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August 19th, 2018

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The Student Anti-Anxiety Project That's Going Viral

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Jan. 23, 2018

The Student Anti-Anxiety Project That's Going Viral

It's not your imagination. Kids are getting more anxious, depressed and hypersensitive.

In Education Week, a teacher wrote, "Anxiety has become the most significant obstacle to learning among my adolescent students." They're skipping not only homework assignments but also school in general — weeks and weeks of it.

And the stats are, ironically enough, anxiety-producing, too. Parents magazine reports that 10 percent of kids are suffering from anxiety. By the time they're in high school, it's 25 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. At college? It's off the charts.

Why?

In a giant article about anxiety, The New York Times reported that among teachers, "one word — 'resiliency' — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren't (in the words of a school counselor in Oregon) 'equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively.'"

If only there were an easy, fast, free way to make kids less anxious.

I think there is.

Kids aren't suddenly being born less resilient. Something is making them that way, and that something is a lack of practice. You can't get good at throwing a ball without practice. And you can't get good at problem-solving and bouncing back if you never get practice at those — which kids don't.

Parents have been told that they must watch their kids 24/7 and smooth their path all the way. So it's no surprise that kids can't solve problems; we're always right there, solving them! And when kids lose at soccer, we're there with a trophy. And when they're old enough to walk to school, we keep driving them.

How can we get brave enough to give our kids back the independence that their mental health depends on?

Have them do the Let Grow Project.

The project, an initiative of the nonprofit I run, works like this: Teachers tell their students to go home and ask their parents whether they can do one independent thing that they feel they're ready to do — something their parents probably did at their age. Walk the dog. Make dinner. Run an errand.

Because the project is endorsed by the school and because other families are doing it, too, even the most overprotective parents say yes. Then they figure out, with their kid, what the project will be. And then, at some point over the course of the week, the kid goes and does it, alone or with a friend.

When the kid walks through the door with the half-gallon of milk he got by himself from the deli, the parents are not just proud. They're ecstatic.

Their reaction is almost bizarrely out of proportion with what the kids just did. Maybe they played outside with a friend or took the bus to karate. However minor the thing is, it is a major breakthrough — so major that it might be the key to the resilience kids are lacking. That's because after parents see for themselves, even once, how competent and safe their kids can be, their fear is replaced by joy. Then they are ready to let their kids do more and more independently. In turn, the kids become more and more capable and confident.

And less anxious.

The Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island is already doing the project in all seven of its elementary schools. The results are extraordinary.

"Parents are actually saying, 'Wow! I can't believe that I've safety-wrapped my kids so much that they didn't have the opportunity to do these things,'" says Superintendent Michael Hynes. The parents are so proud they're bragging on Facebook — and parents in other school districts are seeing it.

They're demanding their kids' schools start doing the project, too. It's going viral.

That's because deep down, many of us realize we've done something wrong. By trying to help our children all the time, we've taken away the normal childhood experience of learning to be part of the world. As a result, the world seems overwhelming — which is pretty much the definition of anxiety.

Letting kids go is the key to letting kids grow.

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