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Over-protecting children may explain why anxiety is at an all-time high, according to experts

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There has been a significant increase in the number of teens and young adults with anxiety and depression in the U.S. since the 1940s, and one parenting mistake is being blamed by a number of experts.

The problem is real. Anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old, and anxiety is the most common mental disorder in adults, at 18% of the population according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

The problem is much worse in the U.S. and other Western countries than the rest of the world. Globally only 7% of people suffer from anxiety. So U.S. teens and those in their early twenties are the most anxious age group in our society, and are more anxious than their peers in the rest of the world.

What’s going on? The U.S. is a world leading country, yet children are suffering in the tens of thousands.

According to experts, over-protection of children by parents may be the core of the issue. One study even recommends children to explore more and play risky games in order to build resilience and counter the over-protection of parents.

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Over-protection of children increases anxiety levels reports that Norwegian researchers have found that the over-protection of children may have something to do with the escalating anxiety levels amongst children and young adults.

What is needed is for children to climb trees and rooftops and risk getting hurt — even if it means breaking a bone or two in the process.

It makes sense when you think about it. Today’s playgrounds have soft rubber surfaces and slides and jungle gyms so low to the ground it’s almost impossible to get scratched.

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When last did you see a small child high up in a tree? Do you remember those swings that went so high you left your stomach behind every time it swung back? Do you remember homemade carts that would careen at dangerous speeds down your street in the face of oncoming traffic?

Those childhood pleasures are not afforded to today’s mollycoddled children.

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Children need to engage in risky play that involves the threat of a risky injury

Children need to experience the effects of risky play, according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology.

The researchers explain it like this:

Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous physical activities, with children attempting something they have never done before. They need to explore the feeling of being out of control (often because of height or speed) and overcoming fear.

Rather than giving into fear, a more thrilling emotion is experienced.

However, in modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all areas, including situations involving playing. It’s problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally, according to the researchers.

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Risky play, like playing near a cliff and climbing rocks, can provide a child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously feared. As the child’s coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared, resulting in lower levels of anxiety.

The researchers highlight six categories of risky play:

  • Great heights, which could result in falling and includes climbing, jumping from still or flexible surfaces, balancing on high objects and hanging or swinging high off the ground
  • High speed, which could result in collision and includes doing things like swinging, sliding, running, biking, skating or skiing at an uncontrolled pace
  • Dangerous tools, including things like cutting tools which could wound or ropes which could strangle
  • Dangerous elements, including cliffs, deep or icy water or fire
  • Rough-and-tumble activities, including wrestling, play fighting or fencing with sticks where children could hurt each other
  • Disappearance/getting lost, which could result from exploring or playing alone in unfamiliar environments


So, next time you go to the park let your child climb the trees rather than go down a silly little slide.

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Written by Coert Engels

I'm a South African based writer and am passionate about exploring the latest ideas in artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology. I also focus on the human condition, with a particular interest human intuition and creativity. To share some feedback about my articles, email me at [email protected]

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