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Emotional Health Top Concern for Parents of Preteens

Survey asks views of parents in Santa Clara, San Mateo counties

Although most parents reported that their preteen children are doing well overall, a new survey suggests that issues related to emotional well being are the chief worry for parents, and that a significant number of parents have serious concerns.

The survey, released by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health in Palo Alto, queried 460 parents of 9-to-13-year-olds about the positive and negative aspects of their children's lives.

When asked an open-ended question about the areas in which their preteen is most successful, parents most often mentioned academics and athletics. Asked to name their top areas of concern, parents most frequently cited emotional health issues such as peer pressure, social relationships, and stress.

When questioned about specific issues, more than a third of parents said they were "moderately" or "very" concerned about stress and school performance. Almost one-third said the same about physical health and bullying. Safety at school and self-esteem were cited as moderately or very concerning by about 28 percent of parents.

Parents also indicated that they were "moderately" or "very" concerned about their child feeling sad or depressed (25.5 percent), body image (22.2 percent), and that their preteens had thoughts of suicide (10.6 percent).

The telephone survey, which has a margin of error of 4.6 percent, was conducted in April and May in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties by Applied Survey Research.

Results will be released at a June 12 conference, "Preteens: Facing Risks and Making Choices," at which former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher will be the keynote speaker.

Satcher, the nation's top physician for four years under President Bill Clinton, was the first Surgeon General to bring the issue of mental health to public attention. In 2001, his office issued a "National Action Agenda for Children's Mental Health" that called for making the promotion of emotional and behavioral health of children "a national priority."

The new survey is a first step in creating a profile of the 160,000 preteens who live in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, said Stephen Peeps, president and CEO of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health.

"It has been well established that the preteen years are a pivotal time when children begin making choices that can affect their entire lives," Peeps said. "Yet little local information is available about children in this age group.

"We have known anecdotally that certain issues are of concern. Now we have some preliminary local data, directly from parents, that will help us begin to paint the picture of preteens in our two counties. We will be conducting more research, including surveys and focus groups with preteens themselves, and we will track changes over time. We believe that it is imperative to bring more attention to children in this critical age group." 

The June 12 event marks the launch of the foundation's new Information Program, which will focus its public information and education efforts on the preteen population, in collaboration with community organizations.

The 6-year-old foundation, which is devoted exclusively to children's health in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, also makes grants to nonprofit programs that promote the healthy emotional development of preteens. Since 2001, the foundation has awarded 71 grants totaling $8.7 million to local agencies.

The survey sought parental opinion in three ways: open-ended questions about what they saw as most positive and of most concern in their preteens lives; questions about parental level of concern regarding their child on selected issues; and parental assessment of how well they thought their child was functioning in areas related to emotional health.

When parents rated their preteen's current functioning, the areas most often rated "fair" or "poor" were: self control (29.3 percent); ability to handle difficult situations (28.7 percent); ability to make sensible decisions in general (25.9 percent); body image (22.9 percent); and general motivational level (21.1 percent).

Areas in which parents cited success included physical health (93.7 percent); ability to have close relationships with adults besides parents (88.9 percent); ability to have close relationships with friends (87.9 percent); general acceptance of rules at home and school (87.8 percent); and school performance (86.1 percent).

A summary of findings is available by calling (650) 736-2881.

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