A Simple Fix Could Help Anxious Kids

A father in suburban Kentucky let his 12-year-old daughter walk two houses down to her friend’s place. At the end of the play date, the other girl’s mom walked her home, just to be safe, according to an article in The New York Times.

There are many reasons for this clampdown on kids, including the birth of cable TV in the 1980s, which evolved into round-the-clock internet news alerts, bringing a stream of scary news to parents. A gradual increase in homework started in the ’80s, too, thanks to the fear that American kids were falling behind. And as the years went by, parents growing wary of a winner-take-all economy focused ever harder on getting their kids into college. They sprang for things like tutors and travel teams, giving kids a more curated, less autonomous childhood.

But as kids’ freedom has been going down, their anxiety has been shooting up. The surgeon general has declared this “the crisis of our time.” As a society, we’ve been trying everything from breathing exercises to therapeutic horse grooming to keep kids from shrinking from life.

While there could be many reasons our kids are suffering, what if the problem was simply that kids are growing up so overprotected that they’re scared of the world?

Constant supervision and intervention could be hurting kids’ chances to become brave and resilient, and a recent Journal of Pediatrics article concurred. What’s missing today isn’t just the thrill of climbing trees or playing flashlight tag. It’s that when an adult is always present — in person or electronically — kids never really get to see what they’re made of.

Kids need a whole lot of those experiences. They are anxiety killers.

The Let Grow Project is a homework assignment schools give to students so they can learn to tackle more things on their own. The instructions tell kids to go home and ask their parents if they can do something new by themselves (or with a friend), like walk the dog, run an errand, make the family breakfast — just something they feel ready to do but haven’t done yet.

This was the dream of Let Grow: Give kids their independence and watch them blossom. But the uptake has not been as fast as Lenore would like. A lot of schools want data, not anecdotes.

Enter Camilo Ortiz. He’d heard about Let Grow and offered to test independence as therapy in a clinical setting. He was already practicing exposure therapy, in which you have clients confront their fears. But this was a radical reconceptualization of the treatment. Instead of saying, “I hear you’re afraid to sleep in your own bed — how about trying that tonight?” now he would ask, “What cool things would you like to do on your own?”

Using this technique, he and his doctoral student Matthew Fastman treated five patients, ages 9 to 14, who were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. And despite the kids’ worries, it turned out there were many things they did want to try alone: Going to the grocery store. Taking the bus. One wanted to take his little brother to a carnival.

The intervention required five office (or Zoom) visits with the parents and child. The kids each did about 10 to 20 new things on their own.

The result was that all five children went from saying they felt worried most of the time to saying they felt worried a little bit of the time.

It’s doubtful any psychological intervention will ever work universally. Now Camilo is planning a larger randomized controlled trial, and it’s hoped others will begin researching how wide-ranging the benefits could be and what might be going on neurologically.

Giving kids more freedom could be the cheapest, fastest and easiest way to give kids back the bounce they’ve lost.

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