The climate crisis is taking a growing toll on the mental health of children and young people. Increasing levels of “eco-anxiety” – the chronic fear of environmental doom – were likely to be underestimated and damaging to many in the long term, experts have warned.
Although not yet considered a diagnosable condition, recognition of eco-anxiety and its complex psychological effects is increasing, and is disproportionally impacting on children and young people. A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that more than half of them are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment. Another, more recent international survey of climate anxiety in young people aged 16 to 25 showed that the psychological burdens of climate crisis were “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people around the world”.
Last month’s wall-to-wall coverage of COP26 and protests by Insulate Britain may have got you wondering about your own children – so how can we help them with climate change fears? Psychotherapist Noel McDermott has some advice on talking to them about their climate anxiety:
Open a discussion
It’s understandable that our children are experiencing climate anxiety and it’s important to acknowledge this. We must be open, and explore how they are feeling. However, we must do so without adding to their alarm. Adult debates on these issues are often heated. Insulate Britain’s road blocks divided opinions and it can be a challenge for kids to express their concerns. My advice would be to ask them what they have heard then respond in a way that validates their feelings. You can also give them information about what is happening. A good source for all ages is BBC Bitesize .
Tune in to their stress levels
The combination of the Covid pandemic and hard-hitting climate news can be a lot for young children and teens to cope with.
Little ones might try to protect you from their distress and say they are fine, but it will show up in other ways such as:
- In their play, which can become preoccupied with worries; for example mummies and daddies getting sick, or people fighting
- Kids might become avoidant when they are upset. They won’t talk and may withdraw
- Children may ‘regress’ and start to act in a younger manner, depending on age you may see thumb sucking, incontinence, clinging behaviour
If you see these types of things you can gently explore with your child why they think these behaviours are happening. Allow them to communicate their feelings verbally rather than behaviourally. It’s crucial to turn off punishment signals. Let them know that you understand they are upset, not bad.
Helping them cope
When talking to your kids it’s important to remember that you are not trying to resolve the debates about climate change. You are trying to help them process difficult feelings and find their voice. Truth is not at stake here. Focus on teaching your kids how to deal with what they perceive as frightening and challenging.
There are no right or wrong ways to talk to children and support them. Here’s a helpful list of ways to think about it:
- Create an emotionally open and supportive environment
- Be honest and be accurate, use your government and UN sources of information*
- Validate your kid’s feelings whilst providing reassurance
- Talk at the level your child can understand
- Children learn from what you do not what you say. Do you stress out and feel angry, but also reassure your child? That can be confusing
Depending on age, if your kids want to take social action in support of their beliefs about climate change issues, it is appropriate to encourage them. Whatever your own feelings, supporting your children in finding and communicating their beliefs is an important parenting task. If your beliefs differ to your children it is vital to overtly support them in holding their own views. Teaching our kids about difference, debate and how to communicate effectively is crucial in their development.
Taking action to face one’s fears is a very positive thing to do. Avoidance simply increases our anxiety as do defence behaviours such as denial. Fear is best managed by facing the thing we are afraid of and taking what action we can to care for ourselves.
There is no way to completely shield young people from the reality of the climate crisis, and this may even be counterproductive even if it were possible. It’s best to engage children about their concerns and help them feel that they can change things.
Tackling climate anxiety and tackling the climate crisis are intrinsically linked.
Why not get out and do something that helps? Record and celebrate the changes you and your family make. Nobody is too small. Make connections with other people and at the same time realise that none of us are going to cure this problem on our own.
*An interesting resource for teenagers is The Bloom, a media platform for young people by young people. It includes stories of they feel, think and act in the face of the climate crisis.