26 April 2017
Posted by Heidi Salmons

Parents want more help from schools to manage their childrens’ social lives and relationships, poll reveals

Teenage mental health is at the top of the social, political and educational agendas. At the same time, parenting has never been under greater scrutiny.

HMC recognises that parenting is far from easy in the modern, digital world and has polled nearly 500 parents to understand the concerns they experience today and discover the issues they would most would like help with.

Parents were asked which of the following issues they would most like help with from schools. They rated the issues from 1 to 3. The most important issues when all votes are added together were:

  • Social lives and relationships (28%)
  • Work pressures and exams (25%)
  • Devices, gaming and online life (23%)
  • Mental health (16%)
  • Healthy lifestyle (8%)

However, work pressures and exams received the highest number of “most worried about” votes, with a 33% putting that first. 25% put devices, gaming and the online life top of their list and 20% put social life and relationships first.

Whilst exam-related issues (revision, calming down nervous children and motivating others to work) has traditionally been top of parents’ lists, heads are noticing a significant change in the amount of parents wanting schools to teach their children and advise families about digital habits and social life.

Thise categories were then sub divided and parents were asked to choose the areas they would most value guidance on from schools:

  • Work pressures and exams
    1. Organisation
    2. Work/life/extra-curricular balance
    3. Anxiety
  • Devices, gaming and online life
    1. Screen time, messaging and sleep
    2. Gaming and digital addiction
    3. Digital discipline at home
  • Social lives
    1. Drugs
    2. Boundaries
    3. Sex and relations/predators (too close to separate)
  • Relationships
    1. Issues of confidence and self-esteem
    2. Friendships
    3. Risky Liaisons
  • Mental health
    1. Confidence and self-esteem
    2. Resilience/Self-harm/low mood (too close to separate)
  • Healthy lifestyle
    1. Work/(school-)life balance
    2. Issues of body image
    3. Forms of addiction inclduing gambling and gaming

Dr Bernard Trafford, Chair of HMC’s Wellbeing Group and head of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, commented:

“It’s natural that parents worry about work and exam pressures and look to teachers to lead the way. Schools have worked hard with their parents to reduce the stresses and strains of work and exams, especially as entry to university, apprenticeships and the job market become ever more competitive.

“Many senior schools are noticing more parents asking for advice about helping their children to navigate the increasingly complex world of online and offline relationships. They tell us that they feel increasingly separated from their children’s social lives. This is natural in teenage years: but what’s new is that teenage relationships are often carried out in in isolation whilst children are on their devices.

“This is causing a new kind of adult-child disconnection which requires us to join up the dots between teachers, parents and children in an attempt to create some new social rules together. Schools are emphatically not telling parents how to parent: but we have a lot of experience with young people and are responding to a clear need.

 The survey has given us useful pointers to where we need to direct the support and guidance we give to parents. We are intrigued to see worries about self-esteem and confidence; fear of unhealthy friendships and/or liaisons; addictive habits and activities.

 “We are responding by offering expert talks and parental workshops, we’re developing materials and we’re working with state schools to share as widely as possible what we find.”


  1. Work/exams

Predictably, this was the number one concern for which they want help from schools,. This follows findings from a previous HMC head teacher poll, in which 72% of heads identified parental anxiety and pressure from home as a key cause of pupil exam stress. That survey also found that this was seen as being fuelled by increasing parental worries about the future and children’s desire not to let them down. It also found that most parents have a positive effect, whilst a third of parents have a negative effect on their children’s ability to cope with exam stress.

Parent comments about things they would like help with include:

Parents need tips on how to motivate teenagers instead of turning them off.

Exam pressures seem to have increased as compared to previous generations and strategies for coping and recognition of early mental health challenges are even more important to avoid crises.

Most of my time is spent nagging about the importance of study, organisation and reaching potential. I want help on how to stop my child switching off!

We are struggling to fit everything into weekends.  There is a need for balance but we have a prospective medical student and it seems tougher given the demands of added continuing work experience requirements -  which seem obligatory - then the need for some down time too.  It’s an early lesson with work/life balancing which immediately puts them at a disadvantage against their peers who have less to do but more time to party.

  1. Devices, gaming and online life

Parental concerns about their lack of understanding of their children’s online behaviours and its effects run throughout the survey, with particular emphasis on social media and screen time leading to lack of sleep. Insistnece that online relationships are not the same as “real” relationships was notable.

Parent commented they would like help to teach their children the following things:

I find it impossible to stop my kids using phones and social media whilst studying at home

How to build and nurture true friendship rather than increase virtual friends is crucial learning.

Devices, social hazards and the necessity to understand that online is not the same as face to face.

I want my son to respect girls and not treat them like online porn stars!

  1. Social life/relationships:

Difficult friendships were of great concern to parents, as were ‘risky liaisons’ and/or rsiky activities. Clearly self-confidence and self-esteem can be key elements in these and, where they are lacking, potentially instrumental in increasing the vulnerability of some young people.

Parent comments in the survey include:

Things change and it’s difficult to know the reasonable level of what to allow. It’s good for the children to difficult topics at school with peer groups with adult guidance without us being the strict or the buddy buddy parent!

Socialisation seems to happen online from the child’s bedroom.

Social media, body image, social pressures and the public nature of relationships is causing a huge strain on my teenage daughter.

Hearing from authority, like school, about issues such as staying safe online and going out, would help with discussions about this at home.

Building true relationships – not just thinking that an online relationship is a real relationship – is really important and needs guidance

It can be very difficult to talk to / reason with teenagers sometimes.  You always feel they think you are the worst possible parent.

Part of the challenge as an adolescent at school is ‘fitting in’ with the dominant group in a class and either being rejected or compromising in order to please.  Self-esteem is a huge issue, and realising that their own opinion/action is as valid as the dominant group in the class.  It’s harder to cope with perceived ‘rejection’ which is magnified and intensified by social networking which we, as parents, have not had to suffer.

  1. Mental health

Again, self-confidence and self-esteem are major concerns here: and resilience, of course, the quality whose development is so vital. It’s significant that a great deal of work is being done in independent schools on approaches to helping children understand the need for and developing resilience.

Comments from parents include:

It’s not clear what is a normal 15 year old and what is depression

My daughter’s first boyfriend was good looking and bright and it took us six months to realise he was abusive. She has had mental health issues as a result.

Notes to editors:

Approaching 500 parents and children from a variety of independent schools were polled (some parents still answering). They were senior school parents with 25% of respondents having children in Year 9 (aged 13-14 years) and 24 % having children in Year 12 (aged 16-17 years). The ratio of boys to girls was 55:45

For further information please contact 

Sue Bishop, HMC Director of External Relations, 07787 294808 [email protected]