Helping Kids with Climate Anxiety

April 23, 2022

BBC:

Striding onto the streets of Glasgow, 16-year-old Amy O’Brien joined tens of thousands of other marchers last November for a Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. O’Brien is an activist with Fridays for Future Ireland, a youth movement that uses school strikes to campaign for climate justice. She had taken the train and ferry from her home town of Mitchelstown in County Cork to Glasgow to attend the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). But while the journey was motivated by her activism, it also had a deeply personal side effect: it gave her hope.

O’Brien had spent half her life worrying about the impact of global climate change, to the point of feeling an intense fear over the planet’s future – an increasingly common phenomenon among children and teenagers. Now the sight of so many diverse banner-carrying campaigners, of all ages, offered her “a glimmer of the future that is possible”.

“It was a really colourful scene, and there was music and there were people dancing,” O’Brien recalls. “At one point it started lashing with rain, and so you would think it would dampen the scene, but actually there was such a bright, hopeful and exuberant protest. Everyone seemed so happy to be together, showing up for the world we want to see.”

O’Brien has been acutely aware of the climate crisis since the age of eight, when she first learned in primary school about the impact of melting Arctic ice on polar bears.

“Even at the start, I was upset for animals and that nature was having to change because of us,” she says. “I felt a bit powerless.” By age 13 or 14, “fear kicked in” as she witnessed increased flooding of Cork’s River Lee, and learned how extreme weather was displacing people in countries like India and the Philippines. “Their lives are torn apart, and these are the same people who contributed the least to this crisis,” O’Brien says. “I started to feel fear and hurt for what they were already going through.”

The intense feeling that O’Brien experiences in the midst of the climate crisis, has a name: eco-anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom“.

Eco-anxiety can be caused by the stressful and frightening experience of “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children and later generations”, according to a report published by the association and two other organisations, Climate for Health and Eco-America. It may come with “feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration”, and guilt, as the sufferers feel they are unable to stop climate change.

Lancet preprints – Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon:

Findings: Respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change. Respondents rated the governmental response to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. Correlations indicated that climate anxiety and distress were significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.  

Interpretation: Climate change and inadequate governmental responses are associated with climate anxiety and distress in many children and young people globally. These psychological stressors threaten health and wellbeing, and could be construed as morally injurious and unjust. There is an urgent need for increases in both research and government responsiveness. 

BBC again:

Offering children honest answers to their questions about climate catastrophe isn’t always easy, though. Parents instinctively want to protect their kids from “painful, scary, traumatic stuff”, Hickman says. But although climate anxiety is distressing, it’s also rational, she and her co-authors contend. So when a 10-year-old child asks, “is it true that in 100 years the Earth will be burned to a crisp?” it’s “not pure fantasy”, Hickman says. “It’s not, ‘Mummy, can sharks fly?’ The question is grounded in reality.”

If a child asks questions about climate change, first find out what they have learned about the topic, Hickman advises, including whether they are reading scaremongering stories online. Then, “tell her it’s a brilliant question”, she says, and add: “I want you to feel proud of those feelings. Because you only feel that anxiety or worry because you care about the planet.”

Hickman enthusiastically endorses “lots of conversations” with kids around climate change. But parents also need to calibrate their responses to children at different ages, advises climate educator Harriet Shugarman, executive director of Climate Mama, an advocacy organisation for parents.

In her book How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst into Action, Shugarman offers advice to parents of kids from nursery school age to late-teen years on how they can mitigate anxiety and take action on climate change.

“When kids are coming to you with questions directly, we have to tell the truth, whatever age they’re at,” she says. But we should also strengthen their own sense of agency. “Kids do have power, and we want to try to work to build that up at each age,” she advises.

With very young children, the first step is to create “a sense of wonder in nature” – watching ants in the grass on outings to city parks, or sharing stories and songs. Include your five-to-six-year-old kids in climate marches, take photos of the protests, and have kids send their own drawings or letters to local officials, she suggests.

By the time kids reach the ages of 10-13 years old, they are probably learning about climate change in school. Encourage them to discuss climate change with teachers, neighbours and family, Shugarman says. Also, “we can remind them that there are so many scientists, businesspeople, organisations, elected officials, working on the climate crisis all over the world.”

By ages 14-16 years old, teenagers are approaching the age at which they’ll be able to vote. “Their elected officials are interested in what they have to say because they are future voters,” Shugarman says. Political engagement for older teens is crucial. “So many young people seem so disillusioned, rightly so, perhaps, with our democracies. But they are very fragile and we need them to be participatory.” 

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