Lisa Cohn’s 12-year-old son Michael has always been a big animal lover—but he especially loves polar bears. Over the past few years, though, Cohn has noticed that he becomes sad and frightened when he reads about them. He’ll talk about how the ice is melting—something he understands is caused by climate change—and how polar bears are drowning because they're forced to swim longer distances.
“I try to focus on what we can do to help fight climate change [and] avoid presenting a doomsday picture,” she says. For example, Cohn drives an electric car, and Michael understands that this reduces their family’s carbon footprint compared to driving a gas-powered vehicle.
The Cohns aren’t alone. 2020 was a rough year for our planet. It was the second hottest year on record, Australian bushfires wiped out billions of animals, the strongest super typhoon in history slammed into the Philippines, and the United States set a new record for billion-dollar natural disasters.
And as global temperatures continue to rise, climate scientists predict more frequent and severe extreme weather events, widespread biodiversity loss, and threats to food and water security. These looming threats have led to what experts are calling eco-anxiety or climate anxiety. And the condition could be affecting kids as well.
The rise of eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety isn’t a clinical diagnosis but a term many are using to describe negative emotions associated with the perception of climate change.
“In general, younger people do tend to experience more of it,” says Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at the College of Wooster, who studies how climate change impacts mental health. “I think one of the reasons is simply that they're going to be faced with more of the effects than older generations.”
In fact, to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement—an international treaty designed to limit global temperature rise below 2.7°F (1.5°C) in order to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of climate change—the average child born today must emit about eight times less carbon dioxide (CO2) than their grandparents.
And it’s not like children aren’t trying. Most parents will tell you it’s their kids who are shaming them into recycling, composting, and using reusable everything. In March 2019 alone, around 1.6 million school-age protesters across 125 countries walked out of their classrooms to participate in youth-led climate strikes to demand action from their leaders.
Climate anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing in children and can actually alert them to the need to deal with a problem.
“We want kids to be able to care about things that are being damaged,” says psychiatrist Elizabeth Haase, chair of the Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health for the American Psychiatric Association. “These are very healthy traits in kids—for them to be worried about things going wrong in the natural world.”
Managing complicated climate emotions
If a child is displaying the typical symptoms of anxiety—stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, or obsessive thinking—Haase recommends opening up a general discussion before jumping to conclusions about the cause. (“Is there something about the way things are that you're concerned about?”)
“There can be a lot of displacement of concern from one thing onto another thing,” she explains. “So if a kid expresses distress, it's always a good idea to ask if this is about anything else as well."
For kids who express concern about the natural world and the animals in it, Haase says the first step is to acknowledge their anxiety and distress rather than labeling it as something pathological. “Help your child appreciate that this is a manifestation of their love and caring, and that these are normal ways of responding.”
Clayton also cautions parents against unwittingly invalidating their child’s feelings. “In a misplaced attempt to help their child, some parents might say, ‘Oh, there's nothing to worry about,’” she says. “Part of climate anxiety is this sense that it's not fully acknowledged by society, so it’s going to make children feel worse if they perceive a huge problem and nobody seems to notice it.”
Once you’ve validated the child’s feelings, help them gain some perspective. “You see children saying things like ‘The world's going to burn up, we’re all going to be dead in 20 years,’—and that's pretty unlikely,” Clayton says. Helping them find accurate information—for example, explaining that your city will probably see more rain and hotter summers—is more precise and less scary.
“Don’t lie to the child, but also don’t let them become terrified with overwhelming fear,” Haase explains. For example, if a child is worried about the plight of polar bears, try to avoid apocalyptic messages. (“There's a good chance that you'll never see a live polar bear.”)
You can also pivot serious information toward something positive. (“Many of the polar bears are in danger right now. But a lot of people love polar bears just as much as you do, and here are some things they’re doing to help them.”) If the child expresses interest, you can take it a step further and help them get involved in a polar bear conservation group.
Finally, parents can use climate anxiety as an opportunity to teach children emotional regulation techniques that can help them learn to manage fear and worry, Haase says. That may include breathing slowly, relaxing the muscles, doing mindfulness practices, or focusing on a task like gardening for a few minutes to help them settle down.
“Educating kids about emotional regulation is important,” she says. “Help them understand that when they're really worked up, they're not going to function as effectively.” And if the anxiety starts interfering with a child’s daily functioning, schoolwork, or relationships, parents should talk to a doctor—that might be a sign of more severe anxiety.
How to help kids feel empowered
No one person is going to solve a massive global issue like climate change. But working toward solving the problem can help children feel more empowered. “Helping kids find things that they can do to improve the situation is a great way to lower their anxiety,” Haase says.
That can be anything from planting a garden or composting to engagement with their school or local government. Here are a few ways to help kids feel more empowered when it comes to climate change.
Talk about the solutions. Discussing the positive things that people are doing to address climate change can be helpful for kids. “Normalize that this is a very complicated problem but that millions of people around the world are working to solve it,” Haase says. “These are things that build optimism and hope and a sense of collective spirit.” Parents can also point kids to good-news stories, like the comeback of the Channel Island fox, to show that positive change can happen when people truly care.
Show kids it’s not all on them. It’s important to let children know that the fate of the world doesn’t rest on their shoulders. “You don't have to be individually responsible for saving the planet—none of us do—but we can do things individually to look after our own footprint,” Clayton says. Then, help them communicate what they’re doing to influence other people.
Organize community activities. Kids are likely already taking small, individual actions to reduce their environmental footprint: turning out the lights, eating less meat, reducing plastic waste. “Finding a way to make it a community activity so that several families get involved increases the impact,” Clayton says.
For example, they might organize a school group to write letters to elected officials or businesses, do a local park cleanup, start a petition, organize a book reading at the local library to spread awareness, or hold a bake sale to raise money for conservation. “They won't feel like they're sitting on the sidelines waiting for this terrible thing to happen to them,” Clayton says.
Let them know you’re prepared. If kids are especially fearful of immediate physical danger from climate-induced storms, floods, or wildfires, have plans in place and even practice them when it feels age-appropriate. “Helping a kid know that they understand exactly what to do will give them a greater sense of control,” Haase says.
Spend time in nature. Forming an attachment to the natural environment is a great way to keep kids motivated and hopeful. “It's important for kids to be in love with animals and the planet so that they can take care of them,” Haase says.
Clayton recommends engaging kids in stewardship behaviors from an early age, whether it’s picking up litter in the woods or conserving energy at home.
“It may not solve climate change, but it does get the child feeling like they’re doing something to take care of nature,” she says. “You've got to allow them to have some sense of hope, some sense of optimism.”