Engineering molecular systems that exhibit complex behavior requires the design of kinetic barriers. For example, an effective catalytic pathway must have a large barrier when the catalyst is absent. While programming such energy barriers seems to require knowledge of the specific molecular substrate, we develop a novel substrate-independent approach. We extend the recently-developed model known as thermodynamic binding networks, demonstrating programmable kinetic barriers that arise solely from the thermodynamic driving forces of bond formation and the configurational entropy of forming separate complexes. Our kinetic model makes relatively weak assumptions, which implies that energy barriers predicted by our model would exist in a wide variety of systems and conditions. We demonstrate that our model is robust by showing that several variations in its definition result in equivalent energy barriers. We apply this model to design catalytic systems with an arbitrarily large energy barrier to uncatalyzed reactions. Our results could yield robust amplifiers using DNA strand displacement, a popular technology for engineering synthetic reaction pathways, and suggest design strategies for preventing undesired kinetic behavior in a variety of molecular systems.