Young adults are struggling with their mental health. Is more childhood independence the answer? 

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young woman walking and balancing on street curb or curbstone during sunset
 (iStock/Gabriel Codarcea)

Assistant professor Brett Mallon begins his evening Zoom session at Kansas State University with a question: When students hear the word “conflict,” what associations do they make? 

Many first responses are decidedly negative. “I would say, avoid it at all costs,” one student offers. “Argument, awkward conversations,” says another. The list grows as students make emotional associations they have with conflict: stress, discomfort, war. Only one student suggests that he thinks of conflict as “an opportunity for growth.” 

This is Conflict Resolution, a non-credit workshop in an “Adulting 101” series at Kansas State. The cheeky name, created by the campus wellness center, belies its serious purpose: to fill in the gaps of missing life skills for students with classes that range from the practical, like how to make a budget, to the relational, like dealing with imposter syndrome. 

“Students talk about conflict like it’s this terrible thing,” Mallon said in an interview. “Is it that they’re afraid of [conflict], or are they lacking in experience? Probably a little bit of both.” 

Seminars and classes like “Adulting 101” are becoming more common on college campuses. Though ranging in style and substance — from one-offs on handling stress to full-semester psychology courses on how to be happy — more universities are offering help to students struggling with the stresses of everyday life and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression.

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But a growing body of evidence is beginning to suggest that the problems of “adulting” and mental health in college students may be rooted, at least in part, in modern childhood. Research shows that young people are lacking in emotional resilience and independence compared to previous generations. The problem has been growing in tandem with rising rates of anxiety and depression, perhaps exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has left colleges scrambling to help and adapt.

“Some parents have been parenting differently, they have this value of success at all costs,” said Dori Hutchinson, executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. “I like to describe it as some kids are growing up developmentally delayed, today’s 18-year-olds are like 12-year-olds from a decade ago. They have very little tolerance for conflict and discomfort, and COVID just exposed it.” 

How modern childhood changed, and changed mental health

Research shows that young people who arrive on campus with healthy amounts of resilience and independence do better both academically and emotionally, but today more students of all backgrounds are arriving on campus with significantly less experience in dealing with life’s ups and downs. Many even see normal adult activities as risky or dangerous.

In a new study currently under review, Georgetown University psychologist Yulia Chentsova Dutton looked at whether American college students’ threshold for what is considered risky was comparable to their global peers. Chentsova Dutton and her team interviewed students from Turkey, Russia, Canada and the United States, asking them to describe a risky or dangerous experience they had in the last month. Both Turkish and Russian students described witnessing events that involved actual risk: violent fights on public transportation; hazardous driving conditions caused by drunk drivers; women being aggressively followed on the street. 

But American students were far more likely to cite as dangerous things that most adults do every day, like being alone outside or riding alone in an Uber.

The American students’ risk threshold was comparatively “quite low,” according to Chentsova Dutton. Students who reported they gained independence later in childhood — going to the grocery store or riding public transportation alone, for example — viewed their university campus as more dangerous; those same students also had fewer positive emotions when describing risky situations. 

Chentsova Dutton hypothesizes that when students have fewer opportunities to practice autonomy, they have less faith in themselves that they can figure out a risky situation. “My suspicion is that low autonomy seems to translate into low efficacy,” she said. “Low efficacy and a combination of stress is associated with distress,” like anxiety and depression.

In recent years, other psychologists have made similar associations. Author and New York University ethical leadership professor Jonathan Haidt has used Nassim Taleb’s theory of anti-fragility to explain how kids’ social and emotional systems act much like our bones and immune systems: Within reason, testing and stressing them doesn’t break them but makes them stronger. But, Haidt and first amendment advocate Greg Lukianoff have argued in their writing, a strong culture of “safetyism” which prizes the safety of children above all else, has prevented young people from putting stress on the bones, so to speak, so “such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events.” 

Psychologists have directly connected a lack of resilience and independence to the growth of mental health problems and psychiatric disorders in young adults and say that short cycles of stress or conflict are not only not harmful, they are essential to human development. But modern childhood, for a variety of reasons, provides few opportunities for kids to practice those skills. 

While it’s hard to point to a single cause, experts say a confluence of factors — including more time spent on smartphones and social media, less time for free play, a culture that prizes safety at the expense of building other characteristics, a fear of child kidnapping, and more adult-directed activities — together have created a culture that keeps kids far away from the kinds of experiences that build resilience.

Chentsova Dutton said America has an international reputation for prizing autonomy, but her study opened her eyes to a more complicated picture. American parents tend to be overprotective when children are young, acting as if kids are going to live at home for a long time, like parents do in Italy. Yet they also expect children to live away from home fairly early for college, like families do in Germany. The result is that American kids end up with drastically fewer years navigating real life than they do in other countries that start much earlier. 

“We parent like we are in Italy, then send kids away like we are in Germany,” Chentsova Dutton said with a laugh. “Those things don’t match.”

A movement hopes to change the culture

Seventeen-year-old Megan Miller, a senior at Hudson High School in Hudson, Ohio, recently drove her two siblings, ages 15 and 12, to Cedar Point Amusement Park for an evening of fun. Miller was nervous. She’d never driven an hour and a half away from home by herself before, especially in the dark — but she had to do it; it was homework for school. 

