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From 3 to 18, healthy back-to-school advice

By Janet Lee, For University of Utah Health Care BrandView

Published: Wed, Aug. 20 8:30 p.m. MDT

 Back-to-school time often means back-to-doctor time for families. Learn how to protect yourself.

Back-to-school time often means back-to-doctor time for families. Learn how to protect yourself.

(Thinkstock)

Every stage of your child's life brings challenges and milestones, often measured at the start of a new school year. Annual exams are a great way to stay ahead of potential problems; with older kids, open and honest communication can help you tackle hot-button issues. Here, what to expect as your child grows, and how you both can move forward with minimal (fingers crossed!) angst.

PRESCHOOL (ages 3-5)

1. Potty training: This can be a stressful time for parents and kids, but forcing the issue can make the situation worse, says Kerry Whittemore, M.D., a pediatrician at University of Utah Health Care's South Jordan Health Center. "Let them lead the way and go at their own pace; otherwise, it can lead to a power struggle," she says. If your child isn't interested or is having problems with training, your doctor can help identify potential causes.

2. Immunizations: This is a fraught topic among parents these days, due to speculation and misinformation. "If your child isn't immunized, her lifeand other livesare at risk," says Alexis Somers, D.O., a family medicine physician at the South Jordan Health Center. If you opted not to vaccinate your child as an infant, it's not too late. Your doctor can create a "catch-up" plan and explain the latest evidence-based research about vaccinations.

3. Mealtime: Doctors are starting to see the complications of obesity at ever younger ages, so it's never too early to develop good eating habits, which tend to stick for life. Both Whittemore and Somers recommend having meals together as a family at the table, where you all eat the same foods.

4. Separation: Their first days at preschool can be as hard on the parents as they are on the child. "You can help build confidence and independenceand reduce stress levelsby setting and sticking to routines before you even start school," says Somers.

GRADE SCHOOL (ages 6-11)

1. Safety: "Injuries are the leading cause of death for school-age kids because they can't really sense danger or recognize hazards," says Somers. "But most can be prevented with basic safety education." Teach your kids about fire, gun, car, bike, and street safety.

2. Screen time: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get no more than two hours of screen time per day, including television, video games, computers, tablets, and phones. The more time kids spend in front of a monitor or screen, the less they spend being active and interacting with other kids.

3. ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most common childhood disorders, affecting approximately 11 percent of school-age kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If your child fidgets and has difficulty focusing, poor performance on schoolwork, poor memory, an inability to sit quietly, and talkativeness, having him evaluated now can head off behavioral and academic problems.

4. Organization: In grade school, kids have to manage six hours a day of school, homework, friendships, and after-school activities. "A lot of kids have trouble staying organized," says Whittemore. "Make sure your child has a planner to write his assignments in, and go over it daily." Stay in touch with your child's teacher so you can quickly resolve any problems before they develop into bad habits.

JUNIOR HIGH (ages 12-14)

1. Bullying: Nearly a third of students between ages 12 and 19 are bullied, says Somers. Middle school is the peak time. "Many years later, victims can suffer low self-esteem, difficulty trusting, aggression, and anger problems as a result of physical and/or emotional bullying," she adds. If your child starts experiencing frequent headaches and stomachaches or develops problems performing, concentrating, or even going to school, talk about what might be happening and speak with the school administrators. Peer pressure is another issue to consider because friends' approval is so important at this age, says Whittemore. "There could be pressure to smoke, take drugs, and drink," she says. "Staying involved in your kids' lives can decrease the likelihood that they'll get caught up in these activities."

2. Puberty: Big physical and emotional changes are happening now. It's important to keep the lines of communication open so you can talk about what's happening to your child's body. If you're not comfortable getting into the details, your doctor will be.

3. Sleep: "Kids in this age group should get 9 1/2 hours of sleep each night," says Somers. "Sleep helps promote alertness, memory, and performance. Kids who get enough are able to function better and are less prone to behavioral issues and moodiness." Keep your child on a regular sleep schedule and ban screen time in the bedroom.

4. Social media: Monitoring your child's Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter activity is crucial to spotting situations that could escalate into bullying or sexual abuse. "I recommend that parents have their child's passwords for Facebook until they're in high school," says Whittemore.

HIGH SCHOOL/COLLEGE (age 15+)

1. Mental health: This is a high-stress time, what with the pressure to get into college, falling in loveand breaking upfor the first time, and navigating friendships and family issues. This is also when many mental problems start to show up. "One quarter of college students suffer from some type of mental illness, often depression," says Somers. "Unfortunately, 75 percent of them don't seek help, which could be why suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students." If you're worried, talk to your kid and make sure he knows help is availableinside or outside school.

2. Eating disorders: "Binge eating and/or purging can start as early as fifth grade, but it's most prevalent in high school, where 13 percent of girls and 7 percent of boys engage in disordered eating," says Somers. "Skipping meals, being secretive about eating, talking about weight, obsessing about their body, and constant dieting are signs that your child could have a problem," she adds.

3. Sex: "I talk about this topic with all my patients," says Whittemore. "According to the CDC, 47 percent of high school kids have had sex and 40 percent of them did not use a condom the last time they had intercourse." This age group also accounts for almost half of new sexually transmitted infection cases each year. Education and communication are key to helping kids protect themselves.

4. Driving: Everyone should practice good car safety, but high schoolers are especially at risk, says Whittemore. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for teens. Lack of experience, overconfidence, failure to buckle up, texting, and drugs and alcohol are top reasons for accidents. Before you even think of handing over the keys, set your child up with the proper trainingthe Utah Safety Council offers defensive-driving classes throughout the state.

Check out other Ask an Expert articles from University of Utah Health Care.