The Anxiety Paradox

Featured in
Angela Duckworths’ Character Lab
Published on
May 8, 2022

Today, I’ve asked Tracy Dennis-Tiwary to share her Tip of the Week.

When my son, Kavi, left his math homework at school one day, he came to me in a panic. “What am I going to do?” he asked.

Together, we figured out that he could ask his friend to send a photo of the homework, and he would copy out the problems by hand. Problem solved, right? Wrong. He remained agitated.

Soon, I discovered what really worried him: He was afraid his teacher would see the forgotten homework on his desk at school and be upset with him the next morning. He begged me to email her to relieve his anxiety.

I wanted to help—what parent doesn’t want to make the hurt go away, especially when the solution was as simple as sending an email? And yet that would have been the wrong thing to do.

By the time kids turn 18, over 30% of them will have experienced debilitating anxiety—that’s around 20 million in the United States alone. A parent’s natural reaction is to try to stop the anxiety. For example, the family of an anxious child who fears flying in airplanes might limit vacations to only drivable locations.

Research shows that while avoiding anxiety-provoking situations may comfort anxious children in the moment, it prevents them from learning to cope in the long run. A new type of therapy called SPACE taught parents a better option: working through anxiety. For example, instead of allowing socially anxious children to stay home, parents gradually exposed them to challenging social situations and provided support. In the study, 87% of the children whose parents received the therapy showed less severe anxiety, an outcome as good as if children received therapy themselves.

I never sent that email to Kavi’s teacher. I tried to talk Kavi through his anxiety, but he still went to bed feeling restless and worried. I did, too. But the next day, he got an A+ on his homework along with a note: “Wonderful job figuring out how to get your homework done!”

Don’t try to protect young people from their anxiety by “fixing” the situation for them.

Do let kids sit with their anxieties and support them in coping. If your child has a spat with a friend or is worried about an upcoming test, listen and advise but don’t intervene. In facing these commonplace but difficult moments, children gain mastery over their anxiety—and that’s the key to feeling good.

With support and gratitude,

Tracy

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York, is the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad).

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