The assignment was to try something she’d never done before without her parents’, or anyone else’s, help. Other students figured out how to put air in their tires, cooked a meal for their family from start to finish and drove on the interstate. The point, Miller’s teacher Martin Bach said, was to give these young adults — many of whom would be living away from home in less than a year — experience with trying, failing and figuring something out on their own. 

“I was seeing that student stress and anxiety levels were already bad, then COVID supercharged it,” Bach said. But a pattern of parents “swooping in to solve problems that kids could easily solve on their own” made Bach decide to create the unit on resilience and independence. “In my head I’m thinking, these kids are going off to college, how are they going to cope?”

Bach got the idea for the “do something new on your own” assignment from Let Grow, a national nonprofit promoting greater childhood independence. Let Grow offers free curriculum, aimed mostly at elementary and middle school students, that feels like it’s giving 21st century childhood a hard reset — like “play club,” in which children are allowed to play on school playgrounds without adult interference, and the “think for yourself essay contest.” 

Let Grow is part of a growing movement of psychologists, therapists and educators advocating for evidence-based practices to help kids gain more independence and improve mental health. Let Grow’s co-founder, Lenore Skenazy, said that after traveling for years speaking to parent and school groups about the problem of shrinking childhood independence, she decided that families needed more than a lecture. “The audience would nod along, everybody gets it. But they wouldn’t let their own kids do it,” she said. Skenazy began to understand that the anxiety around child safety was not necessarily parents’ fault — the culture surrounding families almost fetishized child danger. Many parents felt they would be judged — or arrested — if they let their child walk to the park by themselves, or walk to the store. 

Skenazy moved the organization toward behavior and policy change to address the cultural issues. Along with the independence curriculum for schools, Let Grow has helped four states enact “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws aimed at protecting parents from neglect charges. Let Grow also speaks directly to parents and teachers about letting kids try things by themselves — and being surprised by what their kids are able to do. 

Like Megan Miller, whose trip to Cedar Point was thrilling yet also had bumps along the way. They got a little lost inside the park, and the siblings had a disagreement over which roller coasters to ride. On the way there, even with navigation on her phone, she took a wrong turn and ended up on an unfamiliar road. But that road wound alongside scenic Lake Erie, which she’d never been on. “It ended up being this beautiful drive that I will definitely do every single time,” Miller said. 

Since the trip, Miller’s parents have noticed a change, she said. “I find that I’m much more comfortable driving on highways and for long periods of time. My parents know now that I can do it, which helps a lot.” 

A road forward

More researchers, psychologists and educators are looking to find more ways to incorporate independence skills into kids’ daily lives. 

Clinical psychologist Camilo Ortiz, a professor at Long Island University-Post, began noticing a few years ago that some of his young patients, mostly children being treated for anxiety, would “fold very quickly” at the first sign of adversity. Ortiz uses what he calls the “four Ds” to explain what was happening: Today’s kids experienced less “discomfort, distress, disappointment and danger” than previous generations did, because their parents, who have the best intentions, deprive them of these opportunities. He began to wonder whether kids who didn’t get much of the four Ds were missing an important opportunity to be uncomfortable and then persist — and whether they might help clinically anxious children. 

Beginning last year, Ortiz began a pilot treatment program for childhood clinical anxiety that is based on independence and “getting parents out of their hair.”

“This is not a traditional anxiety treatment,” he said. “My approach is something like: So you’re afraid of the dark? Go to the deli and buy me some salami.” A lot of anxiety is based in fear of the unknown, so the treatment involves having an experience full of uncertainty, like riding the subway alone or going to the grocery alone. If the child can tolerate the discomfort in that situation, Ortiz hypothesized that those lessons might translate to whatever is causing the child anxiety.

Early results are promising: the independence exercises have been successful in quelling anxiety for some children. “The new approach that I have developed is for middle school kids,” he said. “So by the time they’re college students, they’ve gotten a lot more practice with those four Ds.” 

Other groups help build resilience in students in academic settings, like the Resilience Builder Program, which aims to help students think more flexibly, be proactive in the face of challenges and learn optimistic thinking. The program’s creator, Mary Alvord, said the protective factors taught to middle schoolers are based on decades of research on childhood resilience. “It’s about being proactive and not feeling like you’re a victim, how you can control some things, but you can’t control everything,” she said. “How can you make the best of it, and if you can’t — how do you ask for help?” 

Experts say independence and autonomy are best formed and tested in childhood, but it’s never too late to begin. At the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, Hutchinson and her team help college students diagnosed with mental illness continue their education and reach their goals, and that often begins with building their resilience and independence skills. The center has developed a curriculum that is focused not just on students, but parents and faculty as well. 

“Families are a player at the table,” Hutchinson said. Parents benefit from coaching that shows them how to support their student without “doing for” them. Parents sometimes don’t understand that protecting their child from failure and difficulty can be an obstacle to growth. 

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“When we are controlling a young adult’s experiences, and they go without that full range of emotional experience,” said the center’s Director for Strategic Initiatives Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk, “we’re actually curbing people’s opportunities to live full lives, and have the full range of human experience.”