From Head Start to high school and college, kids need help navigating complex social and safety issues. (Eiko Ojala for The Washington Post)

August 11

Preparing kids for school takes more than vaccines and backpacks. Bullying and technology look different than they did a few decades ago, and the Internet has ushered in a new age of misinformation and anxiety. From Head Start to high school and college, kids need help navigating complex social and safety issues — ideally, before they happen. Here are some things that experts say parents should be thinking about as their kids and teens head back to school.


A pro tip for talking with preschoolers: Less is more.

“Parents often do a lot of talking at younger kids, and they just aren’t processing language as well as parents think they are,” said Laura Phillips, a clinical neuro­psychologist at the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York. She recommends that parents keep their sentences to five words or fewer and to show children — rather than tell them — what they need to know.

About a week or two before school begins, parents should start to show children what to expect, including (if possible) seeing their new classroom and meeting their teacher.

“It’s really important to sort of help kids get their feet wet and give them previews,” Phillips said. “Kids have very rich imaginations and fantasy lives, and the idea of a novel teacher can be overwhelming for them.”

To help children adjust, parents should shift sleeping and eating schedules to match that of the classroom’s and introduce some structure into their kids’ days as the summer winds down.

New preschoolers may experience some big emotions, especially anxiety. Rebecca Barclay, a pediatric psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, recommends that parents help their kids manage those feelings by talking to them about their own.

Parents can say something akin to: “Gosh, I’m a little bit nervous and kind of excited about this new school, and I’m eager to get through our first week so we can feel more used to the new schedule.”

She said parents should let kids know that it’s okay to feel worried or nervous but that those feelings will probably pass. Parents should also try to stay upbeat and show confidence about the year ahead.

“Children at that age really are following the parent’s lead,” Barclay said. “So if the parent is anxious or uncertain . . . they’re going to pick up on that.”

Elementary school

Parents should continue letting children know what to expect in terms of teachers and school schedules, as well as start talking about how to manage the more complex social issues they might encounter.

Kids who spend all summer away from their friends can get a little anxious when it comes time to enter the classroom. Phillips and Barclay recommend arranging play dates in the weeks leading up to school to give children a chance to reconnect in a relaxed setting.

Depending on the age of the child, parents might also want to go over how to handle potential negative encounters — especially bullying.

“Bullying is of a different nature than it was when we were growing up because it doesn’t turn off at 3 p.m. when you go home,” Phillips said. Parents should teach their children what bullying looks like and reassure them that they don’t have to deal with it on their own.

Schools may introduce email as young as fourth grade, and some children are given cellphones or tablets even before that — making it that much more important to talk about safe Internet use early and often.

Experts say parents should let their kids know from the very beginning that they will be monitoring their Internet use and that there will be restrictions. Phillips recommends putting together a social media contract as soon as kids express an interest, to establish firm ground rules, limits and expectations. Parents should talk about the ways social media can be beneficial — such as connecting with people across the country — but also emphasize that restricting Internet use is a safety procedure.

“We don’t want to communicate to kids that we don’t trust them or that we expect that they’re going to do bad things,” Phillips said. Instead, parents should frame it as: “We don’t trust the world, and we’re trying to protect you from other people.”

Elementary school may seem early to consider puberty, but experts say it’s becoming more and more relevant at younger ages.

“We do have elementary school-aged kids who are going through physical changes associated with puberty,” Phillips said. If kids aren’t told beforehand about such things as periods, erections and wet dreams, experiencing them for the first time can be scary and confusing.

Parents queasy at the thought of wading into the waters of “sex talk,” however, shouldn’t worry. There’s no need to put the conversation in sexual terms at this age. Just describe what the body might do.

Middle school

Conversations can get a little more intense as bullying and social media take on bigger roles in kids’ lives — but they don’t have to be more awkward. Experts recommend tackling these issues in small pieces rather than all at once in a big “sit down” conversation, and to talk in casual settings where eyes are diverted, such as in the car or while playing video games.

Middle school is when many adolescents start to experiment with alcohol, drugs or tobacco — and in numbers that might shock some parents. E-cigarette use, in particular, is becoming a major issue among adolescents in the United States. An estimated 620,000 middle schoolers “vaped” or “juuled” in 2015, and overall use among teens more than tripled between 2011 and 2015, according to a Surgeon General report.

“A lot of parents maybe don’t realize or don’t want to know that these things are occurring even in middle school,” Barclay said. “[It’s] always better to be talking about this before the child is exposed or before the child has the opportunity” to smoke, vape or use alcohol.

