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Fostering Independence: A Key to Easing Children's Anxiety

Dr. Dahra Williams

Children on dock at The Independence School

What we knew before the pandemic was that young people were struggling with mental health issues, particularly anxiety and/or depression. This was a national challenge as rates of depression and anxiety were on the increase, however there was a lack of resources (psychologists, guidance counselors, etc.) to meet this need. Then with a double whammy of the increase in popularity of social media (which has already been associated with increased mental health challenges for some young people) and the pandemic, these concerns were highlighted. Social isolation, fears about illness, uncertainty about the future, increased stress among caregivers, and lost opportunities and loved ones created the perfect storm and rates of mental illness in young people increased even more.

In an era where anxiety and depression among teenagers are still on the rise, parents and educators are seeking effective ways to support their children's mental health. A recent New York Times article titled "The Age of Anxiety and the Decline of Play" offers an interesting perspective and sheds light on the correlation between the decline of independent play and the surge in anxiety among teenagers. This article explores the importance of giving kids their independence as a strategy to alleviate anxiety and promote overall well-being. As a parent and a psychologist, I was intrigued by the premise and wondered if I would be able to endorse some of the ideas in that article. Here is a quick summary:

The Decline of Independence:

As noted in the New York Times article, the modern world has witnessed a decline in the amount of unsupervised play and independent exploration that children engage in. As parents become more concerned about safety and academic success, structured activities and constant supervision have become the norm. While these measures are well-intentioned and understandable, they might inadvertently contribute to increased anxiety levels among children.

The Link Between Independence and Anxiety:

The New York Times article suggests that the decline of independent play may be linked to the rising rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers. When children are constantly supervised and guided, they may not have the opportunity to develop essential life skills, problem-solving abilities, and resilience. Over time, this lack of independence can lead to heightened anxiety when faced with challenges or uncertainties.

Benefits of Independence for Children

  • Enhanced Problem-Solving Skills: Allowing children to navigate their own challenges fosters problem-solving skills. When children have the autonomy to make decisions and learn from their mistakes, they become better equipped to face life's inevitable obstacles.
  • Building Resilience: Independence encourages resilience by exposing children to various situations where they must adapt and overcome difficulties. Resilient children are better equipped to cope with stress and bounce back from setbacks.
  • Boosting Confidence: Achieving tasks independently, whether big or small, contributes to a child's self-esteem. This confidence forms a foundation for a positive self-image and a belief in one's ability to handle life's challenges.
  • Social Skills Development: Unsupervised play allows children to interact with peers on their own terms, improving their social skills. Navigating social situations independently contributes to the development of empathy, cooperation, and conflict resolution skills.

As we navigate the complexities of modern parenting, it's important to recognize the importance of fostering independence in our children. We all want our children to grow into confident, self-assured adults. By allowing them the space to explore, make decisions, and learn from their experiences, we empower them to navigate life with confidence and resilience. Of course, we have to ensure that this is executed in a safe and developmentally appropriate manner.  Additionally, opportunities should be introduced in a stepwise manner that both children and caregivers are comfortable with. At The Independence School, our motto “Give Me Independence. Watch Me Soar.” has never been more critical in ensuring our children continue to thrive. 

Dr. Dahra Williams

About the Author

Dahra Williams, Ph.D., is the consulting psychologist at Independence and a team member of the Center for Wellness, Innovation and Learning (CWIL).

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