Health Threats

10 of the Biggest Health Threats Facing Your Kids This School Year

10 of the Biggest Health Threats Facing Your Kids This School Year

How to buffer against them.

Kids these days

When Lea Theodore was growing up, her parents screened her calls; after all, friends could only reach her by way of landline. How times have changed. “Children have their own cellphones earlier and earlier, and [parents] don’t necessarily know where they are and they don’t know who their friends are,” says Theodore, president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of School Psychology. Parents may also be unaware of some of the major health risks facing their kids at school. “It’s a very different time,” Theodore says. Here are 10 health issues to watch out for this year – and how to prevent or reduce their effects:

1. Poor nutrition

Do you know if – and what – your child is eating at school? Many parents don’t, says Dr. Lisa Asta, a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, California, who often sees kids with ailments like headaches that can be traced back to poor eating habits. “Nutrition feeds into so much,” says Asta, including school performance. She recommends learning about your children’s school meal program and what’s offered in after-care. What and how you eat at home is important, too, adds Theodore, who suggests striving for regular family dinners, keeping only healthy snacks on hand, teaching your kids about good food choices while bringing them on grocery trips and – most importantly – modeling healthy eating at home.

2. Physical inactivity

Red rover, tag and other classic recess games are getting the boot at schools across the country due to concerns about bullying, Asta says. The result: rule-laden, structured exercise – think mind-numbing lap-running – during recess, if kids get recess at all. “For many kids, that equates physical activity with just torture,” Asta says. To help your kids develop a love of movement, try inviting them to join you for a run or a yoga class, suggests Theodore, also a psychology professor at the College of William and Mary. “A lot of parents say one of the things they like to do is engage in those activities because it becomes a lifelong bond.”

3. No school nurse

When a kid gets sick at school, he goes to the school nurse. But in the nearly 50 percent of schools that don’t employ a registered nurse full time, that’s not possible, says Beth Mattey, the Wilmington, Delaware-based president of the National Association of School Nurses. She encourages parents to ask, "Who is meeting the health needs of my child in school?” and then get to know that person, especially if the child has a chronic health condition. Keep a contact list of school and mental health support staff handy, too, suggests Scott Bloom, director of school mental health services in the New York City Department of Education's Office of School Health.

4. Asthma

Asthma, which affects close to 9 percent of children, has been on the rise since the early 1980s, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. That’s serious, since the condition is the top reason kids miss school, and it also compromises their sleep, concentration, self-esteem and other areas of mental health, Theodore says. “Overall, it diminishes their quality of life because it kind of alienates them,” she says, noting that some psychological interventions like guided imagery and mindfulness have been shown to improve symptoms. School nurses, too, can teach students how to use an inhaler, avoid triggers and recognize when to visit a health care provider, Mattey adds.

5. An overpacked schedule

Asta is sick of writing notes scolding schools about the amount of homework they assign. “Last year, I had a middle schooler who stayed up to 11 finishing a tsunami of homework,” she recalls. That's not OK, nor are so many before- and after-school activities and structured social plans that kids don’t have enough time to sleep, play freely, spend time with their families or eat a healthy breakfast, Asta adds. She recommends families take a good look at their calendars before the school year begins. Ask yourself, “What’s your schedule and what’s your child’s schedule?” she suggests. “How are you going to pull it off?”

6. Sexually transmitted diseases

First, the good news: Teens today are far more likely to delay sex than their parents were at that age, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that doesn't mean they're avoiding all sexual activities that can cause sexually transmitted diseases, namely HPV, says Theodore, who's seen children as young as 10 with the condition. That’s why she urges parents to talk to their kids about sex, peer pressure and how they can respond early on. It’s also important to vaccinate your children against HPV, which can lead to cancer, she says. “It’s a shame to see a child have cancer from something that could have prevented.”

7. Poor social skills

If you can tweet, why talk? If you can send an emoji, why smile? If you can “like,” why verbalize a compliment? “Children don’t have the same social skills that we did growing up because they don’t need to,” Theodore says. That’s a detriment to their mental health, since it can cause them to disengage from activities, alienate themselves from (real) friends and even lead to situational depression and anxiety when, say, they’re excluded from social events. To keep your kids’ people skills up to snuff, initiate a no-technology rule at family dinners, Theodore suggests, and ask everyone to share the “peaks and pits” of their days.

8. Stress

School psychologists see a lot of young perfectionists these days, Theodore says. “They’ve gotta get the best grades, they have to be a Division 1 athlete,” she says. Indeed, a 2014 survey from the American Psychological Association found that teens’ self-reported stress levels are higher than those of adults during the school year. That type of pressure exacerbates all physical and psychological disorders, including depression, Theodore says. One solution: simply spending quality time with your kids. “If you have … parents who talk to you, model good eating behaviors and teach you about coping skills and problem-solving skills," she says, "children will fare much better.”

9. Concussions

Just because your son isn't a high school football star doesn't mean he's in the clear when it comes to concussion risk. Young kids who tumble off the swing set or topple from their bikes can also suffer traumatic brain injuries, which can manifest as difficulty concentrating, headaches, light sensitivity, memory problems and more, Mattey says. If you notice those symptoms or others such as changes in mood or sleep after a knock to the head, encourage your child to rest and talk to his or her teachers about lightening the workload if necessary, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests. If symptoms worsen, talk to your pediatrician immediately.

10. Cyberbullying

Bullying is not a modern phenomenon, but its inability to be left at the schoolyard when the dismissal bell rings is, Theodore says. One study from the Cyberbullying Research Center, for example, found that more than one-third of 11- to 15-year-olds have been cyberbullied. "We're seeing [mental health] issues magnetized because of social media," Theodore says. To help your kids cope with this and other health issues, first listen to and validate them, and then don't hesitate to reach out to school staff, Mattey adds. "The school wants to work with your child," she says. "We want your kids to succeed."