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Stress Levels High for Bay Area Kids, Parents Say

New poll highlights parents' views on physical, emotional health of children.

Findings from the survey are available online at

PALO ALTO – Whether it's caused by schoolwork, peer pressure, divorce or worries about family finances, stress is taking a toll on children throughout the Bay Area, according to a new survey of parent opinion.

Parents report "high" or "very high" stress levels for children of all ages – from a surprising 9 percent for children ages 3 to 5, up to 23 percent for 14- to 17-year-olds. When "moderate" stress is added, the totals shoot up to 30 percent for 3- to-5-year-olds and 70 percent for teenagers. For all ages together, 54 percent of Bay Area parents say that their children have moderate to very high levels of stress.

The first-time survey of Bay Area parents also found that:

  • 17 percent of parents, including 45 percent of single mothers, say that their family income is "not quite enough" or "not nearly enough" to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter for their children;
  • For all ages, nearly one in four parents (24%) is "somewhat concerned" or "very concerned" about his or her child's weight;
  • Parents of children ages 9-17 generally expressed more concern about their child's weight (29% very or somewhat concerned) or possible depression (21%) than about whether the child is smoking (8%), drinking (9%), using drugs (8%), engaging in risky sexual activity (12%) or in a gang (5%).

The findings come from a telephone survey of 1,818 Bay Area parents, commissioned by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. The survey queried parents on issues ranging from the quality of their children's health care, dental care and schools, to whether they spend too much or too little time together as a family, to the effects of media and whether racial or language issues have caused problems for their children. Overall, parents report that their children are physically and emotionally healthy by many measures, but specific issues are troubling for substantial numbers of parents.

Stephen Peeps, president and CEO of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, said the intent of the wide-ranging survey is to establish a baseline for what parents consider the most pressing issues affecting their children's health and well being. Such surveys help identify where intervention is needed, he said.

"Health data tell us part of the story, but it's also important to get the parental perspective," Peeps said. "For example, the level of stress that parents are describing is significant, and reinforces what we have heard from school counselors and others who work daily with children.

"We know from research that stress, particularly intense or ongoing stress, can contribute to physical illness, depression, poor academic performance and sleep and behavior problems," Peeps said. "So it is imperative that those interested in the well being of children find ways to address this emerging problem."

Schoolwork and homework topped the parental list of causes of child stress, with 65% of parents saying it contributes "somewhat" or "very much" to their child's stress, followed by peer pressure/relationships with other children (48%), extracurricular activities such as sports or music (35%), difficulties with family members (25%), divorce or separation issues (21%), and family finances (21%).

The survey, conducted in August by the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, covered San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The margin of error for Bay Area parents is plus or minus 2.3 percent. Among other key findings:

  • 49 percent of parents of children ages 14 to 17 say that media have a "somewhat negative" or "very negative" effect on their child;
  • About 6 percent of parents report having a child with a physical, behavioral or mental condition, such as asthma or heart disease, that limits his or her participation in normal childhood activities, and those parents say their children fare worse on a range of issues;
  • 16 percent of parents with children ages 3 to 5 say that the child worries "somewhat" or "very much" about family conflict, and that figure rises to 33 percent for preteens (ages 9 to 13) and 31 percent for teens;
  • One in 10 parents of a preteen is "very concerned" that his or her child may be depressed, and another 12 percent of preteens' parents are "somewhat concerned";
  • 59 percent of Latino parents report that their child's physical health is "excellent," compared to 67 percent of Asian parents and 79 percent of Caucasians parents;
  • The percentage of parents reporting that their child has a "very positive" attitude toward school declines from 72 percent for parents of 6-to-8-year-olds to 50 percent for parents of children ages 14-17;
  • 28 percent of parents say they do not spend enough time together as a family; 6 percent say they spend too much;
  • 15 percent of African American parent respondents say they are "very concerned" about their child's weight, more than any other racial/ethnic group.

Major disparities were evident among children from families whose total income is less than $50,000 per year – considered the self-sufficiency level for a family of four in the high-cost Bay Area. Sixty-eight percent of Latino respondents, 60 percent of African American respondents, and 56 percent of single parents reported incomes below $50,000. Nineteen percent of Latino parents said that their family income was "not nearly enough" to provide for the basic needs of their children; 22 percent of African American parents and 20 percent of single parents said the same.

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Findings were also less positive for parents who report having a child with a physical or mental condition that interferes with normal childhood activities. Twenty-three percent were "very concerned" about their child's weight, compared to 7 percent for those whose child did not have a disability. Forty-three percent said their family income was "not quite enough" or "not nearly enough" to meet basic needs, compared to 15 percent for those without a disabled child. Twenty percent were "very concerned" that their child may be depressed, compared to 5 percent of children without a disability.

"Children with disabling conditions often are not so visible," Peeps said. "We need to continue focusing attention on them."

About the Survey

The Survey and Policy Research Institute (SPRI) at San Jose State University conducted 1,347 telephone interviews in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties with a random sample of parents of children age 17 and under. SPRI also obtained another 471 interviews in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Francisco counties, for a total of 1,818 completed interviews. Interviewing in Spanish and English was conducted Aug. 15-30.

SPRI's 1,347 interviews included 894 parents in Santa Clara County and 453 in San Mateo County. Included in these totals was an over-sampling of Latinos and Asians.

The complete sample was weighted by race and county to obtain a distribution that matches the 2000 U.S. Census for persons 18 years of age or older. In addition, separate weights for racial/ethnic distribution were calculated for Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and for the two-county region.

The margin of error, at the 95% confidence level, for the Bay Area sample is ± 2.3%. For Caucasians in the Bay Area, the margin of error is ± 3.5%, for Latinos it is ± 4.4% and for Asians it is ± 4.6%. African Americans parents, who constitute only about 7% of the region's total population, were not over-sampled. Their reported responses have a margin of error of ± 8.6%. Populations of other ethnic groups were too small to provide reliable responses.

About the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health

The Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health is a public charity whose mission is to "promote, protect and sustain the physical, mental, emotional and behavioral health of children." For more information about the foundation, call (650) 724-5778 or visit