Study Uncovers What Parents Fear Most

August 16th, 2014   |  

Child reaches for stovetop panParenthood makes worry inevitable, but the threats parents worry about change with each generation. The National Poll on Children’s Health, conducted annually by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, is a phone survey that asks a nationwide sample of adults to list the top 10 threats faced by children in their communities, as well as for children across the country.

The most recent poll suggests that violence and health are ongoing concerns for most parents. Over the years, obesity tends to top the list of concerns among those polled, along with bullying and substance abuse, and this year’s poll brings gun-related injuries and school violence into the mix.

What Do Parents Fear?

When parents were surveyed on the biggest threats to children across the United States, 55% put childhood obesity on the list, making childhood obesity the greatest concern of all.

The top 10 “big problems” affecting children nationwide, according to adults surveyed, include:

1. Childhood obesity – 55%
2. Bullying – 52%
3. Substance abuse – 49%
4. Smoking – 47%
5. Violence at school – 44%
6. Child abuse – 42%
7. Alcohol abuse – 41%
8. Internet safety – 40%
9. Gun-related injuries – 39%
10. Teen pregnancy – 37%

Adults frequently expressed different concerns for children living in their local communities. Childhood obesity still topped the list, with 29% of parents ranking it as a major local threat.

The top 10 biggest local threats included:

1. Childhood obesity – 29%
2. Smoking – 26%
3. Drug abuse – 26%
4. Bullying – 23%
5. Stress – 22%
6. Alcohol abuse – 19%
7. Internet safety – 18%
8. Child abuse and neglect – 18%
9. Teen pregnancy – 16%
10. Not enough physical activity – 15%

The Most Common Threats for Children

Parents’ fears can be influenced by media coverage of frightening events, such as mass shootings. In some cases, parental fear is reflective of common threats. Child abuse, for example, is startlingly common, with more than 6 million cases reported to state child protection organizations in 2012.

Parents don’t always worry about the biggest threats, though. Some leading causes of childhood deaths didn’t make the list. Among babies, the leading causes of death are sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), developmental and congenital conditions, and low birth weight. Among children ages 1–14, cancer, developmental and genetic conditions, and accidents are the leading causes of death. Suicide, homicide, and accidents top the list among older teenagers.

Though parents’ worries might not always directly reflect the threats their children face, it makes sense that parents might feel anxious in general. In 2013, UNICEF rated child welfare in industrialized countries. The U.S. had the second-highest child poverty rate, and overall, the U.S. ranked 26 out of 29 countries on measures of child welfare.


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  4. Schwayder, M. (2013, April 11). UNICEF report on child well-being shows U.S. near bottom of list. Retrieved from