Unfortunately, anxiety has been on the rise in children in the United States for nearly 60 years. The problem only worsens as the children become high school and college students. According to some estimates, almost six times as many high school and college students have been found with anxiety disorder as compared to 50 years ago.

The question is “Why?”

One might think these changes in children’s mental health are due to wars or world events. However, the data says otherwise. During the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the turbulence of the ’60s, the rates of anxiety and depression among children were significantly lower than they are today.

The truth is that the change is more of a function of the children themselves than what is happening in the world.

Children Feel Less Control Over Their Lives

Research has shown that there is a significant correlation between a person’s sense of lacking control over his/her life and anxiety. People who feel they control their fate and destiny are less prone to suffer anxiety than others who believe that they are victims of circumstances over which they exercise no control.  

While progress has been made over the past 50 years in our ability to prevent and treat diseases and the elimination of many prejudices that limited people’s options, the data indicates that children’s belief in control over their destinies has declined sharply over the decades.

Again, the question is “Why?”

Extrinsic Goals are Replacing Intrinsic Goals

Some psychological research has suggested that increases in anxiety are a function of shifting from “intrinsic” to “extrinsic” goals. Intrinsic goals are defined as those relating to personal development—such as developing competency in areas of one’s choosing or creating a purposeful or meaningful life philosophy.

On the other hand, extrinsic goals are those connected to another’s judgment or material reward such as becoming wealthy, beautiful external appearance or achieving high status. Evidence suggests that young people today are less oriented toward intrinsic goals and more oriented toward extrinsic goals than previously.

People have less control in attaining extrinsic goals than achieving natural ones. While effort can improve competence, it can’t guarantee wealth. Through philosophy or spirituality, one can find meaning in life, but that doesn’t assure becoming more attractive to other people.

Emotional satisfaction is outsourced in seeking extrinsic goals and therefore beyond a person’s control.

The Decline of Free Play Contributes to Less Sense of Control and Rising Anxiety

However, perhaps the most critical factor of the increase in child anxiety may be related to the decline in recent decades of children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction.

Free play and exploration are how children learn to solve their problems, control their own lives, develop their interests, and become competent. By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, without direct adult supervision and control, children are being robbed of how to learn how to take control of their lives.

We have replaced children’s free play with more school and school supervised activities (adult-directed sports and extracurricular activities). Children today spend more hours, days, and years of their life than ever before. We believe that the well-designed infrastructure that we have built will save them from themselves by controlling them.

But it’s a mistake to think that we are helping children by protecting them. On the contrary, as their uninhibited play diminishes, so does their joy and sense of self-control. By placing blockades in the path of their self-discovery and exploration of their true selves, we increase the odds they will suffer anxiety.

Hours and hours in the classroom teach the children that their own choices and judgments don’t count, but rather those of the teachers. The goal in class for most is not competence (intrinsic goal) but rather good grades (extrinsic goal). The continuous evaluations and testing that only increases in intensity are a perfect recipe for anxiety!

The cost of the belief that children must spend ever-increasing amounts of time in school comes at a high price- our children’s mental health. Given freedom and opportunity, children learn to educate themselves. They do so with joy and simultaneously develop strong intrinsic values and emotional health.