Researchers find a little childhood independence can reduce kids’ anxiety

child running on neighborhood sidewalk - childhood independence
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If your child struggles with anxiety, you may be considering a traditional psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But there’s a new form of therapy for anxiety that’s centered on childhood independence. Experts behind the pilot study say it can help kids combat their fears, reduce anxiety, gain confidence and—you guessed it—become more independent.

Independence therapy is a technique modeled on an initiative pioneered by Let Grow, the nonprofit group that promotes childhood independence.

The premise behind it is encouraging kids to do something new on their own with their parents’ permission—but without their parents. Of course, depending on the age of your child, it’s a natural response to feel that you may not be ready for this, you may experience your own fears about letting them “go,” or you may doubt that it can actually help your kid. But the potential benefits are huge, the researchers found, noting that they’re often quicker than CBT.

“What makes the experience so transformative is that when the child does something new, on their own, their confidence grows,” Lenore Skenazy, president of the Let Grow children’s independence movement and author of Free to Learn, tells Motherly.

Skenazy said independence therapy is kind of like traveling—confusing and daunting, but exhilarating.

“It’s not just the kids who change,” Skenazy said. “The parents do too. Because for some reason or other, they weren’t letting their kid do X yet—whatever X is. But once they do and their kid comes home, beaming with pride, the parents change as much as their children. Their fear and distress get replaced by pride and joy.”

Not every independence experiment goes as planned. But in dealing with any challenges, the child is forced to solve a problem and overcome anxiety. They can become more resilient from it.

“Anxiety is the belief that something will go wrong, you won’t be able to handle it, and you will be hurt forever,” she explained. “Reality is when something goes wrong, you figure out how to deal with it, and you realize it’s not such a big deal. So independence—getting kids to deal with reality, not what ifs—turns out to be a great anxiety buster.”

Introducing independence therapy

Camilo Ortiz, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Long Island University, worked with Skenazy and decided to run with creating an independence therapy program, because he supports a lot of children who experience anxiety. Ortiz often uses exposure therapy to help them overcome fears, which helps them face fears head-on.

“Instead of asking the child to tell him what thing they were most scared of and then requiring the child to face it directly, he’d ask the child if there was something new that they wanted to do on their own,” Skenazy explained. “Even the anxious kids in his pilot study did have things they wanted to try. Things like walking home from school, or taking the local bus.”

Skenazy worked with Dr. Ortiz on independence therapy. The two even penned an article in The New York Times about it.

Along with their parents, the kids met with Dr. Ortiz. They formed independence activities (or Let Grow projects, as Skenazy calls them).

“Just by doing all sorts of new and fun things on their own, their anxiety plummeted,” Skenazy says.

Dr. Ortiz said the therapy is a five-session treatment for elementary and middle school students.

“Since independence is a natural and developmental desire, even among 2-year-olds, kids almost always have ideas,” he tells Motherly.

“After discussing the value of independence with parents to promote persistence, problem-solving, grit and creativity, the therapist and child plan at least one independence activity per day and meet weekly to go over how they went and plan the next week’s activities,” Dr. Ortiz continues.

“It is rather simple but so far, also rather effective. We are seeing results equal to much longer therapies, such as CBT, or medication. And kids and parents really enjoy the process, whereas they often don’t love practice facing the actual things they are afraid of.”

What they gain when we let go

What makes independence therapy work? Skenazy has some insight.

“Independence therapy seems to work by giving kids back a sense of agency, confidence, competence and the chance, at last, to see how they can make it in the real world.”

Lenore Skenazy

She recalls a 10-year-old child with anxiety who was afraid to go on the stairs in his own home. He tried the therapy, and an independence activity. He wanted to walk home by himself, Skenazy recalled. The child’s mother was so anxious, she took a day off of work to make it happen.

“Sure enough, he did seem to be going down the wrong street—a neighbor called the mom to say she’d just seen him pass by. But turned-around or not, the boy eventually made it home.

And then he kept doing all sorts of other things on his own,” Skenazy said.

Trying independence therapy

So, what about all the what-ifs you may have if your kiddo wants to try something a little daunting?

“I rarely see independence backfiring. The bigger issue is parents getting in the way of independence because it makes them understandably nervous to allow it,” he said.

“There is risk in allowing independence, but it is becoming more and more clear that the risk of not allowing independence is far greater.”

Dr. Camilo Ortiz

Now, there’s not much outside research on this method (though I think some could be on the way considering the attention that’s come from the childhood independence movement). Your child may still benefit from other types of therapy to process their anxiety.

Want to try a dose of independence therapy? Talk to your kid about some things they may want to try alone, and make a plan together. (That may be a good time to ask your what-if questions and see how your child responds, which could give you an idea of their thought process and hopefully ease your nerves or theirs.)

“I think Independence Therapy holds incredible promise for kids with a clinical diagnosis of anxiety—and also for anyone growing up in this anxious era. It shows kids, their parents and their teachers just how competent they can be, when trusted to do some things on their own,” Skenazy said.

Overall, independence therapy may help your kiddo. You’ll have to do some navigating—perhaps literally—together. Ultimately, you have to do what’s right for you and your family. If independence therapy helps, it may be just the thing to help your child ease their fears and become more resilient in the long run.

Featured experts

Camilo Ortiz, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Long Island University.

Lenore Skenazy, is the co-founder of the Let Grow children’s independence movement and author of Free to Learn.

A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 28, 2023. It has been updated.