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Sunday, 17-September-2006
By: Deborah Gough - CHILDREN are increasingly finding it difficult to divorce themselves from the problems of family breakdown, mortgage and consumer pressures felt by parents.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Age reveal that stress has emerged as one of the main concerns for primary-school-aged children.

The documents, obtained under freedom-of-information laws from the Department of Human Services, produced lists of the top 20 most prevalent health concerns in primary and secondary schools.

The documents come from a database that shows what problems children are approaching their school's nurse with. The lists show that primary school children's issues were mostly medical, with hearing and teeth topping the list, but behaviour was rated at No. 6, with attention and concentration, learning difficulties and stress all problems for younger students.

For secondary students, the main issue was mental health and wellbeing, with relationships with parents, relatives and peers topping the list of worries. The main physical concerns for teenage students are pregnancy, tobacco use and abuse and body image.

Victorian Principals Association president Fred Ackerman said increasingly more children were taking on the stresses of their parents, even when parents tried to keep it from them. He said young children took on parental pressures such as family deaths and illness, workloads, family breakdown, consumerism and mortgages.

"Even if parents talk about it after the kids have gone to bed, children know that something is not right and they worry about it. They don't like to add to their parents' worries either," Mr Ackerman said. "It can become a huge issue for children, which can often be blown out of all proportion when it might not be that big a deal to the parents."

He said parents were increasingly seeing schools as a support resource for advice on parenting and health issues. The competitiveness in sports clubs meant that sports were becoming less of a stress outlet.

Welfare Teachers Association of Victoria president Mick Butler called for an extension of a program to put welfare teachers into primary schools to recognise that schools were increasingly a social hub for families.

"It's not always a crisis, but it can be a difficult time for families — it might be short-term unemployment, a bereavement or a crisis in the family or a major accident, and children feel it. Increasingly, both society and parents are looking to schools to provide them with the support they need, and sometimes that support is understanding," Mr Butler said.

The VicHealth professor of adolescent health research at the Centre for Adolescent Health, George Patton, said parents were better at recognising physical problems in their young children and this was reflected in the greater numbers seeking help for issues like hearing and dental problems.

He said the earlier that older children and young adolescents adopted adult ways, it followed they would also confront adult-like problems.

Victoria's 221 school nurses see on average 5000 preps after the health assessment and a further 7000 children in years 1-6. At secondary level, 4198 children took themselves to the school nurse in 2005.

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