Parents should acknowledge the natural desire to experiment but also talk to their kids about what smoking, drinking, vaping or using drugs (including prescription drugs without a prescription) can do to their bodies and brains. If a worrisome opportunity arises, a simple “no, thank you,” should suffice. And if it doesn’t, kids should just walk away.

Not talking about sex can be risky. Of the 13 percent of ninth-graders who were sexually active in 2017, only about half said they used a condom during their last sexual encounter, and only 14 percent said they used some other form of contraception to prevent pregnancy, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“If you don’t talk about these things, it does not make the children avoid risky behaviors,” Barclay said. “It makes them more likely to engage in them.”

Experts recommend talking with kids about safe sex and relationships as part of ongoing conversations, rather than one big one, and they say that parents shouldn’t be afraid of addressing it regularly.

“It’s natural to be curious about changes that are happening in our bodies and feelings that we have towards other people,” Phillips said, adding that parents should try to steer clear of language that could make kids ashamed. But, she continues, parents should also be “talking about the importance of safety and waiting, and . . . being in good, respectful relationships.”

Again, talk about these issues in the car, where there isn’t much eye contact. Music can also be a great tool because lyrics may serve as a gateway into the topic of what safe relationships — and, depending on the lyrics, safe sex — should or shouldn’t look like.

Conversations about social media — and along with it, safe Internet and phone use — should make kids aware of what it means to project your image and the responsibility that comes with it. Set up ground rules if you haven’t already.

Parents should discuss:

●Not sharing passwords with anyone.

●Asking parents for permission before joining social networks or online groups.

●Not meeting up with anyone met online.

●Not giving out personal information, such as home address, to people they don’t already know well and in real life.

●What online behavior would be considered inappropriate.

Barclay also recommends that parents ask their middle schoolers leading questions: “Is there anything that bothers you that your friends have posted or that you’ve seen online? Anything that you want to chat about?” These questions let kids know that there’s a trusted adult who will listen to them if they’re ever worried about something they see or experience online.

High school

Keep up many of the conversations already mentioned, especially as they relate to safe sex, social media and substance use. But teens can be tough to engage, so experts recommend seeking opportunities to connect through shared pastimes. That way, conversations can happen a little at a time.

Driving is one of the most dangerous activities high schoolers do on a regular basis. Throw texting and drinking into the mix, and the risks skyrocket. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1 in 3 drivers of high school age said they had texted while driving at least once in the previous 30 days, and 1 in 6 said they recently rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking.

Parents should not only talk about safe driving behaviors but model them, too. Barclay recommends parents that narrate their safe choices: “I’m putting my cellphone in my purse, and I’m putting it in the back seat so I’m not distracted.” This way, parents get the expectation across to their kids without lecturing them.

Likewise, teens should be taught what to do if something goes wrong on the road, even if they aren’t the ones driving. Whether it’s a flat tire or an accident, it’s important that they know whom to call and what to do in an emergency.

Kids should also know that screens interfere with sleep and that inhibitions drop when people are tired — and that is when teens tend to get into trouble online. Some parents may want to take phones away at night.

“I think that parents are often afraid to take their children’s cellphones away from them,” Phillips said. “They think that their kids will implode, but I think that there’s no reason to have a cellphone with you at night when kids are supposed to be going to bed.”

Parents should monitor social media and phone use — less intensively than they did during middle school — until their children have demonstrated that they’ll act responsibly even when no one is watching.

“Teenagers innately want their privacy, but they have to earn it,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care. “Teach the child [that] if you are trustworthy and you abide by limits, then you will get more trust and you will get more privileges, but those have to be earned.”

Ideally, teens should have grown up exercising and eating healthy meals at home. But even if they haven’t, it’s never too late to start.


They might be adults now, but many college kids still look to parents for support and guidance. Before seeing them off, go over some of the biggest health and safety risks they might experience or witness on campus.

In 2015, more than half of college students age 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month, and 1 in 3 reported binge drinking (more than four to five drinks in a two-hour period), according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. An estimated 1,825 college students die of alcohol-related injuries every year,mostly in vehicle crashes.

Parents should go over the basics of safe drinking, including pacing yourself, drinking plenty of water, eating something beforehand, and never drinking and driving.

Rates of sexual assault can vary widely from campus to campus, but one 2015 survey found that more than 11 percent of students reported experiencing some form of nonconsensual sexual contact. Rates were higher among undergraduate women, especially freshmen, nearly 17 percent of whom reported sexual contact they didn’t consent to, either by force or because they were incapacitated at the time.

Parents should discuss how to recognize sexual violence and what to do if they see it happening. One way to do this is to walk through different scenarios and brainstorm ways to intervene, get away or reduce the risk of sexual violence, such as avoiding binge drinking and drugs, and never drinking anything you aren’t sure is safe.