryan Sultan, a child mental psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University in New York. 

Experts have found direct exposure to gun violence — hearing it, witnessing it and being a victim of it — is having a huge impact on kids’ mental health.

Dr. Samaa Kemal and Dr. Tyler Lennon, pediatric emergency fellows at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, urge parents to talk with their kids about gun violence – and not be afraid to bring up the topic or use the word “gun.” “It’s better to have the leadership and mentorship from their parents to guide them through really complicated topics about gun violence,” Kemal says.

Lennon suggests the best first step is creating a safe space for kids to process the trauma while knowing they are being supported by their parents. It’s critically important to keep an open dialogue, talking about what they are experiencing and what they are feeling, he says.

“I think it’s important to bring up the topic. Don’t wait,” he says, particularly with so much media coverage over the issue. “We really don’t want the TV to do the talking to kids. The reality is that kids are being exposed and we should prompt kids and ask them what are their thoughts on this topic, what are they witnessing, what are their friends and peers talking about at school.”

Bullying 

This is a major issue, especially when it comes to online bullying, aka trolling. Parents should create a family plan for dealing with bullying, suggests John Graden, the author of “How to Stop Bullying”

First, explain to your child that all bullying needs to be reported to you the day it happens. Document everything, including the name of the bully and any witnesses. Take pictures and videos of any wounds or injuries and screenshots, if applicable. Parents should compile this and show it to the teacher. “If they do not stop the bullying, get an attorney to draft a certified letter to the teacher, principal and Student Resource Officer (SRO),” Graden says. 

Tech time 

Here’s a stat that actually made me feel so much less alone in my parenting skills. Children ages 8-10 spend an average of six hours per day in front of a screen, while kids 11-14 spend nine hours in front of a screen and those ages 15-18 are in front of a screen for just under eight hours per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

As a result, parents are concerned about the effects of excessive screen time and social media usage on their children’s mental health, sleep and academic performance. 

Smith suggests parents try to establish healthy boundaries and screen time limits (obviously this is easier said than done), and model responsible social media usage to help kids develop a balanced relationship with technology.


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